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 100-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 Marion, 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.
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 Lt. Col. William Washington - General George Washington's cousin, who went Mano-a-Mano 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 scene in which civilians are locked in the church and burned did not happen during the War of the Revolution. The incident is based on one during WWII 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.
The Battle of Cowpens, upon which this movie is based, took place on January 17th, 1781. This battle has been commemorated by the U.S. Navy, which named two ships after it. USS Cowpens (CVL 25) was a WWII light aircraft carrier which won 12 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. USS Cowpens (CG 63) is an Aegis Guided Missile Cruiser serving in the Pacific fleet from San Diego, CA.
After the explosion of the cargo ship we see (or hear, actually) Tavington smashes 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 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.
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 theatre 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 trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The character of Col. Tavington is loosely based on Col. Banastre Tarleton, who was Cornwallis's cavalry commander. Col. Tarelton had a bad reputation, but some say he was not nearly as cold-hearted and evil as the fictitious Col. 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.