By Malcolm St-Pierre
Quick, without thinking – name me your favorite movie about the American Revolution.
Did you have trouble picking one? Were you able to recall a single title?
The American Revolution is hardly an obscure sidebar in the history books, yet for all its renown, there are surprisingly few films, television series or other media productions about it. In fact, most of what is out there is widely recognized as garbage.
There are a handful of older Revolution films, but none have stood the test of time, nor are any regarded as classics today. The only possible exception, “1776,” is a trite musical whose main audience is school children – hardly the “Citizen Kane” of American Revolution films.
More modern efforts, such as “The Patriot” and “Sons of Liberty” (starring Mel Gibson and Al Pacino, respectively) are generally panned as dismal failures. HBO’s miniseries “John Adams” briefly portrays the Revolution, and was well received by critics, but has failed to capture the public interest. AMC’s “Turn: Washington’s Spies” was a superficial bore, more soap opera than serious dramatic work. “Assassin’s Creed III,” an episode in the historical fiction video game series, was set during the American Revolution – it was also among the most poorly received titles of the series.
What accounts for this lack of storytelling – particularly, quality storytelling – for a period which continues to be invoked and celebrated? A number of reasons have been suggested for this dearth of media productions, some more plausible than others. I will list them, before arguing that it is the Revolution itself that is the problem.
A brief survey
One author suggested that period pieces are not usually box office successes, and so the muskets, tricorn hats and powdered wigs of the 18th century may prejudice audiences against such films. Another writer suggested that the period is “too American,” and thus of limited interest to international audiences.
While these may be factors, they aren’t full explanations. To begin with, some period pieces are in fact tremendous successes; think “Titanic,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “Dangerous Liaisons.” And loud, obnoxious American patriotism is hardly absent from Hollywood, even in films mainly intended for a foreign audience – take “Transformers 4,” featuring Mark Wahlberg as an all-American super-dad. “Transformers 4” was as crassly in-your-face, “America-fuck-yeah” as anything, yet that didn’t prevent it from being an enormous success in China, where it was co-produced. Finally, other periods of American history are much chronicled on film, such as the Civil War.
Two other suggested reasons strike closer to the mark, although they are still not quite perfect. One author declared that the people of the 18th century were simply morally superior to people now, espousing noble and idyllic values which make for bland characters. This corresponds well with the author’s patriotic notions of the saintliness of the Founding Fathers, but very poorly with real knowledge of human nature and history – the age of the Revolution had as many manipulators, liars, cowards, traitors and thieves as today, as much social and political intrigue, and surely some of that could have made for an interesting story. (“John Adams” probably comes closest to successfully leveraging this material; “Turn: Washington’s Spies” tries but fails.)
One final writer suggests that the American Revolution was “complicated,” whereas wars like the American Civil War were “simple.” But this is merely circular reasoning – some wars are portrayed as simple, but none of them really are, and so why have image-makers failed to make ‘simple’ portrayals of the American Revolution? On four fronts, then, classic American Revolution stories remain conspicuous by their absence.
It is my opinion that the American Revolution itself is the reason there are no good films about the American Revolution. While much lionized, the reality is that the revolution was not at all a compelling cause by modern standards, nor does it resonate with any of today’s concerns.
The American Revolution helped the colonial elite enormously, but helped “we the people” very little – and helped blacks, natives, and women not at all. It employed the rhetoric of liberty and equality but resulted in close to zero social change. The grievances the revolutionaries rebelled against seem almost trivial today. Filmmakers have had difficulty making us root for the revolutionaries because, patriotism aside, it is difficult to root for them.
Let us look at the existing portrayals of the Revolution to sound this theory out.
Problem 1: Villains
Part of the problem is that, by Hollywood logic, if the Revolutionaries were noble and virtuous then their enemies should be dastardly, sadistic and freedom-hating. Various enemies have played this role effectively in American cinema – Nazis, communists, terrorists, and (with a heavy dose of racism) blacks, natives, and the Chinese. Alas, the British in America were not well made to fit into this company.
“The Patriot” is telling in this regard. In this film, the British commit war crimes on par with the Nazis – in one climatic scene, they herd an entire village into a church and burn it down. It goes without saying that none of this occurred in real life. A common feature of media productions about the Revolution seems to be that when image-makers find that British atrocities are lacking, they simply invent them.
The comparison with the Nazis is apt – audiences expect villains who are larger than life, and have been desensitized to anything less than sheer atrocity by figures whose crimes were far more heinous than anything the British in America could have dreamt of. Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein are just a few of the real-life monsters who make King George look benign and tolerant by comparison.
The advertising campaign for “Assassin’s Creed III” is another example of the Revolution’s ‘villain’ problem. The campaign was mocked by some because it featured spectacular violence against the British, while being unable to explain why this violence was justified. One trailer featured Americans gravely listing utterly trivial grievances, including an adolescent “patriot” who was being “oppressed” by a teacher because he refused to learn about British history. Ad after ad showed the hero slaughtering British soldiers by the dozen, leaving many wondering whether this wholesale violence was appropriate. The game’s actual content surprised many players – its portrayal of the Revolution was ambivalent at best, a searing denunciation of the Revolution’s hypocrisy at worst.
“John Adams” is less critical of the Revolution, but in its first episode it depicts the revolutionary mobs as undisciplined savages, ones who tar and feather a blameless customs official on a whim, and features John Adams’ famous defense of the British soldiers who fired on the crowd in the so-called Boston Massacre. (Spoiler: the crowd provoked the firing, and the soldiers were acquitted.) It is not a glowing portrait of the Americans.
