Why Are There No Great American Revolution Films?

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Inspired by a flippant Twitter debate regular contributor Rob Girvan began to ruminate on the question posed above. Here are his expanded thoughts on the subject. 

It is safe to say that the American Revolution represents one of the most significant periods in modern human history . The war, between the thirteen colonies that made up America at that time, and the forces of the British Empire, lasted from 1775–83. After considerable bloodshed, the country we now know as The United States of America was founded, and by extension, our modern history. July 4th was marked as Independence Day, and so it has been the case ever since.  

Almost one hundred years after America won the war; the film camera was invented, and has since become a staple of entertainment in the USA. But what hasn’t emerged in the past century is a truly definitive film about the American Revolution. In comparison, there have been many films that take place during the Civil War, ranging from The Birth Of A Nation, right through to this year’s Lincoln. That war was far more destructive, and its effects long lasting, than the War of Independence. Other dark periods of the nation’s history, such as Vietnam have also received considerable cinematic attention.  

Yet the Revolution, a war which most people would agree was just, has simply not commanded the same attention. There have of course been attempts to portray the events of the period but none of them have really hit the mark.  For example, there was the filmed version of the musical 1776, which is generally seen by many as the best American Revolution film (due I suspect to being shown in classrooms across the nation), but is frankly let down by some not so great tunes. 

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In the 1980s, Goldcrest Films (who also produced Local Hero, The Killing Fields and Chariots of Fire) rolled the dice on making a true historical epic set during those times. The result was Revolution, a 1985 film directed by Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire). Starring a woefully miscast Al Pacino (who at least tries his best with the material), a bizarre turn by Donald Sutherland and a leading role for future Eastender Sid Owen, Revolution is a plodding account of one man’s view of the war. It wants to be an epic in the Lean tradition (although shot in a documentary style), but fails to deliver. There is one slightly impressive large scale battle, but it is surrounded by a lot of people standing around talking. That may have been the reality of the war of many, but it doesn’t make for interesting drama. A Director’s Cut was released a few years ago, which trimmed the film by a few minutes and added in an Al Pacino narration (recorded for the release) to better explain his characters motivations. To be honest, it doesn’t add much.  

Revolution cost at the time a massive $28 million to make, and only made $346,761 in the United States. Al Pacino vanished from the big screen for four years, only to return in the superb Sea of Love

And then of course we come to the year 2000 and The Patriot. Director Roland Emmerich went to the tonal opposite of Revolution, and created a huge war movie, with sneering villains, poor but noble American families, a heroic Mel Gibson and absolutely no mention of the brutality of slavery (despite being set in the Southern States). 

The Patriot, contrary to modern perceptions, was a pretty big hit and had a fairly decent critical reception at the time. Accusations of white washing, and simplifying the war are accurate. While the British was brutal in their suppression, a scene in which they burn a church full of innocent Americans has no basis in history, and is aimed primarily at trying to turn the soldiers into proto-Nazi’s so we can cheer when Mel starts killing them.  The Revolution was a bitter war, and many Americans continued to support the Crown. Communities turned on each other. For most of the war New York supported Britain. Any film about the War of Independence cannot ignore these realities. 

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But, what matters history, when there is an action movie to make? One of the things that The Patriot does get right is the portrayal of warfare. Massed ranks get cut down by cannon. In one memorable scene we see a bouncing cannonball take the head off a soldier. It is also pretty good at showing the human cost of war, families are wiped out, and characters we think will be heroes lose their lives before the third act. 

While they are cartoons, Jason Isaacs and Tom Wilkinson have tremendous fun giving masterclasses in over the top villainy. Mel Gibson is Mel Gibson, and Heath Ledger shows some of the charisma that he would bring to later projects.

And that is it – the sum total of major cinematic portrayals of the Revolution. There have been other pictures, but none of them have really hit the public consciousness. 

Why has there never been a great film based on this time period? There are perhaps a few answers. Firstly, it was a very complex war. In comparison, the Civil War was straightforward. One side against the other. North vs South. Grey vs Blue. In the Revolution, Americans fought for the Crown; indeed even people who supported the war would toast the King. Getting these subtle, but important, elements into a film is a challenge, and one which many studios would retreat from. 

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There is also a theory that Americans are by nature conservative (with a small c) and as such do not like to focus on periods of radicalism. For example the Boston Tea Party isn’t called the Boston Revolt or the Boston Uprising. The choice of Tea Party is interesting as it is used as shield for the true events to hide behind.  This is a controversial viewpoint, but there may be some truth in it. 

Lastly studios are not risk takers. This is an industry which will likely not make another film set on Mars for a couple of decades due to a few flops. If the American Revolution hasn’t sold well in the past, they reason, why would it sell well in the future? 

There have been examples of the time period done right. For example, the recent HBO adaptation of John Adams laid out the politics of the period in excellent fashion. It did body swerve the actual War, but it remains the best portrayal of that period on either the big or small screen.  

While set some two decades before the start of revolution, Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans does a good job of showing how the seeds of the war were planted, while also giving the most realistic vision of warfare in those days. It has the realism of Hudson’s Revolution, but backed up with the scale of technical expertise that would later be developed in The Patriot.  

But there is still a massive hole in American cinema. There is a no great film. That everyone ends up watching an alien invasion film says it all. To make an American Revolution film is a challenge, but if done right, a director could see themselves lensing a future classic. Maybe on this 4th July, someone out there will have decided that it is finally time to make that movie. We live in hope. 

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  1. Growing up in the 70s the primary source for motion pictures about the American Revolution were television movies. I don’t remember all of them, but it was one of the few pieces of history that interested me when I was a a kid. The bicentennial was pushing a great deal of that, and while I can’t name them, there were several “enjoyable when I was a kid” American Revolution television movies.

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