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Where Are All The Revolutionary War Films?


Alyssa Rosenberg (whose work I think is fantastic) poses a great question:

…it struck me all over again how few movies we have about the Revolutionary War. I’d looked into this a couple of years ago, but it’s really kind of stunning. The success of America’s war for independence from Great Britain is incredibly remarkable, the people who prosecuted that war are referenced constantly in our current political conversations, and yet we don’t have more than a handful of movies about the conflict or the people who ran it. April Morning, Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor, The Crossing, John Adams, and Valley Forge are all television projects. The last big Revolutionary War blockbuster, The Patriot, came out in 2000, and even that wasn’t that enormous a success: it netted $113,330,342 at the domestic box office, just $3 million more than the movie cost to make.

She poses a couple of possible answers, neither of which I find particularly satisfactory, but then I don’t have any good answers either.

First she notes how poorly 18th century battle scenes translate to modern movie screens and the expectations of audiences for big fight scenes. Perhaps that’s true, but then we’ve never had a lot of Revolutionary films, even in the silent era. So while I think a studio executive would make that statement today, I don’t think it really explains the overall lack of Revolutionary War films in movie history.

Second, she looks at the characters and intellectual universe of the time and suggests it’s not good movie material. George III is far away, Jefferson is busy with Sally Hemings, Madison is reading Locke, etc. And if movies really bothered with the intellectual universe of their real-life characters or cared much about reality either way, that’d make a lot of sense. But since when did movies portray real-life people accurately? Movies frequently flatten stories into good and evil and make characters do whatever the filmmakers want them to do, even if characters based on real people have some limitations placed upon this. After all, it’s not as if the Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of John Adams is really all that accurate.

And that leads to another point, which is to say that maybe there is room for more Revolutionary War movies. After all, I’d argue that TV has replaced mainstream Hollywood movies as the place where real stories are being told. And people love that Adams miniseries. The popularity of Revolutionary War biographies and sweeping histories and that miniseries suggest some room for film, even if only in the biographical/hagiographical sense.

It’s also interesting to think about portrayals of the Revolution in American film and literature compared to other wars. The French and Indian War has never much interested Americans, though there are significant exceptions to this, including James Fenimore Cooper and John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk. The Revolution has never much inspired American authors or filmmakers. Of course, American literature in the late 18th century was in its infancy so this makes sense. The Civil War inspired hundreds if not thousands of movies (usually short silents) in the early years of film and a lot of cheesy literature from the same period (with apologies to Stephen Crane), but not much literature of note from actual participants in the war. World War I on the other hand has always been beloved by both authors and filmmakers. World War II produced an endless number of mostly bad movies in the 1950s and 60s, but some very great films too; same scenario essentially with literature. Korea has always existed on the outskirts. Vietnam has produced plenty of both. Be interesting to see what the Middle East wars do, not much yet, but there’s plenty of time.

What does this all tell us? Not much I guess. World War I, the Civil War, and Vietnam were all heavily contested wars where good and evil were very muddled. That does tend to make good art. On the other hand, actual Civil War art tended to obscure the actual causes of the conflict, i.e. slavery, slavery, and slavery. Also, slavery. World War II was good versus evil for all intents and purposes and maybe that’s why so much of the art around it is so mediocre. People in 1955 might have loved watching Jimmy Steward in Strategic Air Command, but for whatever psychological work films like that did for the generation who lived through the contract, it sure doesn’t play well today.

But this lengthy discussion still doesn’t give me much of a clue as to why we’ve never had a lot of films about the American Revolution? Were the Founding Fathers (a term invented by Warren Harding even if the sentiment was there long before) too godlike to portray in film? But given the constant invocation of them throughout American history, it seems shocking that filmmakers did not join in.

So I don’t know, what do you think?

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