The Patriot (1998) poster

The Patriot (1998)


USA. 1998.


Director – Dean Semler, Screenplay – John Kingswell & M. Sussman, Story – M. Sussman, Based on the Novel The Last Canadian by William Heine, Producers – Howard Baldwin, Patrick Choi, Julius R. Nasso, Nile Niami & Steven Seagal, Photography – Stephen F. Windon, Music – Steve Edwards, Special Effects Supervisor – Michael Wood, Production Design – Eve Cauley Turner. Production Company – Interlight Pictures/Baldwin-Cohen Productions/Seagal-Nasso Productions/Last Patriot Productions.


Steven Seagal (Dr Wesley McClaren), Gailard Sartain (Floyd Chisolm), Camilla Belle (Holly McClaren), Whitney Yellow Robe (Dr Ann White Cloud), L.Q. Jones (Frank), Dan Beene (Dr Richard Bach), Silas Weir Mitchell (Pogue), Damon Costanzo (Lieutenant Johnson), Leonard Mountain Chief (Grandpa), Douglas Sebern (Judge Tompkins)


Wesley McClaren is a former virologist for the CIA who quit after disagreeing with the uses his work was being put to. He now operates as a GP in the small town of Ennis, Montana. Not far away from McClaren’s ranch, militia leader Floyd Chisolm is at armed standoff with the FBI. Chisolm abruptly breaks the deadlock by surrendering. Unknown to the FBI, Chisolm has injected himself with a dose of the deadly virus NAM-37, as well as its antidote. As Chisolm is tried and jailed, he rapidly infects the town. McClaren finds himself in the middle of an epidemic and is forced to call in his former CIA colleagues. Chisolm’s men then discover that the antidote does not work properly and conduct an armed raid to get more, only to find that none of it does. However, tests show that McClaren’s daughter Holly has a natural immunity. Pursued by the armed militiamen, McClaren flees into the hills, all the while trying to isolate the source of the immunity that he and Holly share.

The Patriot – which should not be confused with Roland Emmerich’s Revolutionary War drama The Patriot (2000) with Mel Gibson – is an action vehicle for Steven Seagal. Steven Seagal was a martial artist who came to fame in films like Above the Law (1988), Hard to Kill (1990), Marked for Death (1990), Out for Justice (1991) and Under Siege (1992). Seagal was always one of the more obnoxious of action stars, playing with a wooden self-righteousness and his films delighting in a brutal martial arts sadism.

By the 1990s, Seagal started to experience the same drop-off in popularity that most of his other contemporaries (Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Van Damme, Norris) also did. During this time several martial arts/action stars unconvincingly attempted to reinvent themselves as environmentalists – Chuck Norris made the bizarre children’s film Forest Warrior (1996), while Steven Seagal made On Deadly Ground (1994), Fire Down Below (1997) and The Patriot. The Patriot did little business and was ignominiously released directly to video in the US as the majority of Steven Seagal’s films tend to these days.

The Patriot is a film with a bizarre identity crisis. On one level it wants to be a biowarfare outbreak thriller along the lines of Outbreak (1995), on another level it is an action film, on another a Western, and on yet another a pro-environmentalist, American Indian-sympathetic drama. None too surprisingly, it ends up not being any of these. Certainly as the type of action film where Steven Seagal made his name, The Patriot is particularly tame. There are very few action or martial arts sequences and Seagal gets to throw his fists around surprisingly little – although there is one of his customary sadistic set-pieces at the end where he plunges a broken wineglass stem into Gailard Sartain’s neck.

Steven Seagal in Patriot (1998)
Steven Seagal in action against a militia group

This absence of action does leave us with more of Steven Seagal as actor, which is a decidedly dubious prospect. On the plus side, Seagal does at least seem much more at home on the big screen and even at times likeable as a character. The film does seem to go out of its way to paint him as decent man – he cares for his daughter, looks after animals in a much more caring way than others, is a decent doctor who excuses the poor from paying their debts, and has quit the army’s biological warfare division on a matter of principle over the uses his work was being put to.

Steven Seagal, who also co-produces, has imported Australian cinematographer Dean Semler as his director. Dean Semler is best known for his stunning photographic work on films such as Mad Max 2 (1981), Razorback (1984), Dead Calm (1989), Dances With Wolves (1990), The Power of One (1992) and Waterworld (1995). The Patriot was Dean Semler’s second (and so far last) directorial outing, after the forgettable fireman drama Firestorm (1998) the same year as this.

Semler has clearly set out to make The Patriot as a modern Western. He loves all the epic poses – the images of the wide-open Montana plains, of galloping horses and the like. Alas, while Semler has an expansive cinematographer’s eye for the wide-open landscape, he has little else as a director. Meanwhile, the cod Western poses allow Steven Seagal to get right into Native American spirituality. This latter in particular gets very silly, with the Jewish-Irish Seagal having channelled so much Indian mysticism that he even now imagines that he is a Native American. The ending where native medicine triumphs over Western medical knowhow and the sky rains with flowers seems preposterously heavy-handed.

Trailer here

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