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They Did Their Homework

The men responsible for 'Independence Day' and 'Godzilla' hope history repeats itself with 'The Patriot.'

May 07, 2000|GREGG KILDAY | Gregg Kilday is a Hollywood correspondent for

"The American Revolution was an economic conflict that turned into a political conflict," says film director Roland Emmerich, his enthusiasm palpable, sounding a bit like a perpetual grad student who's about to face his oral exams. "That's very unusual. A lot of wars start for ideological reasons and then become more about economic power. But the American Revolution turned that around."

"There are so many little details that people just don't know," interrupts his producer, Dean Devlin, as if their Centropolis Entertainment offices on the Sony Pictures lot has suddenly been taken over by a college cram session. "The war was won by an integrated army--7% to 8% of the army was black. It was the last time we had an integrated army until Korea. Isn't it interesting that it was OK to form our country with an integrated army, but then it wasn't OK to have an integrated army again for years?"

Emmerich, stubbing out a Camel, jumps back into the conversation. "And the French had to save the day. For the last two years of the war, Washington and everyone involved just had to have the strength to hold out. They were losing every major battle, but still they won the war."

Back to Devlin: "Even at the height of the American Revolution, less than 25% of the people in America supported the revolution. In fact, the whole idea of liberty was much more popular in France at the time. When Benjamin Franklin went over to France to get support for the war, he was treated like a rock star."

Hey . . . wait just one minute. How did a discussion of "The Patriot," their upcoming $100-million movie starring Mel Gibson as a reluctant Johnny Reb, suddenly turn into a crash course in American History 101? After all, we're talking Sony's biggest summer roll-of-the-dice--not some modestly budgeted Merchant Ivory costume drama. "The Patriot" is set to march into about 3,000 theaters nationwide on June 30, where it expects to do bloody battle with Warners' men-against-the-sea saga "The Perfect Storm" and Universal's toon-time "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle," hoping that once all the smoke clears, it will have planted its flag firmly on the lucrative Fourth of July weekend.

As a filmmaking team, Emmerich and Devlin have earned a reputation as canny popcorn purveyors: Their "Independence Day," a glorified compendium of B-movie sci-fi riffs, dominated the Fourth back in 1996, eventually grossing $306 million domestically; their last movie, the roundly panned "Godzilla," loomed over the 1998 Memorial Day weekend, opening to $56 million, although it quickly hit the wall, collecting a disappointing $136 million within the U.S. But even though "Patriot" is poised to storm the multiplex, this time out the two filmmakers aren't talking merchandising (no Gen. Washington action-figure is planned) or music tie-ins (no power-ballad music video is contemplated).

"War is the setting, but this movie is really about an emotional journey that this very tortured man goes through to save his family during the American Revolution," Devlin says. "It's truly a love story between a father and his son."

Wrapping themselves in the flag of American history, Emmerich and Devlin have already won a seal of approval from the august Smithsonian Institution. And though they've retained a number of key crew members from their previous projects--like production designer Kirk M. Petrucelli of last year's cyber-thriller "The Thirteenth Floor," which Emmerich produced--they've also brought in such quality ringers as cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, a three-time Oscar nominee, and five-time Oscar winner John Williams, who's composing the score. Although no one's yet whispering the O-word so as not to jinx the movie's prospects, "Patriot" clearly has its sights trained on more than just box-office glory, and, if all the elements do fall into place, could hang around to wage a bonus campaign for year-end Academy Award consideration.

Written by "Saving Private Ryan's" Robert Rodat, "Patriot" tells the story of Benjamin Martin (Gibson), a South Carolina farmer and widowed father of seven who initially resists the rebels' call, even as his teenage son Gabriel enthusiastically heads off to battle. Haunted by his brutal memories of the French and Indian War, Martin enters the fray only after a sadistic British dragoon threatens his family and lays waste to his home.

Like "Ryan," "Patriot" contains an intimate saga--in this case, a family one--in the middle of a big, bloody war story. And also like "Ryan," "Patriot," is about the pain and suffering caused by even a "good" war.

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