Are There No Great Movies about the American Revolution?


I have been watching the AMC series, “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” of late. This series is based on a fine book, Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (2006), which is both informative and exciting to read. This AMC series is not the most exciting television ever created, but it has been sufficiently engaging to keep me coming back to view the first ten episodes in season one. And I will be watching when season two begins in April.

The series led me to ask a question, however, why are there no great movies, and I could also add television series, about the American Revolution? Of course, perhaps not all will accept that there are no great movies on this subject, but let me here assess some of the movie depictions of this formative event of the American nation. Please note I have stayed away from commenting here about series such as John Adams (HBO, 2008), and The Adams Chronicles (PBS, 1976),  Swamp Fox (Disney, 1959-1961), and Johnny Tremain (Disney, 1957). Perhaps I will blog about those at another time.

So here is a discussion of movies about the American Revolution. I am taking these in chronological order for ease of commentary.

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939): Directed by John Ford, and starring Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert, this story is about American settlers on the New York frontier during the American Revolution. Mostly it is a story of the frontier and Indian wars, however, something that John Ford specialized in throughout a long career. The settlers endure British and Indian attacks on their farm during the so-called Mohawk War. In the film the settles take shelter in Fort Herkimer, but it is poorly defended and running low on both food and ammunition. To save the fort, the Henry Fonda character makes an epic dash for relief to Fort Dayton where the Continental Army was located. In an epic conclusion, just as the settlers are about to be overwhelmed, troops arrive to save them and to note that the American Revolution has ended and the last scene is the raising of a United States flag. It is pure nostalgia, of course, but it played well to the movie-going public in 1939. As Frank S. Nugent wrote about the film in his review in the New York Times on November 4, 1939: “It is romantic enough for any adventure-story lover. It has its humor, its sentiment, its full complement of blood and thunder…a first-rate historical film, as rich atmospherically as it is in action.” Exciting, perhaps; entertaining, absolutely. But the film’s relationship to historical authenticity is purely by accident. And this may be the best of the films about the American Revolution.

The Scarlet Coat (1955): Cornel Wilde depicts Maj. John Boulton of the Continental Army who goes undercover to break up a spy ring in 1780. This leads him to the the best-known traitor in American history, Benedict Arnold. He uncovers the plot for turn West Point over to the British. Of course, Arnold did just that, while his British contact, Maj. John André, was captured by Washington and executed. This is not a particularly good movie. It was a big budget production with B-movie adventure, quite a lot of trite dialogue, and not much in the way of memorable moments. Ann Francis as the love interest is just too much.

The Devil’s Disciple (1959): With a stellar cast that includes Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, and Laurence Olivier, you might think this would be an excellent film. Although based on a play by George Bernard Shaw, the film does not come off well. It proves, once again, that great actors cannot rise above mundane dialogue and sets. During the American War of Independence a resident in a New York town is arrested by the British. Despite a case of mistaken identity, when brought before British commander Gen. John Burgoyne he refuses to cooperate and displays a willingness to die for his principles. At the last minute he gets away from the British and takes up leadership in the patriot cause. The full film is below.

1776 (1972): It’s a little silly, and somewhat comical, but the Broadway musical turned into a film is an enjoyable romp about the writing of the Declaration of Independence. William Daniels as John Adams and Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin steal the show. Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson seems overmatched. The songs are catchy, the overall mood respectful and patriotic. The film attempts to explain the divisive issue of slavery in the colonies, and the broad complicity in this abomination, as well as the challenge of getting everyone to agree that independence was the appropriate step.

Revolution (1985): In this film Al Pacino’s character, a trapper named Tom Dobb, searches for his son who was pressed into service in the American Revolution. Over time, he becomes convinced that Independence is necessary for the American colonies and becomes a patriot. The battle sequences are broad and well-produced. Otherwise, this movie was a disaster, receiving nominations for four Golden Raspberry Awards. Fortunately it lost in every category.

Sweet Liberty (1986): I’m not at all sure that this is a film about the American Revolution as it is about the depiction of historical events on film. Alan Alda plays a college professor who has written a book based on the diary of a Revolutionary War woman (played by Michelle Pfieffer) that is being made into a film. Alda is a technical advisor on the film and constantly clashes with the director over depictions of the story. Michael Caine as the over-the-top star of the film is hilarious. So is the final battle sequence.

April Morning (1988): Howard Fast has written several terrific historical novels, and this film is based on one. In it Tommy Lee Jones stars in the story of the battle at Lexington on April 19, 1775.  It depicts the march of the British army from Boston and the “Shot Heard Round the World” on the Lexington Green. This is a very cerebral movie, with debates between several protagonists over why the they should take up arms against the British Crown. It is a better than average movie, perhaps the best on the Revolution ever made, and something well worth watching.

Mary Silliman’s War (1994): This small story of the American Revolution revolves around the abduction of Mary Silliman’s husband by Tories and her efforts to cope with his absence. The story takes place in Fairfield, Connecticut, from about May 1779 to May 1780. It speaks to the impacts the war had on families and communities, and focuses on the opportunities (for personal advancement) as well as disruptions and liabilities connected with the war. It also offers a good representation of how the war affect breaks down the old social order and democratizes society. Firmly rooted in the historical record, unlike many of these other movies, it is based on the biography of Mary Fish Silliman, The Way of Duty: A Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America (1984) by Joy and Richard Buel, and upon family correspondence, her journal, and her reminiscences written after the war.

The Patriot (2000): Oh my, what a mess of a movie. A personal project for ultra conservative, and embarrassingly improper, Mel Gibson, this is the poorly disguised story of Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, in South Carolina. It takes all manner of liberties with the history, and nothing recounted in it may be accepted at face value. Its depiction of African Americans as free and working for Gibson’s character is one of the most dishonest aspects of this notoriously dishonest film. The battle scenes might be powerful, but otherwise this is a waste of time.

The Crossing (2003): Not a bad movie at all, Jeff Daniels brings the appropriate gravitas to George Washington and Howard Fast’s novel about the crossing of the Delaware and the attack on the Hessians at Trenton provides a good foundation for the drama. I remain amazed by the abilities of Daniels to play a range of characters. In addition to Washington he did a fine job portraying Joshua Chamberlain in Gettysburg, but also the co-lead in Dumb and Dumber. The full movie is available free on-line. Check it out.

All For Liberty (2009).  Set in South Carolina in 1775, this small independent film depicts the American Revolution as a struggle between Tories and Patriots. The central character, played by Clarence Felder, is a Swiss-German colonist who puts up with dishonest colonial leaders and arrogant aristocrats. He takes up the patriot cause. With neighbor against neighbor was don’t see large battles, but there are many skirmishes, ambushes, and farm burnings.  It has a good look and feel and tells a compelling story that eschews major historical figures.

None of these films are in the category of great. Some are downright awful, but several are quite good. I would rank Mary Silliman’s War, Sweet Liberty, All for Liberty, and The Crossing in the quite good category, largely because they tell us something useful (often several somethings) about the Revolution. I will use clips from these films in history classes in the future.

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