Bombast: You Say You Want a Revolution?
Everybody needs a hobby. In my own spare time, I have a habit of curating potential film retrospectives guaranteed to arouse little to no public interest—cinematographers-turned-directors, for example, or “The Complete Robert Enrico.” One of my favorites, which might be the least saleable or sexy of them all, is a program of Pre–Civil War Westerns. In selecting lineup, one would have to expand one’s definition of the West to mean something like what it did for the early colonists: anywhere that wasn’t plumb on the Atlantic coast. Howard Hawks’s The Big Sky (52), set in 1832 and following a keelboat expedition up the Missouri, Platte, and Cheyenne Rivers, would certainly count. So would last year’s The Homesman, set in the Nebraska Territory sometime between the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the War Between the States. Even the upstate New York–set Chad Hanna (40), part of a cycle of nostalgia pieces (In Old Chicago, 1937; Little Old New York, 1940) made by director Henry King in the years leading up to the Second World War and Superpowerdom, a status which tends to alienate a nation from convincingly self-identifying with adjectives like “folksy” and “charming” more or less permanently.
Fugitive slave laws are an explicit part of Chad Hanna, which I recently had the pleasure of seeing at the Museum of Modern Art as part of their ongoing “Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond” program. The film’s namesake, played by Henry Fonda, is a sometime boatman and stable boy working at an inn along the Erie Canal in Canastota, a day’s ride from Syracuse, who gets himself into trouble with the law when he sells a tip on the whereabouts of a runaway slave to a bounty hunter, then uses the proceeds to help the quarry escape to Canada, before himself running off with a traveling circus. Fonda, for whatever reason, was frequently associated with the pastoral years of the Republic in the early part of his screen career. His first film role was opposite Janet Gaynor in Victor Fleming’s The Farmer Takes a Wife (35), which is set, like Chad Hanna, along the Erie Canal. He later popped up in Antebellum Louisiana in William Wyler’s Jezebel (38), and had two signature roles for John Ford the following year in Young Mr. Lincoln (playing at the Museum of the Moving Image this evening) and Drums Along the Mohawk, based, like Chad Hanna, on a novel by one Walter D. Edmonds, whose 1929 Rome Haul was adapted as The Farmer Takes a Wife, and whose 1940 Red Wheels Rolling was adapted into none other than Chad Hanna. While I don’t believe that auteurdom has outlived its usefulness in the critical toolkit, we won’t have a complete understanding of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood until a parallel exhaustive study of the best-seller industry which provided it with narrative fodder has been undertaken. I myself have not read any of Edmonds’s corpus, but looking for literary judgments I find the following apocryphal statement from Edmund Wilson, Edmonds’s neighbor in Talcottville, New York, which will have to do: “I like Edmonds immensely, but I can’t read his novels.”
While set in central New York during the Revolutionary War, Ford’s Drums contains a relative paucity of redcoats, emphasizing instead the role of their allies, the Seneca Indians, in carrying out the hostilities and commission of outrages against the colonials—I touched on this in a recent discussion of D.W. Griffith’s America (26), a film to which Drums Along the Mohawk owes a considerable debt. This is, to a point, historically accurate, given the time and place chosen for the setting of both films—Seneca, Iroquois, and Mohawk allies did form a significant portion of the Loyalist forces fighting upstate—though it is worth asking why this particular front of the War has been latched onto for depiction on-screen, rather than, say, the pestilent British prison ships anchored in the East River, so many floating death camps, which you might think would be deemed attractive sources of pathos. For an answer, one needs look no further than the release date of Drums Along the Mohawk. At no point in the maturity of American motion pictures—which we may mark as beginning in the years before World War I, if we allow that it ever actually began—has it been politically advantageous to villainize the British, who we have usually been on the brink of tromping off to some war or another alongside.
The exception to this rule is The Patriot (2000), which recounts a version of the war’s events beginning in South Carolina, in 1776, and which was an early battlefield of the historical fact-checking wars that would rage over the years to come. In particular, several commentators latched onto a scene in German-born director Roland Emmerich’s turgid epic in which Jason Isaacs’s Col. William Tavington sets fire to a church filled with old men, women, and children—an event which, it was noted, bore closer resemblance to an incident in the summer of 1944 in which a company of Nazi Waffen-SS decimated the village of Oradour-sur-Glane than to anything recorded in the annals of the War for Independence.
