The movie follows Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), whose life intersects with the Revolutionary War. He had fought bravely, but brutally in the French and Indian War. He had since married, started a family and tried to put some of those actions behind him.
It's 1776 and Benjamin Martin's wife has recently died, leaving him a widowed father of seven children. He is called to the South Carolina State Assembly. He listens to his friend Colonel Harry Burwell (Chris Cooper) ask for South Carolina's support for colonial self-government. Martin supports his friend's convictions, but wishes to stay with his children. He votes against supporting the Continental Army on the grounds of not wanting to send someone else to fight, when he himself is unwilling. Gabriel (Heath Ledger), Benjamin's eighteen year old son enlists against his father's wishes.
In 1778, the war literally comes to the Martins' front yard. Gabriel arrives one night as a wounded dispatch carrier. Later that same night, skirmishing spills out on the Martin's farm. The next morning the Martins are caring for the wounded on both sides when a British detachment arrives. Soon after Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs) and his Green Dragoons arrive.
Colonel Tavington orders the Continental wounded to be shot, Gabriel arrested as a spy and the farm burned and destroyed. Thomas, Benjamin's fifteen year old son, makes the ultimate sacrifice in the attempt to help his older brother escape British custody. After the British leave, Benjamin takes his sons Nathan and Samuel, aged fourteen and thirteen and frees Gabriel from British detainment.
Benjamin takes his family to the plantation of his sister-in-law, Charlotte Selton (Joely Richardson. Gabriel leaves mmediately to rejoin the war against the wishes of his father, who now follows his son to war. Colonel Burwell gives Benjamin a field command. Gabriel is placed under his command and they call up the South Carolina militia. They are joined by Major Jean Villeneuve (Tchéky Karyo), a French officer that volunteered to train the militia. They enlist both inexperienced farmers and fellow veterans of the French and Indian War.
Benjamin now begins a successful campaign of harassing the supply lines of General Charles Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) by employing guerrilla tactics. Finally, Colonel Tavington is able to capture some of his men, but Martin makes a fool out of Cornwallis and secures their release. As a result, Cornwallis approves of some brutal tactics by Tavington in order to bring Martin in. This leads to final showdown between Tavington and Martin during a decisive victory for the Continentals.
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