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Friday, November 9, 2007

The Patriots (originally published 7/00)

Just in time for this year's Fourth of July celebrations, movie screens across the country were lit up by an elaborate new cinematic recreation of the Revolutionary War, starring Mel Gibson as a fictionalized version of Francis Marion. It would seem to be a surefire winner, guaranteed to take off like a bottle rocket. Well, we'll see. The odd truth is that movies about the American Revolution have a history of tepid performance at the box office. For that reason, there haven't been nearly as many of them as you might expect.

This is not to say, however, that "The Patriot" had no forefathers on which to model itself. A number of fine films set during the American Revolution have been released through the years, many of which have made their way to home video. Look for these titles at your corner video store.

"America" (1924). Pioneer director D. W. Griffith is best remembered for his Civil War epic "The Birth of a Nation" (1915). What is often forgotten is that he mounted an equally impressive epic nearly a decade later dramatizing the Revolutionary War. One of the reasons for the relative obscurity of "America" is undoubtedly the fact that until recently there were no good prints of the film in circulation. Fortunately, Kino Video ( has recently released a restored version that approximates Griffith's original cut of the film.

"Drums Along the Mohawk" (1939). Director John Ford, the cinema's acknowledged master at representing early Americana on the screen made only this one film about the Revolutionary period. Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert play Gil and Lana Martin, a pioneer couple settling in the Mohawk River Valley of upstate New York in the mid-1770s. During this period, a few Native American tribes sided with the British against the colonists, and actually participated in raids on colonial settlements, led by British officers. It is these raids that disrupt the life of the Martins, already made difficult enough by the hardships of day to day existence in this farthest outpost of civilization.

"The Howards of Virginia" (1940). Based on a portion of Elizabeth Page's novel, "Tree of Liberty," this tale of a colonial family torn apart by the Revolution fared poorly at the box office despite a good script and the popularity of Cary Grant, who played the lead role. This disappointing showing was probably a question of the timing of its release as much as anything else. With the war against Hitler taking its toll on a grimly determined Great Britain, it was hardly the appropriate time for a film that cast the British in a negative light. In fact, the film was released in September of 1940, during the bombing of London, when worldwide sympathy for England's plight was at its absolute zenith. It's time to give this well-wrought film another chance.

"Johnny Tremaine" (1957). By the mid-Fifties, Walt Disney had made a minor specialty of weaving entertaining films out of historical settings, from "The Story of Robin Hood" (1952) to "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier" (1955). "Johnny Tremaine," adapted from the novel by Esther Forbes, was Disney's version of the American Revolution. The main character is a young man who falls in with the Sons of Liberty, the revolutionary underground, after being falsely accused of theft by an unscrupulous English nobleman. The film falls neatly into two parts, the first dealing with the Boston Tea Party, the second with the firing of "the shot heard round the world," because it was originally intended as a two part television show. When the decision was made to release it to theaters instead, the sharp two-part structure was left untouched.

There are two additional titles relating to this subject that I would recommend to you. One is "1776" (1972), the delightful musical that dramatizes the political wrangling surrounding the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. The other is "Sweet Liberty" (1986), starring Alan Alda, who also wrote and directed the film, as a college professor whose historical novel about the Revolution is being made into a movie. By the time Hollywood gets through with his story, it no longer bears any resemblance to the historically accurate narrative he had lovingly crafted. We can only hope that Alda's satirical look at "historical" filmmaking bears even less resemblance to the making of "The Patriot."

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