Films of the American Revolution

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Films of the American Revolution

FILMS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. Whether set in the ancient Mediterranean or a galaxy far away, war has provided one of the great themes of feature films. In American history the Civil War, the two twentieth-century world wars, and Vietnam all have inspired films of the highest level of achievement, both in terms of cinema and the popular reconstruction of the American past. The Revolutionary War is at least a partial exception. It has generated perhaps ten feature films of note, from D. W. Griffith's America (1924) to Robert Emmerich's The Patriot (2000). Most have serious flaws, whether artistic, historical, or both. Like virtually all historical fiction, they are as much concerned with issues current at the time of their own making as with recreating the verifiable past.

America has not attracted as much attention as Griffith's first great feature, The Birth of a Nation (1915), or his attempt to make up for that film's vicious racism, Intolerance (1916). That is unfortunate, because it deserves wider attention within his body of work. Its budget was enormous for the day ($950,000), and its production values were high. Griffith never balked at large themes, and the film includes recreations of Lexington and Concord, the Declaration of Independence, and the Continental Army's bleak winter at Valley Forge. It employs the spectacular sets, battalions of extras, and color-washed film stock that were Griffith's hallmarks. But, setting a precedent that subsequent productions would follow, the film centers its treatment of the whole Revolution on a family melodrama, involving an ordinary Patriot man and an aristocratic woman. Here, as in films to come, the interplay of class and sex is complicated by the Loyalist leanings of the woman's father.

John Ford considered the process and the meaning of American history throughout a career that stretched from the silents to the sixties. He turned to the Revolution in 1939 with Drums Along the Mohawk, starring Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert, based on Walter D. Edmonds's novel of the same name (1936). Edmonds had researched the revolutionary Mohawk Valley carefully, and his long tale depicted a biracial society tearing itself apart. Ford had high production values, including expensive Technicolor and location work in Idaho, but Drums was no Gone with the Wind. His best meditations on American history (Stagecoach [1939], My Darling Clementine [1946], The Searchers [1956]) emerged as he expanded skimpy stories. With Drums his problem was to condense a very large text to normal feature length.

The result is a film framed in terms of a "natural" conflict between Indians and settlers. Britain is hardly mentioned. The Indians are manipulated by a villainous Loyalist (John Carradine), whose place as the only significant white on their side is balanced by the one Indian among the whites (Chief Big Tree). In an echo of the Griffith film, Gil Martin (Fonda) is an ordinary man who has married a rich woman, Lana (Colbert). She has followed him to the frontier and must learn the frontier's ways; in the process, they experience a profound exchange of roles. The film deals with battle twice. The first time, Gil describes its horrors to Lana as she tends his wounds. His tale is loosely based on the Patriots' ambush by a force of British, Loyalists, and natives at Oriskany in 1777. The second battle is a siege of a fort. Ford realized it in starkly sexual terms of white women threatened with rape, and it ends as Continental troops "literally run" to the rescue.

A year later Frank Lloyd directed Cary Grant in The Howards of Virginia. Critic Pauline Kael described the urbane, English-born Grant's performance as Matt Howard, a buckskin-clad surveyor who marries an aristocratic woman, as "really bad." Matt Howard joins the revolutionary struggle, which, as in Drums, is shown in terms of frontier conflict—though Lloyd puts more stress than does Ford on the clash of Loyalists and Patriots among whites. Footage from Drums Along the Mohawk, including battle sequences, was used in 1956 in Mohawk, directed by Kurt Neumann. That film's one merit is that it renders its native characters as complex and divided, rather than as faceless forest horrors.

Walt Disney's production of Johnny Tremain (1957), based on the novel by Esther Forbes, was made for Disney's mid-twentieth-century family audience. Director Robert Stevenson clearly had a low budget, and most of the film was shot on the Disney lot under warm Southern California skies. But allowing for those constraints and for a certain degree of melodrama, the film does a remarkably thorough, if pedestrian, job of showing the revolutionary crisis in Boston. In this it holds true to Forbes's intention to provide an introduction to the Revolution for young readers.

Like Walter Edmonds, Forbes had done her historical homework. The film does give a good sense of tiny, crowded eighteenth-century Boston, of the events leading up to the destruction of the East India Company's tea in December 1773, of Paul Revere's ride to warn that the regulars were marching to Concord the following April, and of the battle that followed. It also gives windy speeches to some Patriot leaders and renders British General Thomas Gage (Ralph Clanton) as more a victim of bureaucracy than a villain in his own right. The villain, instead, is a pompous Loyalist merchant, an uncle of the title character. Johnny (Hal Stalmaster) rejects his uncle along with his family's inherited wealth and reactionary politics. As the Patriot army's campfires ring besieged Boston, Gage has almost the last word, admitting that an idea, not mere rebelliousness, has driven his opponents to war.

