Top Ten Movies For the Fourth

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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.

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  1. Jay, there are some things too horrible for the human mind to completely comprehend, and Revolution (1985) with Pacino is one of them!

  2. Here are some films that should be honorable mentions:

    America (D.W. Griffith)

    Sons of Liberty (Claude Raines)

    The Howards of Virginia (Cary Grant)

    The Time of Their Lives (Bud Abbott & Lou Costello – not really an American Revolution movie, per se, but close enough and fun to watch)

    There are also several fine documentary miniseries that I would recommend (actually, I recommend skipping the Hollywood versions of history altogether and watching the documentaries instead). Don, perhaps you can post a review of some of these in the next day or two (given your love of history, I’m guessing you’ve seen them):

    The American Revolution (A&E / History Channel)
    (this is my personal favorite)

    Liberty – The American Revolution (PBS)

    The History Channel Presents The Revolution

    Rebels & Redcoats – How Britain Lost America (PBS)

    Founding Fathers (History Channel)

    Founding Brothers

    The History Channel Presents Washington the Warrior

  3. I’ve always disliked The Patriot for the same reason I really dislike Braveheart. Mel assumes the audience can’t understand simple concepts like “freedom” and “liberty”, and in both cases a serious historical cause is made into a revenge fantasy.

    As for movies about American wars, my favorite is Ride With the Devil, a splendid and usually overlooked film by Ang Lee. It gives a fascinating perspective on the Civil War, showing the trajectory of the son of a German immigrant who joins the Confederates under Quantrill after Jayhawkers kill the mother and father of his best friend. It doesn’t shy away from the worst aspects of both sides in the war, but it also shows the heroism and ideals that went into the causes of the war. Plus, the dialogue–based on the way people actually spoke at the time according to letters and transcripts–is great. My favorite bit is the night after a skirmish when the protagonist, Jake, is talking with his friend Jack Bull about his finger being shot off:

    Jack Bull: My father’s under the dirt to stay. Like that’s gone to stay, too.

    Jake: My finger?

    Jack Bull: Mmm-hmm.

    Jake: Well, so it is. And it makes me notable by the loss.

    Jack Bull: You sound pleased… as if that finger’d been pesterin’ you for rings.

    Jake: No. It was a fine finger and I’d rather have it still, but… it was took from me and it’s been et by chickens for sure. And I say, what is the good side to this amputation? And there is one.

    Jack Bull: Name it, Jake.

    Jake: Well, you say one day some Federals catch up to me in a thicket. They would riddle me and hang me and no Southern man would find me for weeks or months and when they did I’d be bad meat pretty well rotted to a glob.

    Jack Bull: That’s scientifically accurate, I’m afraid. I’ve seen it.

    Jake: I’d be a mysterious gob of rot. And people would say, “Who was that?” Then surely someone would look up and say, “Why it’s nubbin fingered Jake Roedel.” Then you could go and tell my father that I was clearly murdered and he wouldn’t be tortured by uncertain wonders.

    Jack Bull: And that’s the good of it?

    Jake: Yes sir, that’s the good.

  4. 1776 is easily one of the worst movies I have ever seen.

    I guess you limited it to only movies on the founding, but really any July 4th list without Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is seriously lacking.

  5. Denton, what’s wrong with you?

    1776 is a great movie. William Daniels (with that Boston Brahmin accent) will ALWAYS be John Adams to me (Giamatti’s outstanding effort notwithstanding). Daniels even voiced the role in the A&E/History Channel documentary I cite above.

    And I must say that I’m much less enamoured by Mr. Smith Goes to Washington than I once was. I suppose being involved in government/politics will do that to a person.

  6. Michael, I like Mr. Smith goes to Washington, although more for the performance of Claude Rains, always a favorite with me, than for any other reason. Jimmy Stewart, usually a favorite of mine, gave what I thought was a fairly one note performance, although I understand that I am in a minority in regard to that opinion.

    In regard to 1776, tastes will vary. I love it, and I will use this as an excuse to post another sequence from the film:

  7. Denton, what’s wrong with you?

    Funny, my fiance asks that question too. With alarming frequency, actually 😉

    I just could not stand it. Went too long, too absurd, hated the music, was over-dramatic, etc etc.

    I like Mr. Smith b/c it recognizes that politics are corrupt, but it offers a message of hope among the disillusion. I think it’s the greatest movie ever made, but I’m probably one of the few who do.

  8. Jay:

    You have depressed me. Now I will utterly unable to eat a hot dog on Saturday. Curse you! 😉

    I am still young and idealistic, so it remains a favorite of mine. I will say though that juxtaposing Mr. Smith with Jimmy Stewart’s later movie with John Wayne “The man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is fascinating

  9. Jay Anderson: I and the other girls in my high school history class became enamored of Mr. Jefferson when our teacher showed us “1776” in class. In fact, that’s really the only thing I can recall about that film – that the actor who played Jefferson was a looker.

    (Let us hope that historically ignorant schoolgirls today do not develop fond feelings toward Henry VIII just because Jonathan Rhys-Meyers looks quite dashing in period costume. Any young woman who has the impression Henry looked like Rhys-Meyers is bound to be disappointed by Holbein’s portrait.:-))

  10. After seeing John Adams I really wanted a Thomas Jefferson movie staring the same cast, just from Jefferson’s POV.

  11. Re Jay’s comment on “Ride With The Devil”: I am currently reading “April 1865: The Month that Saved America” by Jay Winik, and finding it very fascinating.

    Especially striking to me is the author’s central thesis: that the United States could easily have descended into a spiral of never-ending bloodshed and guerilla warfare (a la Bosnia, Chechnya, Sudan, Northern Ireland, etc.) but for the restraint of Generals Lee and Grant and Lincoln’s desire that the Confederate states be fully welcomed back into the Union.

    Winik believes that Lee and other Confederate generals could easily have chosen to continue fighting as guerillas, but chose not to because they were aware of the horrific consequences of the guerilla fighting that had taken place in Missouri and Kansas. Missouri in the 1860s sounds an awful lot like Vietnam in the 1960s — little if any distinction between civilians and combatants, Union and Confederate guerillas impersonating each other, entire towns and counties destroyed in order to “save” them, people living in constant fear of betrayal by family, friends and neighbors. (Could this be the real reason Missouri became known as the “Show Me State” ? )

    Had the Confederates gone guerrilla, had Grant been harsher toward the defeated Rebel soldiers and civilians, or had public sentiment after Lincoln’s assassination turned more toward revenge against the South, things might be a lot different today.

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