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. . . .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.
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.