Clint O’Connor: Why Does Hollywood Ignore the American Revolution?

Roundup: Talking About History

Clint O’Connor, in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (7-3-05):

It’s a pitch no Hollywood studio could refuse: “A ragtag gang of revolutionaries takes on the greatest empire the world has ever known – and wins!”

It’s backed by those five turnstile-turning words: “based on a true story.”

It has everything producers want: violence, epic scope, great characters and instant name-recognition, and achieves both anti-government aggression and teary-eyed patriotism.

So why has the American Revolution been such a zero in Hollywood?

Both world wars, the Civil War, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War all have a pantheon of great films reveling in their glorious deeds or decrying their insanity.

The Revolutionary War, 1775-1781, has . . . well, that Mel Gibson movie (“The Patriot”), and there was the one with Al Pacino that bombed (“Revolution”), and the musical from the Broadway show (“1776”).

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and company have overflowed bookshelves. Recent biographies of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton sold well, and David McCullough’s “1776” is No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction best-sellers’ list. But the Founding Fathers have failed to wow them on the big screen. Why?

“ ‘Gone With the Wind’ has such a strong influence on our mythology that the Civil War represents the greatest war,” said local film historian and author Louis Giannetti. “We all dutifully studied the American Revolution in school and then moved on to the more interesting epoch. There’s more poignancy in the Civil War, and it’s all-American.”

The American Film Institute’s list of the “100 Greatest Movies” includes 16 war or war-related films. None chronicles the Revolutionary War. The Korean War is also lightly represented, although it does have “M*A*S*H.” Even the Russian Revolution (“Doctor Zhivago”) ranks in the top 40....

You would think the bloody, heroic tales of colonists uniting against British tyranny would make for cinematic fire, even if it were not especially true.

“It’s the seminal myth of America that we were created as a unified people out of revolution,” said Ron Hoffman, the Pullen Professor of History at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. “The truth is we have always been deeply divided over liberty.”

In fact, the colonies were a hotbed of hatred between pro- and anti-British factions. “There was a civil war within the country and a great deal of violence,” said Hoffman, who also directs the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg....

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/26/2006

There have been many romantic stories set in the Civil War period, and countless tales about slavery, but Hollywood has passed up doing the lives of two American giants, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. A biography of either would make a great movie, with Lee probably the better choice, since nothing about him is controversial and he was the more impressive figure. They have never done Lincoln in his war years, either. Accordingly, I don't think there is any discrimination against the Revolutionary War. Hollywood just doesn't do anything these days which would make Americans proud of their history.

Vernon Clayson - 7/6/2005

Hollywood ignores the revolution because they can't figure out how to portray George Washington tongue kissing a near naked Martha, or how to portray Benjamin Franklin, supposedly a philanderer. He's pretty well established as bespeckled, jowly, bald old man with a bad haircut, how could the viewing public accept Julia Roberts as one of his women, Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies would fit but she's dead. Just joking, the reason is there is no message to be made at this late date, the revolution was a success, Americans won and history hasn't brought up crimes against prisoners or the killing of innocent civilians that anyone would believe after 230 years of good press. I imagine the only producer who could do justice to tearing down that 230 years of good press would be Michael Moore, the ugly bastard has no conscience and would have no problem making Washington look bad. He could say Washington took drugs and was a drunk and didn't show up for some colonial Army meetings.