If the Pre-Civil War Western is a distinct minority in the history of the genre as a whole, how much rarer still is the Revolutionary War film? I’ll always resent The Patriot for forestalling what might’ve been a really good entry to the subgenre, a proposed Whit Stillman biopic of South Carolinian Revolutionary War hero Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion, one of the various figures upon whom Gibson’s Benjamin Martin was meant to be based. (“It’s a composite—like New York magazine does!”) Like Marion, Martin is a veteran of the French and Indian War who adapts some of the guerilla tactics he learned in the field for use against the British, while operating out of a boggy stronghold. Because the movie was shot by Caleb Deschanel in a southland clad in autumn colors, much of it in the vicinity of Francis Marion National Forest, it contains images with a certain mythic weight. Because it was directed by Emmerich, who will soon bring his unparalleled ability to trivialize, cheapen, and coarsen to the events of Stonewall, it is insipid in the extreme. Released two years after Saving Private Ryan, with a score by John Williams and screenplay by Ryan screenwriter Robert Rodat, The Patriot was clearly made anticipating a vogue for war films exploiting the heightened allowance for violence and viscera pioneered by Spielberg’s feature and Gibson’s own Braveheart (95). Most of The Patriot’s memorable moments involve limbs and heads being clipped off by passing cannonballs, though my favorite scene is a super-chill racially mixed beachfront clambake which Williams scores like an Ewok village party and which actually contains the exchange: “May I sit with you?” “It’s a free country. Or at least it will be.”
Scarcely two years after The Patriot, the United States and the United Kingdom were tromping off on new foreign adventures together as though scarcely a cloud had passed between our respective nations—though the nefarious Brits would wage a stealth campaign to revenge themselves for this slandering, inflicting crushing blows on their former subjects in the venue of popular culture. Tom Wilkinson, who appears as Lord Cornwallis in Emmerich’s film, would in years to come go on to become something like the patron saint of botched American historical dramas, almost singlehandedly hamstringing Selma with his tone-deaf Lyndon Baines Johnson, warbling his way through 2011 TV miniseries The Kennedys as patriarch Joseph P., and portraying Benjamin Franklin in 2008’s HBO event John Adams, which was most Americans’ first experience of the cinema of posh, floppy-haired git Tom Hooper.
I watched John Adams some time after its original airing, because I was curious to see any screen depiction of a period in American history that has always seemed to me insanely overlooked by Hollywood, and because a friend told me: “You get to see John and Abigail Adams fuck in it.” It did deliver on this front, as well as offering several instances of framing shots from unlikely and disadvantageous angles, meant to lend the affair some immediacy though it plays as though the movie was shot by paparazzi nervous to get a glimpse of the Second Continental Congress. John Adams was based on a 2001 biography of the second president written by David McCullough, who may be called America’s pre-eminent popular historian. At the date of this writing, a film based on McCullough’s 2005 volume 1776 is listed as “in-production” at imdb.com, though who can say if it will ever see the light of day. (Or, if it does, who Wilkinson will play in it.) HBO acquired the rights in 2005; as late as 2008, reports had it that the project was to be underwritten by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman’s Playtone, who were behind John Adams, with Adams architect Kirk Ellis to write. Lately, however, the trail has gone cold.
The Adams Chronicles
The television miniseries is the format in which narrative works concerning the age of powdered wigs and knee breeches have had the most success. More than three decades before Hooper’s John Adams there was The Adams Chronicles (76), a 13-episode miniseries which followed a century-and-a-half of growth and change in the United States through the passage of generations in a family from Braintree who had a great stake in its destiny. The most ambitious Bicentennial cash-in, however, was the cycle of eight “Kent Family” novels by John Jakes, an author of weird fiction whose greatest success before turning to historical subjects was a Robert E. Howard–like creation called Brak the Barbarian. The first three of Jakes’s Kent novels would be adapted as television miniseries by MCA/Universal, aired as The Bastard (78), The Seekers, and The Rebels (both 79), the last-named dealing with the events of the Revolution, part of a fad for long-form treatment of historical subjects which got rolling with the likes of Roots (77) and Holocaust (78), and continued through the Eighties with the blockbuster North and South (1985/86/94), also sprung from the fertile typewriter of Mr. Jakes, or the estimable Buzz Kulik’s three-part bio-miniseries of George Washington (84). (It would appear that there was also a 1975 TV movie called Valley Forge, in which the compactly build Richard Basehart, who’d previously shown his range playing Mr. Hitler, starred as the hulking Father of Our Country at his moment of greatest tribulations.) Today, basking as we are in the Golden Age of Television, the discerning viewer may turn to the History Channel’s Sons of Liberty or AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies, descendants of the prestige miniseries as surely as America was founded on the precepts of Athens and the Enlightenment.
Against these days and days of quality TV, we can hold up Griffith’s America, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Patriot, and a handful of other films—The Howards of Virginia (40), The Scarlet Coat (55), The Devil’s Disciple (59), the prelude to Frank Tashlin’s Bachelor Flat (62), and the universally loathed Al Pacino vehicle Revolution (85)—as big-screen evocations of the Revolutionary War. There is one conspicuous absence from this list: around the time of John Adams’s release, Hooper was quoted as saying that, per his star Laura Linney, the Seventies film version of the musical 1776, which he referred as “a strange mix of seriousness and ’70s camp,” was for many the definitive screen realization of the period.
