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Mel Gibson stars as Benjamin Martin, a farmer from South Carolina and earlier in his life a hero from the French and Indian war. He is raising his seven children by himself and will do anything to protect them. He is called on to support the war efforts of South Carolina against the British but refuses. He doesn't want to bring the war home . His eldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) accuses him of hiding behind his family and goes off to join the war.
2 years later Gabriel returns, having just been shot while delivering messages close by. Mel tends to his wounds as the war is raging in his front yard. (He has a front row 50 yard line view from his upstairs window)
The next morning, Mel and his farm workers are helping both the British and Continental soldiers recover from their injuries in their front yard.
Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs) of the British army arrives and discovers the messages that Gabriel was delivering. When asked who was carrying these, Gabriel proudly proclaims that he was the messenger. Tavington orders him taken away and hanged. Mel's other son runs to Gabriels aid and is shot and killed by Tavington. As he is riding away, Tavington orders the house burned down and the wounded Continental soldiers killed.
Mel runs into the burning house and rescues his old weapons he had in storage. He gives his two younger sons (probably about 10 and 12 years old) a couple rifles and the three of them run through the woods setting up an ambush of the soldiers carrying Gabriel.
The ambush works brilliantly as the two boys, scared to death, knock off the officers one by one while Mel runs around hiding behind trees picking off the remaining men. Gabriel is freed and the three sons are horrified as they watch their dad hacking away at the last soldier with about 30 whacks from his tomahawk.
Gabriel is determined to rejoin his squad and Mel decides to go with him, only so he can protect him. Mel sends his kids to live with his dead wife's sister, Charlotte. Mel is put in charge of the South Carolina militia and he and Gabriel ride from town to town recruiting other farmers to join them. In one of the small towns, Gabriel is reunited with an old girlfriend and they rekindle their romance. Later on in the film, she and Gabriel get married.
Cornwallis is used to fighting like gentlemen in an orderly fashion. Mel's militia drives Tavington and Cornwallis absolutely crazy with their guerilla tactics of hiding behind trees or in bushes, ambushing the British, blowing up their supply ships much like the high school kids in the 80's movie RED DAWN.
An old friend of Mel's has turned traitor and informs Tavington of the whereabouts of Mel's family.
Tavington's troops burn down Charlotte's house but she and the kids escape. Tavington then discovers the town where most of the militia come from and gathers all the townspeople, including Gabriel's wife and her family, into a church. The church is locked up and burned down, killing everyone inside.
Gabriel is so upset that he and a few of the remaining militia go all out to get Tavington. They meet and have a lengthy battle however Tavington is the last man standing, killing Gabriel.
Mel finally arrives at the scene and is devastated at the site of his dead son. He is ready to quit the effort. He then sees an old flag that his son had been sewing together the whole film and picks it up and rides it to the defeated Continental Army. The scene of Mel carrying the Flag rallies the troops and prepares them for one last battle against Cornwallis.
Earlier in the film, Mel had captured Cornwallis' journals and after reading them, regarded him as a military genius. Now that he knows his tactics Mel can use them against him, which he does in leading the Continental soldiers to victory over Cornwallis, changing the tide of the war and ultimately leading to victory over the British. During that great battle, Mel finally confronts Tavington and kills him.
Mel returns to his burned down farm and discovers that his surviving militia men are rebuilding his house. He and Charlotte are now together and they will raise Mel's remaining family.
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