The American Revolution, as a story, is full of larger-than-life personalities, events of world-altering import, and enough passion to float a dozen Hollywood epics. So why haven’t we seen more movies set in this era? (There are many, many more movies set during the American Civil War.) And why did it take so long for a wonderfully sweeping film like The Patriot to come along?
The peasants are revolting
You have to go back 15 years to find the last major film about the American fight for independence, and, well, it’s not one really worth remembering. Revolution is a pointless, frequently cruel train wreck of a movie, atrociously miscast and laughably overmelodramatic, and apparently filmed without benefit of a script.
Who on Earth thought Al Pacino (The Insider, Devil’s Advocate) could possibly be an appropriate choice to play a supposedly Scottish fur trader in colonial New York? The accent his Tom Dobb speaks with is like Michael Corleone trying to come off as British. Pacino’s twisted intonation is so bad that it seems to have rubbed off on young Sid Owen (best known as dimbulb Ricky Butcher on the BBC’s Eastenders), who plays Tom’s son, Ned — Owen actually is English, but even his accent sounds fake.
When Tom’s boat — and hence his means of support — is shanghaied by the rebels in New York for use in the just-begun war, he and the kid reluctantly enlist in the army, in exchange for a bit of cash and the promise of land after the war. This allows Pacino to spread bad-accentism when he meets Daisy McConnahay (Nastassja Kinski), a New York aristocrat with an inexplicably Eurotrashy accent, despite the fact that her mother (Joan Plowright: Dinosaur, Tea with Mussolini) and sisters sound English and her father sounds like he’s from da same neighborhood in Brooklyn that Tom is from. Daisy falls madly in love with Tom because “you fought for our cause, you fought for our freedom.” Daisy is obviously quite delusional, because she first meets Tom, and Ned, when the two of them are hiding out from — and not, hence, fighting — the British on the battlefield on which Daisy is having a stroll. Yes: it makes no sense. We see Daisy leaving her New York City home, and the next we see her, she’s wandering a Brooklyn battlefield (back when Brooklyn was nothing but meadows full of flowers). How’d she get there? There weren’t no subway from lower Manhattan to Brooklyn in 1776.
But that’s pretty much how Revolution goes: It’s years of Kinski wandering around, running into Pacino in whatcha call one co-inky-dink after another. Nothing follows from what has come before, and the film ends up feeling like so much raw news footage of Redcoats marching through the streets of New York. Oops, and here’s Kinski again, at Valley Forge, where someone scolds her: “Miss New York, you wouldn’t come to war.” Hello? Wasn’t she there on that Brooklyn battlefield on the very first day of the war? Sheesh. Even the characters in the movie don’t know what’s going on.
There are, in the film’s most pointless subplot, hints of buggery among the British soldiers, who are all caricatures of either twits or sadists. Sergeant Major Peasy (Donald Sutherland: Instinct, Virus, with another chalk-on-a-board accent) has kidnapped Ned, apparently because “his lordship” the general needs young boys to, er, “polish his boots.” But it doesn’t matter in the end what happens to Ned or anyone else: you won’t give a fig about the fate of a single character here.
Dirty, rainy, gray, grim, and muddy, Revolution is like a Monty Python movie they forgot to add the jokes to. Only not as funny.
Jefferson in love
Go back another 13 years, to 1972, and you find the lively musical comedy 1776. Based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway production, here, finally, is a movie about the American Revolution that’s bursting with the passion and personality of the momentous events it depicts.
In “foul, fetid, fuming, foggy, filthy Philadelphia,” the Second Continental Congress has been doing nothing for a year. General George Washington writes asking for food, munitions, and money, and sends news of British soldiers and hired mercenaries heading toward New York. The proposals by Massachusetts representative John Adams (William Daniels) to debate American independence continue to be ignored. Congressional president John Hancock (David Ford) is barely able to keep order as debates come to fisticuffs.
Adams and Dr. Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva: The Lost Weekend) manipulate, through clever song, blueblood twit Richard Henry Lee (Ron Holgate) to get his state of Virginia to propose independence, but Congress thwarts Adams again, now deciding that any vote on independence must be unanimous. As much to gain time to win over the opposition as anything else, Adams suggests that they need an actual, written Declaration of Independence to vote on, and buys a few weeks for its composition.
And here’s where 1776 really gets fun, with a bit of G-rated raunch. Another witty song sees Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) chosen as the best man to author the document, but he hasn’t seen his wife in six months, and, well, there’s only one thing he can think about, and it ain’t writing. So Adams gets Martha Jefferson to come up to Philly for a conjugal visit, and what’s this? She’s none other than Blythe Danner (The Love Letter, Mad City), who looks so much like her daughter Gwyneth Paltrow that a comparison with Shakespeare in Love seems inevitable. Martha’s mere presence inspires her husband to write what Adams later terms “a masterful expression of American mind” just as Viola inspired Will Shakespeare to write one of his greatest plays. And when Adams and Franklin wonder exactly what it is Martha sees in a man who barely talks, she sings to them: “He plays the violin,” the result of which is, “my strings are unstrung,” which either makes violin-playing one of the great metaphors for lovemaking, or Martha Jefferson the world’s first groupie. I’m guessing the former — when Martha’s visit has the intended effect, curing Jefferson’s writer’s block, Franklin says, “God bless a man who can fiddle.”
Adams, too, is portrayed as a real man, not a mythic figure, one who longs for his wife, too. (“I burn, Mr. A.,” Jefferson sings in protest, looking for an escape from penning the Declaration. “So do I, Mr. J.,” Adams replies.) In sung letters to each other, he, in Philly, and Abigail (Virginia Vestoff), in Boston, project a warm, loving, passionate, delectably contentious relationship, as when she bargains for sewing pins in exchange for getting the Massachusetts Bay ladies together to make saltpeter for gunpowder.
“Don’t worry, John,” Franklin says to Adams, “the history books will clean it up.” Too bad. History class in school was never a much fun as 1776.
viewed at home on a small screen
viewed at home on a small screen