Jeremy Isaacs as Col. Tavington
Same man – different portrayals. Hero or Villain?

In Hollywood truth is always the first casualty of any Historical drama.  Banastre Tarleton was, without a doubt,  the greatest “anti-hero” produced by either side during the Revolutionary War.  Yet Mel Gibson’s infamous portrayal of him as Colonel Tavington in his 1998 blockbuster “The Patriot” distilled the personality of this complex and fascinating man down to the level of SS hoodlum.

From Washington Irving onwards so much has been written about the life of Banastre Tarleton that it is difficult, even today, to separate man from the myth. Yet many of the most persistent and damning indictments of him are also those most easily refuted as historically exaggerated, or even quite simply, untrue. Here we examine the real man and compare him to Gibson’s unflattering portrayal in “The Patriot”.

1. He made his living before and after the war as a slave trader

According to The Patriot, slavery was practically nonexistent in South Carolina and really not that bad, anyway. The few slaves shown are a cheerful lot, all of whom have been given their freedom.  In contrast, Tavington is seen as a user of “Slaves” treating them with disdain when they refuse to fight for the King.

In real life, Tarleton’s father John made his fortune from the slave trade.   Banastre, however, was the only son of four to never join the family business, and being a notorious spendthrift showed little inclination for the disciplines of commerce.

He was nonetheless a vociferous opponent of those who aimed at ending the slave trade in the British Empire, particularly William Wilberforce MP, whose policies he referred to as a “mistaken philanthropy.” After the war, Tarleton was elected as MP for Liverpool and unfailingly argued that the city’s prosperity had been built on commerce and that the slave trade, in particular, had been instrumental in propelling the town from struggling provincial port to Britain’s second city. His opposition to the Abolition movement never wavered throughout his long Parliamentary career.

Gibson’s portrayal of slavery in the film was viciously criticised by director Spike Lee who said “While holding myself back from shouting at the screen, I kept wondering where are the slaves? Who’s picking the cotton?”

2. He was an arrogant, detached, brutal murderer

There is no doubt that Jason Isaacs powerful portrayal steals the film from both Gibson and the insipid Heath Ledger.  But in doing so he depicts Tavington as not just a vainglorious rogue but a child murderer and psychopath to boot.  This has been the “default” portrayal of Tarleton in American history for over two hundred years. His reputation as a ruthless thug has been almost universally accepted, and unquestioned, through popular folk tale and sober history alike.   Mel Gibson’s cinematic portrayal of a fictionalized Tarleton as a sardonic, brutal, sociopath is just the latest and most jaundiced in a long line of unflattering histories. But is it accurate?

Stephen Hunter, film critic of the Washington Post and an historian of the period, said: “Any image of the American Revolution which represents you Brits as Nazis and us as gentle folk is almost certainly wrong.”

“It was a very bitter war, a total war, and that is something that I am afraid has been lost to history.”

In real life Tarleton was  an intelligent, complex, but contradictory man,  with perhaps the pithiest summary of his personality coming from his erstwhile lover, Mary Robinson, who in her novel “The False Friend” portrays her barely disguised hero  as being “too polite to be religious, too witty to be learned and too handsome to be discreet.”

3. Tarleton ordered a Patriot Massacre

In one infamous scene, Gibson depicts Tavington herding noncombatant men, women and children into a church, locking the doors, and setting it on fire. At the time of the film’s release, some historians noted the similarity between this and the notorious Nazi massacre of French villagers in Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944.  Nothing like this ever happened in the American Revolution.   In real life, Tarleton’s black reputation actually rested predominantly on his supposed actions at the Battle of Waxhaws, with “Tarleton’s Quarter” becoming a rallying cry, inspiration to recruitment, and propaganda indictment against the supposed brutality of Loyalist and British forces for the rest of the war.

Tarleton’s horse was shot from under him, pinning him to the ground during the battle, and it is this single act that appears to have led to the subsequent confused, rudderless massacre of over one hundred Patriot soldiers, or a quarter of Colonel Buford’s (Mel Gibson) entire force. Tarleton himself wrote of the battle that the high American casualties were attributed to the Legion being “stimulated to a vindictive asperity not easily restrained” after his troops heard a rumour that their leader had been killed. However, there is not the slightest shred of evidence that he condoned, much less ordered any such behaviour himself.

