Mel Gibson hacks his way into history

There are moments when I despair for this country. For the evening of Independence Day - 4 July - I joined the crowds at the National Cathedral to see the big annual fireworks display. But since last year, a tree had burgeoned so that the fireworks could not be seen from most of the usual vantage points. The moment this became apparent, there was a stampede for better positions: men and women elbowed others aside and, most shockingly of all, would not let small children in front of them. Then I heard sections of this mob, in all seriousness, break into "God Bless America". It was all toe-curlingly embarrassing, with nobody seeing the startling contradiction between the schmaltzy fantasy and the ugly reality.

I recall this incident because, at the weekend, I took myself off to see The Patriot, the film about the American revolution that is causing an outbreak of UK tabloid indignation because it depicts British troops of the time as somewhat more ruthless and bloodthirsty than, say, the Waffen SS. It is, simply, a very, very bad film that combines historical fiction with yet more of the kind of sentimental schmaltz that Americans seemingly can't get enough of.

As Mel Gibson - Hollywood's new all-American hero (he's actually a graduate of Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art, but why let a fact stand in the way of myth?) - macheted his way through 20 British troops, the middle-aged woman in front of me frenetically clapped each death.

When the co-star - the even more patriotic son of Gibson in the movie (played by a young actor also brought up in Australia and who began his career at the Globe Theatre, but we'll let that pass, too) - met his death at the hands of the dastardly Brits, tears streamed down her cheeks. She was joyful, however, when Gibson finally teamed up with Joely Richardson, aka Vanessa Redgrave's daughter: all authentic American heroes and heroines to the core.

She recoiled in horror as the Brits padlocked the people of one village in a church and then set fire to it. This was doubtless a little trick learnt from the 2nd Panzer Division's destruction of Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944 by their countryman, the film's director Roland Emmerich, born in Stuttgart in 1955. (Funnily enough, Emmerich depicts none of the 30,000 Hessians Britain employed to fight its wars here.)

Had I said anything at this point and the woman heard my British accent, she might well have turned and taken a swipe at me. She was drinking in every distortion of this nasty, $70m slash-trash, for which the respected and hitherto honourable Smithsonian Institution (to its shame) acted as historical adviser. I very much doubt whether she had a clue that the four leading members of the cast were Australian or British (although technically, Gibson can claim US citizenship because he was born in New York), and that the director was from Germany. Would it not have told her at least something, I wonder, if she had realised that the US was apparently unable to come up with its own actors and directors to depict the country at its patriotic best?

There are two even more disturbing aspects to all this. First, that lady and millions of other Americans doubtless went home feeling that bit more anti-British, a very real racial prejudice that is growing rather than dwindling here. Visiting Brits who experience the "Gee, I just love your accent" cliche need to live in America to understand that there is a more per-vasive, underlying anti-Britishness - a point well brought out by the former US ambassador in London, Ray Seitz, in his book Over Here. Brits living here tend to escape this extant racism, either by becoming American or by adopting the buffoon British persona expected of them, in which case they are accepted as harmless eccentrics. But let us bury one canard: by and large, Americans do not love Brits, and Hollywood nonsense such as The Patriot both demonstrates and reinforces this.

Second, and more puzzling, is why Americans feel such an overwhelming need to rewrite history - far more so than other nations, including even Britain. Recently, I looked in vain in a school history book to find serious coverage of slavery in the US, still an incendiary subject, which is also glossed over with slick hypocrisy in the movie (simple but noble black fights alongside white masters and becomes free: a symbolic fighting unity that wasn't close to happening as late as the Second World War, when the US army still had separate divisions for blacks).

The Gibson character would doubtless have owned slaves, but that simply would not have occurred to the lady in front of me, any more than she would have known that the architects of American freedom such as Thomas Jefferson also owned slaves (one of the ironies here is that, had the redcoats defeated the "patriots", slavery in America would have ended decades earlier).

And what about white America's very own holocaust of the native American Indians that enabled them to occupy the land? That, as Emmerich would perhaps say, is a verboten subject, both in American schools and in Hollywood studios. Increasingly, therefore, more and more Americans are gaining distorted views of the history not only of their own country, but of others, too: unpalatable subjects such as the ethnic cleansing of Indians by white Americans, or the enslavement of blacks, are Stalinised out into an acceptably schmaltzy version of history.

I'm not suggesting that there is a direct comparison, but shouldn't Americans be concerned that just such a whitewashing of history happened in the old Soviet Union, too?

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 17 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Special Report - Lost souls in the city in the sky