1776 originated as a stage musical, with a book by Peter Stone, later the screenwriter of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (74), and music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, a Brill Building veteran whose principal contribution to film history lies in writing the tune to the theme song of Don Siegel’s Flaming Star (60), sung by star Elvis Presley. The play opened at the 46th Street Theatre in Spring of 1969, closed at the Majestic some 1,200 performances later, and immediately thereafter went into production as a motion picture, with the original cast under the oversight of original stage director Peter H. Hunt, making his debut on a film set. And what sets they were!—octogenarian producer Jack L. Warner had a reproduction of Historic Philadelphia Center built on the lot of the Warner Ranch in Burbank, while a capacious version of the interior of the Philadelphia State House was made at the Gower Street Studios in Hollywood. Hunt, who would dive into TV direction shortly after the shoot wrapped and scarcely surface from it again, seems to have made as little adjustment as possible to the material in adapting it to a new medium, save for fiddling with his zoom lens a bit to belabor punchlines. The phrase “filmed theater” is, like the hoary “MTV-style editing,” one of those vague umbrella terms that critics turn to in dismissing work they can’t be bothered with—the implication is that the item under discussion is unworthy of deeper analysis because it’s not even a real movie at all—but in the case of 1776, I’ll allow it. It is one of a handful of movies that I can recall watching as a “treat” in grade school, along with The Sound of Music and The Wiz—for some reason they were always bloated, laborious musicals—and I remember a lot of giggles going up around a subplot in which Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) desperately needs to get in a screw before he can settle down and write the Declaration of Independence. It was released in fall of 1972, one of the most bountiful movie years on record* and the year of Bob Fosse’s revolutionary Cabaret, and is probably the worst Hollywood musical until Hooper’s Les Misérables (2012).
My lone viewing of the 1957 Walt Disney production of Johnny Tremain, based on Esther Forbes’s 1943 reading-list staple, was also a now-but-dimly-recalled classroom screening—and I’m sure that a deep dive into educational films would turn up all manner of Revolutionary War–set treasures. As it is, offhand I know of a trio of Looney Tunes which have the birth of the Republic as their subject. Old Glory (39) is essentially edutainment, a humorless affair wherein young Porky Pig, heard doubting the importance of learning the Pledge of Allegiance, is visited by a ghostly Uncle Sam with effeminate eyelashes, who shows him visions of Patrick Henry, Paul Revere’s ride, and the signing of the Declaration of Independence—the idea, one supposes, is to inculcate youngsters with a tradition of noble sacrifice, with what then very likely lay ahead for the nation in mind. In the more irreverent Yankee Doodle Bugs (54), Bugs tutors his nephew Clyde on American history, inserting himself into key scenes and adding some bizarre puns. (“Tea tax” is butchered as “tea tacks,” and visualized as King George sprinkling carpet tacks into a chest of Bostonian tea.) Finally, in Bunker Hill Bunny (50), Bugs faces off against a Hessian Yosemite Sam, here billed as “Sam Von Schamm,” at the Battle of Bagel Heights, firing off cannonades from behind fortifications flying banners emblazoned with “They” and “We.” (Kicker: “I’m a Hessian without no aggression.”)
At this date, it’s hard to imagine who we might hope for to bring us a definitive film of the Revolutionary War, or who would even be interested in doing such a thing. Existing depictions of the period, from Griffith to Gibson—which sounds like a graduate thesis paper in the making—have tended to downplay the background of cold, deliberate, pragmatic decision-making behind the conflict, casting it instead as a revenge-driven grudge-match in which very personal affronts are addressed through individual acts.
One missed opportunity, by virtue of its creative pedigree, stands out. Towards the end of his creative career and life, Roberto Rossellini embarked on a cycle of histories which were meant to be contributions to an encyclopedic story of humanity, to be grouped together under the title “Survival.” The defining attribute of the completed “Survival” films, including Blaise Pascal (72), The Age of the Medici (1972-73), and Cartesius (74), was their heavy reliance on hard historical record as well as a singular visual strategy: relying on long “objective” takes with a fixed-position camera, the director would then improvisatorially isolate elements of the frame with a remote-controlled Pan-Cinor zoom lens. Among the many unfilmed properties which Rossellini had hoped to include in “Survival,” along with Marx and The Life of Mao, was a proposed film called The American Revolution. Of this project, which was to have been financed in part by the American Film Institute and ready in time for 1976, little remains save scraps of information, including a 1971 interview which Rossellini gave Film Culture in which he stated the American Revolution was “totally different from all others. It was not a class taking over the power of another class, but was based totally on ideas.” Quibble with this definition as you might, Rossellini’s ascetic, solemn, cold-blooded vision of America’s genesis would’ve offered a stark counterpoint to church holocausts and whoopin’, riled-up Injuns on the warpath—a Declaration with no fireworks.
* Other 1972 releases: Across 100th Street, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Love in the Afternoon, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Blaise Pascal, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Don’t Torture a Duckling, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Fat City, Fellini’s Roma, Frenzy, The Getaway, The Godfather, The Outside Man, Images, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Marjoe, The New Centurions, We Will Not Grow Old Together, The Other, Pink Flamingos, Play It As It Lays, Prime Cut, The Canterbury Tales, Salomé, Sitting Target, Trick Baby, Last Tango in Paris, Ulzana’s Raid, La Vallée. Ridiculous.