Waxhaws massacre
A fanciful Victorian view of the “massacre”

4. Tarleton and his superior, Lord Cornwallis, hated each other

We have Mel Gibson to entirely thank for one of the more recent myths surrounding Tarleton.  In the film, Tarleton (or Tavington) is constantly rebuked by his superior Lord Cornwallis.  Tom Wilkinson gives a beautifully deadpan performance and the films better scenes nearly all depict the tension between the two British officers. “Damn him! Damn that man!” his exasperated Lordship cries when Tavington disobeys yet another battle order. The entire film goes to great lengths to portray Cornwallis as regarding Tarleton with both a patrician disdain and barely concealed contempt.

In fact, Cornwallis was a mentor to Tarleton during the war, giving him his full support and an unprecedented free hand throughout the Carolinas campaign. This favoured position induced much jealousy among fellow officers, who felt themselves continually overlooked for promotion.

It is true that Tarleton and Cornwallis had a severe falling out after the war when Tarleton’s vainglorious military recollections attempted to shift blame onto Cornwallis for the defeats at Cowpens and Yorktown, but during the war itself, they had a harmonious, constructive relationship that was akin to that of father and son.

5. Tarleton was killed by Benjamin Martin

In the Film Tavington is left contemplating life in America after the war.  “Tell me about Ohio?” he mutters realising that he can never return to Britain after his infamous acts.  But even Ohio is denied him as Gibson has him skewered on the end of a sabre in a rather disappointing finale.

Actually, though Most British senior officers returned to England after the war to severe criticism from their compatriots.Tarleton lived to a ripe old age and was almost unique in attracting no such rebuke.

Lacking any real war heroes, he was received home with universal acclaim, being feted at court and becoming an intimate friend to two future kings, George Prince of Wales and William Duke of Clarence, even sharing a mistress with the former. He was famously painted by the two greatest portrait painters of the age, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough.

Far from being a military failure, It says much about the impact Tarleton had on British military fortunes, that when the war ended he had been promoted, without purchase, from lowly cornet to lieutenant colonel in a meteoric five years. This was far from the end of his career, and he remained on active service until the end of the Napoleonic Wars, ultimately being promoted to the rank of full general in 1812. However, Ban was adept at courting influential enemies as much as he was powerful friends, and his reciprocated loathing of the Duke of Wellington may have had more than a little to do with the fact that he never commanded troops in action again after Yorktown.

He was one of the most imfamous womanizers of Georgian England
Tarleton was lampooned for “cuckolding” the Prince Regents mistress

6. Tarleton raped and abused women during the war

Sex in the film is shown in an incredibly prissy Victorian way.  In one of the film’s most bizarre scenes, Gabriel Martin is allowed to spend the night with his girlfriend before marriage, as long as he lets her mother sew him into a “bundling bag” – a neck-to-toe chastity straitjacket.  Whilst Gibson depicts  Francis Marion as a chaste, family loving widower.  This contrasts with the sensual but amoral Tavington with whom no woman is safe.

That Tarleton was what we would now refer to as a “womaniser”, there is no conjecture. He had many mistresses, infamously bedding both the Regency courtesan Mary Robinson and then allegedly her own daughter Maria. He seems to have adopted a sporting attitude to his conquest of women, rakishly seducing them for a wager on more than one occasion.[ This certainly makes the oft-reported, though second-hand quote, that he "ravished more women in America than any other man” plausible. However, portraits show Tarleton as a handsome man, with a fine physical figure who was both charming and dashing.


Most contemporary accounts by females who crossed his path attain to his gentlemanly manners and good grace and Tarleton appears to have been more a professional wooer of women than a dissolute brute. He also saw members of his own British Legion hanged and flogged when they raped and abused women, and there is absolutely no evidence that he ever behaved with anything other than a reserved gallantry towards Patriot women in their person, though of course, he was not quite so liberal in his treatment of their property!

Mel Gibson director of the Patriot
Mel Gibson – Not an Anglophile!

It is clear from many of his other films most notably “Gallipoli” and “Braveheart” that Mel Gibson does not like the British.  This is fair enough.  But he should have more respect as a film director for history even if he loathes most of its English exponents.  Banastre Tarleton is, without doubt, his most jaundiced portrayal and “The Patriot” his most cynical film.

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