A number of feature films and miniseries have been made about the events of the American Revolution. Here are my top ten choices for Fourth of July viewing:
10. The Devil’s Disciple (1959)- I am not a big fan of the plays of George Bernard Shaw, but this film has its moments. Set during the Saratoga campaign of 1777, Laurence Olivier was an inspired choice as General “Gentleman Johnnie” Burgoyne, and Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as the two American protagonists have their usual fine chemistry together on film. Not a classic but certainly an overlooked gem.
9. The Crossing (2000)-A retelling of Washington’s brilliant crossing of the Delaware on Christmas 1776 and the battle of Trenton. This film would rank much higher on my list but for Jeff Daniels’ portrayal of Washington as sullen and out of sorts throughout the movie. Washington had a temper, and he could give vent to it if provoked, although he usually kept it under control, but the peevish Washington portrayed here is simply ahistoric and mars an otherwise good recreation of the turning point of the Revolution.
8. John Paul Jones (1959) Robert Stack, just before he rose to fame in the Untouchables, is grand in the role of the archetypal American sea hero. Bette Davis is absolutely unforgettable as Catherine the Great. The climactic sea battle with the Serapis is well done, especially for those pre-CGI days. The only problem with the film is that many of the details are wrong. This is forgivable to a certain extent since scholarship on Jones was badly skewed by Augustus Buell in a two volume “scholarly biography” which appeared in 1900. Buell was a charlatan who made up many incidents about Jones and then invented sources to support his fabrications. Buell was not completely exposed until Samuel Eliot Morison, Harvard professor of history, and an Admiral in the Navy, wrote his definitive biography of Jones. Here is a list of the fabrications of Buell compiled by Morison. Morison’s book appeared after the movie, which is to be regretted.
7. The Patriot (2000) Finally, a film which depicts the unsung contribution of Australians to victory in the American Revolution! Actually not too bad of a film overall. Heath Ledger is quite good as Gibson’s oldest son who joins the Continentals at the beginning of the war against his father’s wishes. Jason Isaacs is snarlingly good as the evil Colonel Tavington, very loosely based on Banastre Tarleton, commander of Tarleton’s Raiders during the Southern Campaign. The film of course allows Gibson to carry on his over-the-top vendetta against all things English. No, the British did not lock up American civilians in churches and burn them alive. However, the ferocity of the partisan fighting in the South is well depicted, and Banastre Tarleton at the Waxhaw Massacre earned a reputation for slaughtering men attempting to surrender. The final battle of the film is based on the battle of Cowpens where General Daniel Morgan decisively defeated Banastre Tarleton.
6. Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)-A John Ford classic starring Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert. Through the eyes of a young newlywed couple, Fonda and Colbert, the American Revolution on the frontier is depicted in the strategic Mowhawk Valley. Full of the usual Ford touches of heroism, humor and ordinary life.
5. Johnny Tremain (1957)-“Hundreds would die, but not the thing they died for. ‘A man can stand up…'” The poignant last line to Esther Forbes’ novel about the events leading up to the American Revolution, a passage so moving that it even inspired Bart Simpson with a brief interest in American history! The events in Boston from 1773-April 1775 seen through the eyes of a young apprentice silversmith. The book is unforgettable. The movie is American history a la Disney. The movie is good to watch, the book is must reading.
4. April Morning (1988)-Based on the 1962 novel by former commie Howard Fast (a superb novelist in spite of his taste for left wing politics), I really wish this movie would come out on DVD. Tommy Lee Jones is very good as the father of the protagonist, a teen-ager portrayed by Chad Lowe. Robert Ulrich does a fine job as a friend of the family. The movie concentrates on Lexington and Concord, and is the most realistic depiction of Revolutionary War combat I have yet seen on film. A true overlooked minor classic.
3. John Adams– (2008) Paul Giamatti gives an astoundingly good performance as John Adams in this film which covers the span of Adam’s life from 1770, when he courageously risked his career by defending the British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston “Massacre”, to his death, along with Thomas Jefferson, on July 4, 1826. Everything about this effort is superb: the acting, the script, the musical score, the faithfulness to the historical record. This is how history should be dramatized on film. I hope the success of this miniseries will inspire similiar efforts on other Founding Fathers.
2. George Washington miniseries (1984) Barry Bostwick as George Washington? Patty Duke as Martha Washington? Sounds like history as told by Mad magazine? That is what I thought initially back in the Eighties, and I was very happy to be proven totally wrong. Bostwick and Duke are completely believable in their roles. The film, originally two separate miniseries, covers the life of Washington from his early twenties to the completion of his second term as President. I found every second riveting, especially the section on the American Revolution which was an incredibly accurate depiction of why we would have lost that war but for Washington and a hard core of Continental troops. It is a crime that this masterpiece still has not been released on DVD.
1. 1776 (1972)-Singing and dancing Founding Fathers, who could resist this! This is an annual event at the McClarey household on the Fourth. Although getting some of the history wrong (No, there was no mass signing of the Declaration. No, John Dickenson was not a wealthy Tory.), the film accurately depicts that the Declaration was very much a step into the unknown. For all they knew, the Signers could have ended their lives executed as traitors, their cause lost and mocked at by their posterity. Instead of taking counsel of their fears, however, they took counsel of their hopes and gave all Americans a new nation. This film is a wonderful tribute to those extraordinary men who well deserve the title of Founding Fathers.
Update: My friend Jay Anderson has musical suggestions for the Fourth here at Pro Ecclesia.