J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

The Difficulty of Making a Good American Revolution Movie

I have various topics in mind to write about, including a too-long-delayed series on Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr. But I’m so busy with next weekend’s “Abolitionism in Black and White: The Anti-Slavery Community of Boston and Cambridge” symposium that I’m going to grab any material the web offers me for a while.

Recently the novelist and social critic David Brin asked me if I’d seen any good movies about the Revolutionary War. I had to respond:

Parts of The Devil’s Disciple, with Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Sir Laurence Olivier, are so bad they’re good.
By those parts I meant the way the film depicts the movement of great bodies of troops during Gen. John Burgoyne’s thrust down from Canada through stop-motion animation of little dolls across a tabletop. And there’s a scene near the end when Lancaster blows up a room, sending a dozen redcoats sprawling, but maintains his own footing because—dammit!—he’s Burt Lancaster. (Read more at Classic Film Guide.)

By coincidence, in the new issue of the online magazine Common-Place Mark Peterson writes about Hollywood’s difficulty creating a good movie about the Revolutionary War. After listing the usual disasters, he posits:
it seems as though the difficulty of making a good American Revolution movie has something to do with the challenge of finding a plot for the Revolution that can be arranged in the form of a family drama. Hollywood’s historical dramas tend to reduce complex processes to a small number of characters who can coherently depict the course of events, often through the intertwined lives of a family or two. The Civil War, of course, is perfect for this—“brother against brother” in a fratricidal family drama. . . .

The problem for this device in depicting the American Revolution lies in Americans’ squeamishness in accepting that the American Revolution was a form of patricide—a revolt against paternalistic government symbolized in the fatherly figure of the king.
Ironically, that patricidal ur-plot has let the American Revolution produce several good or great coming-of-age novels, usually treated as children’s literature: Johnny Tremain, April Morning, My Brother Sam Is Dead, and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, among others. The story we Americans tell ourselves about a nation coming to maturity mirrors the story of an adolescent coming to maturity.


Robert S. Paul said...

There's a straight-to-DVD film out now (or soon), but I couldn't find it online again. I know they posted about it on RevList so I'm sure you know what I'm talking about.

Of course that's not Hollywood, and I have no idea if it's any good.

I think Joseph Plumb's diary would make for a decent enough movie. It's personal, there's some conflict, and it's true. Of course how much Hollywood might stick to the truth, I'm not sure.

I think, sadly, there's just not enough of a market for a RevWar movie, especially nowadays with movie companies focusing hard on international sales.

J. L. Bell said...

Maybe the new low-budget film on Bunker Hill? I saw a bit of that on YouTube, which wasn’t enough to make any fair judgment.

I’ve been thinking about how Peterson’s comments on Civil War movies don’t apply to Glory, which was successful historically, artistically, and financially. That wasn’t a family drama with a “brother against brother” theme and a reconciliation at the end.

Instead, the makers of Glory chose to focus entirely on one side of the war. In doing so, they followed a model we’d seen in a lot of stories about World War 2 and later: a group of disparate soldiers coming together as a unit.

I could see that plot working in the Revolution as well, with Joseph Plumb Martin’s diary and other periods sources as the raw material. And it would fit the “young men coming of age” theme.

But you’re right that there might be limited international interest—as well as the American public’s usual low interest in pre-1800s costume drama.

Robert S. Paul said...

This was the movie I was thinking of: http://www.allforliberty.com/

If you'll excuse me, though, I'm off to pitch my movie idea to Hollywood....

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

I've always been a fan of Sweet Liberty.

J. L. Bell said...

Revolutionary War reenactors, who have very high standards about movies set in that period, LOVE Sweet Liberty. It’s not really about the 1700s, of course, but it’s about Hollywood running roughshod over history to make ridiculous movies set in the 1700s, which those reenactors know a lot about!

GreenmanTim said...

As it happens, I will be taking in "Mary Silliman's War" tonight in Torrington, CT, which from all I have read is rather good history and hopefully not bad for a low budget effort either. I'll let you know.

Here is one review:


Larry Cebula said...

I don't think there is anything unique about the Revolution that renders it impossible to make a good move, there just hasn't been one. I am not sure why not, except that there are not a lot of good movies period. It is not like there are a hundred good Civil War movies--there is Glory, and one or two others, and a lot of crap.

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve heard good things about Mary Silliman’s War. It was based on the study The Way of Duty and sponsored by the institute that also published the William & Mary Quarterly. So this is one case when historical accuracy wasn’t completely trampled by the need for modern entertainment.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that there are only a few U.S. Civil War movies that are excellent. At the top of my list is The General, by Buster Keaton, even though it plays the setting for laughs rather than accurate history.

There are a lot of fair to middling movies with some Civil War background, however. And we can’t tell the story of U.S. cinema without mentioning those pillars of Lost Cause storytelling, Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind.

In contrast, there are no cinematic masterpieces about the Revolutionary War, no box-office blockbusters, and not that many mediocre movies, either. Both the peaks and the average seem to fall well below the equivalents for the Civil War.

Some people blame the wigs.

Robert S. Paul said...

Not me, I blame the Tories!

(Sorry, that joke was too easy.)

Anonymous said...

Overall Hollywood movies based upon the Revolutionary War period leave a lot to be desired. But probably the best I've ever seen is Mel Gibson's "The Patriot", from a few years ago. It kind of mixes a character who is like Francis Marion being in the Battle of Cowpens, along with the South Carolina militia and Contintentals. Cornwalis is depicted as himself, along with a Tory who bares a very close resemblance to Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, commanding the evil British cavalry and dragoons. Marion even returns Cornwallis' two dogs to him, based loosely on something Washington had done. Overall though, I found it entertaining and it tried to stay very true to historic detail.

J. L. Bell said...

The Patriot has a lousy reputation among both academic historians and Revolutionary War reenactors. The filmmakers had all the resources to make an accurate and visually impressive film, including consultations with the Smithsonian, dedicated military trainers from the reenacting community, and digital effects. But they sacrificed accuracy for a feel-good milieu and visual drama.

Among the complaints I’ve heard many times: whitewashed view of plantation slavery and race relations, a literally incendiary atrocity by the British of a sort that never happened, accurate garments worn in odd ways, inaccurate British army uniforms and battlefield tactics, and inauthentic use of explosives (which may also have been dangerous to the extras playing soldiers).

As you note, the British officer called Tavington is based on Tarleton, but he’s an “evil” caricature rather than a realistic historic figure.