Hollywood has often turned to American history for stirring and patriotic historical films, but the War of Independence has proven to be the most difficult period to portray. This is not because the conflict between Britain and the American colonies lacks exciting vignettes: the Boston tea party, the first shots fired at Lexington, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and Washington crossing the Delaware are just a few of the noteworthy events that can be dramatised for the screen. Rather, the subject is surrounded by acute sensitivities, and films that engage with it often raise controversies and objections from both critics and audiences.
1. Drums Along the Mohawk
Dir: John Ford, USA, 1939. With Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert
A key problem in making films about the War of Independence is that Americans continue to regard the country’s founding fathers with great reverence. Films that portray them as flesh and blood characters could easily cause offence, while films that portray them as untarnished heroes are likely to be dull.
Another problem lies in having the British as villains. It was not always politic or profitable to portray the USA’s chief ally, and Hollywood’s best export market, as the enemy. The makers of Drums Along the Mohawk avoided these problems by banishing both the founding fathers and the British from the story.
This is a homespun tale rather than a political one, centred on a fictional frontiersman, Gil Martin (Henry Fonda), who marries a city girl, Lana (Claudette Colbert), and takes her to live in a log cabin in the wilds of upstate New York. The film portrays the real brutality of the war in that region: the Martins’ cabin is burnt to the ground, their crops are destroyed, and when Gil joins the local militia he is nearly killed in battle. In the ending, they are cornered with their neighbours in a besieged fort, and escape impending death only when the Continental Army arrives in the nick of time.
Crucially, though, the British are seldom seen and never heard in this film. The enemy is identified as a single American loyalist, who leads a group of Native Americans to terrorise the settlers. Thus, Drums Along the Mohawk seems like a western and, with its sentiment and humour, it fits easily within director John Ford’s body of work.
It is also a visually stunning film, with the then unusual qualities of vivid Technicolor and location shooting (admittedly in Utah rather than New York). Thus, even if it did not please historians, this proved to be the least controversial and most popular of all films set during the revolutionary period.
But is it accurate? Violent battles took place in the Mohawk Valley between 1777 and 1781, and, as in the film, farms were destroyed, civilians were killed, and forts served as shelters. But it is a gross distortion to depict the war solely as one between settlers and Native Americans. The local Iroquois tribes did fight for the loyalist cause, but British troops played a more prominent role than indicated here. Furthermore, the film ignores the fact that the Continental Army and local militias raided and destroyed Iroquois settlements in the region.
Dir: Hugh Hudson, UK, 1985. With Al Pacino, Sid Owen, Nastassja Kinski
A British-made film about the War of Independence was never likely to succeed with American audiences, but the box-office failure of this expensive, high-profile film did not necessarily stem from nationalistic prejudice. Revolution is surprisingly even-handed. True, the American patriots are portrayed as excitable rabble, but the sadistic British are hardly the heroes of the film.
The closest the film comes to having a hero is Tom Dobbs (Al Pacino), an illiterate widower looking after his young son, Ned (Sid Owen). Tom has no political interests, but despite his best efforts to stay out of the war, he becomes caught in the maelstrom. He is treated contemptuously by both sides: the Americans force him to enlist and, after he deserts, a group of British officers use him as their fox and chase him with dogs in a hunting game. Predictably, his conversion to the American side comes when Ned is thrashed by a British officer. Another formulaic element is Tom’s relationship with the rebellious daughter of a loyalist family (Natassja Kinski).
But Revolution is otherwise a rarity among historical films. The period itself is not romanticised, but instead looks primitive and impoverished. The war is a squalid affair, devoid of heroism. And Tom is a victim rather than a shaper of events. Only his final statement suggests that there is some form of progress or destiny in this story: “We’re going to find us a place where there ain’t no one to bow down to, where there ain’t no lord or lady better than you”.
The lack of historical uplift, together with the film’s murky visual palette, and the director’s penchant for hand-held cameras and long-takes, makes Revolution a distinctly challenging film, but not one without value or interest.
But is it accurate? The war is defined here not simply as one between Americans intent on liberty and their British oppressors, but as a civil war between British colonists – whose sympathies change according to which side is winning. It is a cynical view but one more accurate than most films care to admit. Less impressively, 4 July never looked so bleak: it is obvious that Revolution was filmed in England, and apparently in a cold and wet winter.
3. The Patriot
Dir: Roland Emmerich, USA, 2000. With Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs
The Patriot was not the first feature film to portray the British as the heinous villains of the War of Independence. The Spirit of ’76 (1917), made by the American Robert Goldstein, depicted a catalogue of British atrocities against American civilians. Released months after the USA joined Britain in the First World War, the film was seized and its producer sent to prison. Neither The Patriot’s director Roland Emmerich nor the star Mel Gibson suffered such consequences for their own gratuitously anti-British film.
In The Patriot, as in both Drums Along the Mohawk and Revolution, the leading character is an American intent on remaining neutral. Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), a South Carolina legislator, greets news of the Declaration of Independence by asking “why should I trade one tyrant 3,000 miles away for 3,000 tyrants one mile away?” But that is before a melodramatically ruthless British officer, Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs), burns Martin’s farm, kills his son and gives orders for wounded Americans to be executed. Martin then seeks his revenge.
While this motivation is invented, the characters are loosely based on real people. Martin has similarities with Francis Marion, the ‘Swamp Fox’, who used guerrilla tactics against British troops in South Carolina. Tavington has similarities with Banastre Tarleton, a British cavalry officer with a reputation for burning homes and slaughtering enemy troops as they tried to surrender.
Yet the film’s attempt to reduce the war to a bitter feud between a reluctant everyman and a vicious Englishman owes more to Gibson’s earlier films (especially Braveheart, 1995) than it does to the historical record. The Patriot overlooks the messier truth that in South Carolina, as elsewhere, the fighting was often between American loyalists and American patriots.
But is it accurate? Among the film’s many inaccuracies, two stand out. First, the film suggests that the War of Independence was a liberating experience for African Americans too, and also that the field workers on Martin’s farm are ‘free men’ rather than slaves. Both notions are hopelessly far-fetched and seem to deny that slavery in the South continued for another 80 years.
Second, Tavington orders his troops to murder an entire village by barricading the villagers in their church and setting it alight. This has no corollary in the War of Independence, but resembles an atrocity in France during the Second World War. Little wonder, then, that there was an uproar when The Patriot reached London.
Other films about the American War of Independence:
(Dir: DW Griffith, USA, 1924)
Real events are marginalised by a fictional story about a commoner in love with a loyalist’s daughter.
(Dir: Frank Lloyd, USA, 1940)
In one of his oddest roles, Cary Grant stars as a buckskinned pioneer who marries into a loyalist family.
(Dir: Robert Stevenson, USA, 1957)
A Disney film, starring Hal Stalmaster, that offers a boy’s own view of the Boston tea party.
(Dir: Peter Hunt, USA, 1972)
This was a hit musical on Broadway, but few film goers wanted to see the war celebrated in song and dance.
Mark Glancy teaches film history at Queen Mary University of London. He is the co-editor of The New Film History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)