When teaching Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger how to shoot a muzzle-loading rifle, Technical Advisor Mark Baker gave them the advice to "aim small, miss small", meaning that if you aim at a man and miss, you miss the man, while if you aim at a button (for instance) and miss, you still hit the man. Gibson liked this bit advice so much, he incorporated it into the movie, just prior to the ambush scene.
During a rough day of filming, Producer Dean Devlin noticed most of the extras looking tired and stressed from doing several takes, while wearing heavy costumes in the one hundred degree South Carolina heat. During a break, Devlin suggested to Mel Gibson that he recite his famous "freedom" speech from Braveheart (1995) to cheer them up. Gibson got on a horse and proceeded to give the speech, which he still had memorized, boosting their morale.
In addition to Francis Marion, a.k.a. The Swamp Fox, Mel Gibson's character is also based on the life of South Carolina militia leader General Andrew Pickens. Pickens had his estate torched, and lost a son, before he went back into action and led the militia forces at Cowpens.
The scene where Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) returns the dogs to General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) may be based on a similar story told about General George Washington. During the Revolutionary War, Washington reportedly noticed the terrier of a British General wandering the battlefield. He subsequently negotiated a cease-fire, and both sides stopped firing until the dog was returned to the British commander.
The scene in which civilians are locked in the church and burned did not happen during the Revolutionary War. The incident is based on one during World War II Limoges in central France on June 10, 1944. German soldiers herded 452 women and children into a church, and lobbed smoke grenades through the windows, suffocating the victims, and setting the church on fire, while machine guns raked the interior. There was one survivor.
Jake Gyllenhaal auditioned several times, and was considered for the role of Gabriel Martin, but eventually lost out to Heath Ledger. They would later star in the movie Brokeback Mountain (2005) together, and become very close friends.
Among the American cavalry officers, who participated in the real Battle of Cowpens, was Lieutenant Colonel William Washington - General George Washington's cousin, who went man-to-man with Banastre Tarleton in a saber clash.
Screenwriter Robert Rodat called the final battle a hybrid between the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and the Battle of Cowpens: The mixture of militia and Continental army in the battle. The militia's reputation of not holding, and the tactic of using that, to lure the British in. The militia only firing a couple of volleys before a planned retreat to a secondary line composed of the Continental army. The Continental army firing and then performing a bayonet charge.
The Battle of Cowpens, upon which this movie is based, took place on January 17, 1781. This battle has been commemorated by the U.S. Navy, which named two ships after it. The U.S.S. Cowpens (CVL 25) was a World War II light aircraft carrier, which won twelve battle stars, more than any other light carrier in the war, and was the first ship to enter Tokyo Harbor, and land Marines on the Japanese mainland. The U.S.S. Cowpens (CG 63) is an Aegis Guided Missile Cruiser, serving in the Pacific Fleet, from San Diego, California.
After the explosion of the cargo ship, we hear Tavington smash his glass, when placing it down. He really just places it down, but it was decided to add a smashing sound for comic effect. We never actually see the glass breaking.
According to Roland Emmerich, the scene where Cornwalis thanks Benjamin for taking care of his dogs, was difficult to film, because of all the natural light from the windows. He made sure there were no windows behind Mel Gibson to simplify the problem of changing sunlight.
The scene where Benjamin gives Burwell a letter to give to his family is based on two real events: the Battle of Cowpens, won by the Patriots and the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, a costly victory for the British.
During pre-production, the producers debated on whether Benjamin Martin would own slaves, ultimately deciding not to make him a slave owner. This decision received criticism from Spike Lee, who in a letter to The Hollywood Reporter accused the film's portrayal of slavery as being "a complete whitewashing of history". Lee wrote that after he and his wife went to see the film, "we both came out of the theater fuming. For three hours The Patriot (2000) dodged around, skirted about, or completely ignored slavery." Mel Gibson himself remarked: "I think I would have made him a slave holder. Not to seems kind of a cop-out."
The score used in the film is also used as the opening music in the 2004 television series Jack & Bobby (2004). Both featured Logan Lerman, who played Benjamin Martin's youngest son William, and future president Robert (Bobby) McCallister.
Colonel Tavington's (Jason Isaacs's) line "Stupid boy!" (about Thomas Martin, whom he'd just shot) was echoed (with exactly the same inflection) by Ralph Fiennes, when Voldemort said, "Stupid girl!" (about Ginny Weasley's outburst) in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011).
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The character of Colonel Tavington is loosely based on Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who was Cornwallis' cavalry commander. Colonel Tarelton had a bad reputation, but some say he was not nearly as cold-hearted and evil as the fictitious Colonel Tavington (though many historians portray them equally). In the movie, Colonel Tavington died at the end of the Battle of Cowpens. The real Banastre Tarleton lived to grow old until 1833, became a General, and even served in the British Parliament.