Hugh Hudson's Revolution (1986) is Johnny Tremain's direct opposite in almost all respects. Hudson had established himself as a major director with Chariots of Fire (1981). Working with a huge budget, he chose to do location work in Britain, reasoning that the hungry look of ordinary English people under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would show something of the suffering of Americans under George III. The idea was intriguing, but it failed. One reason is the locations. The English sky and trees and fields simply do not look at all like America. A major battle sequence shows a British armada invading New York City in 1776. Much of the battle takes place in a field yellow with ripe rape (canola), a sight familiar to any summer traveler in England but unknown on the American east coast. The sequence completely misses the near-entrapment of the American troops on Brooklyn Heights and Washington's brilliant nighttime withdrawal to Manhattan. The film closes with the siege of Lord Cornwallis's emplacement at Yorktown, which it presents as simply a melee. Once again, there are problems of location, with the final shots taking place at the bottom of a steep, rocky cliff. Nothing of the sort exists on the shores of Chesapeake Bay. In between there is a long sequence at Valley Forge, which the film shows as a fort defending itself against British raiders rather than as the winter encampment that it actually was.

Revolution also uses the device of a rich young woman (Nastassja Kinski) falling in love with a poor man (Al Pacino). Her father is a double-dealing business man, looking for profit on both sides, but she emerges as a fiery Patriot. The film reprises several devices from Drums Along the Mohawk. One is to have her listen to his tale of combat when she finds him wounded after the first battle. Another is to dress her in a soldier's blue coat and make her an active participant in the action at Valley Forge, where she appears to be killed by British troops as she is driving a wagon laden with wounded soldiers. Several coincidences later, Pacino's character finds her alive.

Hudson's own Labor Party sympathies are apparent. At worst, this leads to a caricature of the British forces. Soldiers in the ranks, represented by a loutish sergeant major (Donald Sutherland), are brutal. Officers are not just aristocratic but effete, to the point of outright camp. Pacino's male lead enters the film completely without knowledge or motivation. That could be forgiven for the youthful Johnny Tremain in the Disney production, whose function is to introduce issues to young, naïve viewers. But for an adult in 1776, such ignorance is unbelievable. But despite these flaws, Hudson's approach has merits. The happy, totally unlikely union of the Kinski and Pacino characters takes place not in the midst of sunshine-soaked triumph but under a cloud of bitter realization of the price of revolution and the problems to come. Patriot soldiers realize that speculators have cheated them out of what they had been promised. Emergent racism is evident among the victorious white Americans against both native peoples and African-Americans. Pacino's final voice-over is optimistic, but the final images and sounds give reason to doubt.

Emmerich's The Patriot is equally lavish and equally flawed. Unlike Revolution, the location work is right. The film is set in South Carolina and was shot there as well. The two major sequences of formal battle, based on the conflicts at Camden (1781) and Guilford Court House (1782), are very well done, though the film is no better than Johnny Tremain at showing massed musket fire and bayonet charges. We learn under the opening credits that it is autumn of 1776 and shortly afterward that independence has not been declared. Like Pacino's Tom Dodd in Revolution, Mel Gibson's Benjamin Martin is given no motivation for joining the Revolution, until his own son is killed when he encounters British wrath. Then Martin turns into a fury, modeled loosely on the "Swamp Fox" guerrilla leader, Francis Marion.

In another predictably antiphonal pairing, Gibson's Ben Martin finds his opposite number in Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs), who is based on the historic cavalry commander Banastre Tarleton. The film perfectly captures Tavington's image, derived from Sir Joshua Reynolds's portrait of Tarleton. But Tavington is pure villain, and British reviewers were rightly outraged that in the film he perpetrates an atrocity against civilians that Tarleton never committed.

All of these films at least touch on the issue of race, but The Patriot makes a great deal of it. Unfortunately, it simply denies historical fact. Martin is a member of the South Carolina elite, but he owns no slaves. The partisan fighters who gather around Martin later in the film welcome and respect Occam (Jay Arlen Jones), a black man who joins them and wins his freedom. They find refuge in a slave maroon community, which never would have welcomed whites. At the end Occam leads the rebuilding of Martin's ravaged house. The film ignores the historical record: that revolutionary white Carolinians stoutly resisted the Revolution's opening to black freedom, that they kept the slave trade going into the nineteenth century, and that their progeny would lead the secession movement in 1861 so as to protect slavery.

Mary Silliman's War, made for PBS in 1994, is worlds apart from Hollywood films like The Patriot. Based on a scholarly biography, by Joy Day Buel and Richard V. Buel Jr., of an elite Connecticut woman whose husband, Brigadier General Gold Selleck Silliman, was kidnapped by Loyalists, it shows how war came to one Revolutionary community. Without grand, heroic charges or powerful sound effects, the film gives a strong sense of a community at odds with itself, of how British regular soldiers dealt with civilians, and of how living through the war changed one woman and her world.

Both dramatically and historically, the small-scale, small-screen film depicts the Revolution well. But the subject still awaits a good, mass-viewer treatment that does not do violence to the Revolution's history.

SEE ALSO Marion, Francis; Tarleton, Banastre.


Benson, Susan Porter, Steven Brier, and Roy Rosensweig, eds. Presenting the Past: Essays on History and the Public. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.

Kammen, Michael. A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Österberg, Bertil O. Colonial America on Film and Television: A Filmography. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001.