Herein lies one of the two reasons that the American Revolution has not worked (and, perhaps, cannot work) on screen. The ‘oppression’ that the Americans were fighting against pales in comparison with the oppressive regimes in place all over the world today, or even in the same period – colonies like nearby Haiti were rebelling against conditions which really were inhuman, whereas the Americans simply were not. The British don’t fit the role of super-villains well because they were not, in the American case, particularly oppressive.
Certainly the British are not blameless in the American Revolutionary War, and certainly democracy is better than colonial rule – but it is very difficult, in light of the fact that the Revolution was largely a dispute over taxation which mainly affected the middle and upper classes, to cast the British as bloodthirsty war mongers, and thus to make stories in which the audience intuitively understands and roots for the American Patriots.
The only media production that I have seen which effectively solves this problem is AMC’s “Turn: Washington’s Spies.” While the series itself is not worth the time it takes to toss the DVD in the trash, it is effective because it focuses on the British’s role as occupiers. Quartering soldiers and living under British occupation are portrayed as real hardships, while the German Hessians and Scottish Highlanders are excellently cast as brutal mercenaries, ones who are (in true Hollywood fashion) distinctly ‘foreign’, alien soldiers come to enforce a distant king’s will. I suspect a degree of “Patriot-esque” exaggeration (one of the soldiers being quartered is a lecherous, perverted psychopath, and the British commander makes ludicrously offensive demands on the town’s mayor) but it is nevertheless the best portrayal of the British as villains.
Problem 2: The downtrodden
The arc of “Assassin’s Creed III’s” protagonist illustrates the second major problem with portrayals of the Revolution. The game’s hero is a Mohawk warrior fighting to save his village from a prophesied destruction. Anachronistically, he does this by siding with the Revolutionaries – the real Mohawks fought with the British. But over the course of the story, he becomes disillusioned with the hypocrisy of the Revolutionaries, finally breaking with them when George Washington covertly orders that his village be eliminated. (Incidentally, Washington is to this day known as “Town Destroyer” among the Mohawks.) The game ends on a deeply pessimistic note – the Revolution is won, but slavery persists and the hero’s tribe has been forced by the government to abandon their village, a taste of the century-long genocide that is to follow.
“The Patriot” goes in the opposite direction, skirting entirely questions of race. Despite Mel Gibson’s character being a plantation owner, his black workers are portrayed as free, and he is backed by a multi-ethnic team of free revolutionaries. It was at one point suggested in the production that slavery be portrayed, but this was decided against by the producers – most likely, because it would make Gibson’s character an irredeemable slave owner, which is what half of the Revolutionaries were. “1776” similarly trivializes slavery – it is discussed by the Founding Fathers only once, in song.
But AMC’s “Turn” is perhaps the most odious: the British liberation of slaves who were willing to fight the Revolutionaries is actually portrayed as a bad thing. A mother is separated from her child, the black soldiers are mistreated – but, we are told, the most important of all is that now the slave-owning female protagonist has had the last of her property taken from her. The distress which emancipation causes to our white heroine is of greater concern than slavery itself.
This is the second, and perhaps more glaring problem, with Revolution stories. The Revolution was not fought on behalf of the downtrodden against the elites – it was fought by American elites against British elites. The inspiring language of the Declaration of Independence – “all men are created equal,” possessing “inalienable rights,” etc. – was effective at convincing the rest of the population that they had a stake in the Revolution, even though they generally did not. Life was no different for most Americans after the Revolution than before; the Revolution resulted in almost no social change.
When the Revolution ended, the vote was restricted to the usual band of propertied white men – women, people of color and members of other religions saw no change whatsoever in their status. Poor whites were no better off – indeed, the gaping wealth inequality of American society which they had sometimes rioted against before was still in place, evinced by the continuation of riots afterwards. (American elites appear to have fostered anti-black racism to try to win over poor whites to their side – they lived in fear that poor whites and blacks would realize they were both getting a raw deal and unite against them, which did occasionally happen.) Natives, of course, were on the slow road to extermination and subjugation – the eviction of the British meant that there was nothing standing in the way of an American land grab of the whole continent.
But the most glaring exception of all was that the Founding Fathers left the question of slavery unresolved. Indeed, years later Thomas Jefferson would realize (to his horror) that this was “the death knell” of the nation – the issue destined to tear it apart. “The Patriot” is dishonest on this front, while most portrayals of the Revolution simply ignore slavery. The American promise – for life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness – would perhaps one day be realized, but it would take decades, maybe centuries.
This is more than mere historical nitpicking – of course an 18th century collection of former colonies did not produce a modern democratic state with respect for human rights, you may be thinking. But think of the key issues of our times – prejudice, wealth inequality, sexism, human rights. None of these issues are even remotely addressed by the Revolution – indeed, many problems related to them became more entrenched by the new American elite. (England abolished slavery not long thereafter, for instance.) Periods like the American Civil War are more popular on film because they are about addressing this injustice, this incongruity in the American promise.
The American Revolution was the beginning of something great – an actualization of the Enlightenment, a dream of liberty, equality, and a better world. Centuries later, its intellectual legacy is enormous, and has enriched the lives of people all over the world. But the event itself does not live up to its own legend. It was a war fought for control of the colonies by the colonial elite, not by its people. It benefited “we the people” very little, if at all. And it ignored glaring injustices which would nearly destroy the country one hundred years later.
It is not just that it was not a ‘simple’ period – it was ‘simply’ not one which is very compelling by modern standards; and ‘simply’ not one which resonates with any of today’s issues. This, I submit, explains why there are so few compelling portraits of the Revolution in the media.