PBS'S 'Rebels and Redcoats': Revisionist History?

Roundup: Talking About History

From the New York Times (June 23 2004):

Since Sept. 11, television has done a decent job of explaining why they hate us. Tonight PBS reveals why they have always hated us."Rebels and Redcoats: How Britain lost America" is a wickedly revisionist view of the American Revolution, a"Fahrenheit 1776."

When American soldiers are fighting Iraqi insurgents under a besieged banner of freedom and democracy, some viewers may not relish a re-examination of the Stamp Act and Yorktown from the point of view of the British Crown. And certainly the narrator, the British military historian Richard Holmes, gets a bit carried away in the heat of battle re-enactment."Unsportingly," he says,"the Americans were picking off British officers who were easily identifiable by their scarlet rather than their faded red uniforms."

But the two-part documentary, being shown tonight and next Wednesday, is an engaging upside-down look at a period of American history that few Americans ever question. It may not be exactly fair — the British bias is blatant — but it is fairly accurate. Mostly, it gives viewers a sense of the world's more jaundiced view of a revolution that Americans cherish as a triumph of democracy and human rights. And a little like Michael Moore's polemical films, the documentary delivers its most striking indictments not in the facts but in the sly visual juxtapositions.

Mr. Holmes begins by taking viewers on a tour of Boston, a city that in the 1770's was a boom town and, in his words, a"tax-free haven." (He points out that colonists there paid 50 percent of the taxes paid by their English compatriots back home.)

Dressed for American success in a Ralph Lauren dress shirt and driving a red Mustang convertible, he avoids the quaint cobbled side streets of Cambridge and Beacon Hill, preferring a flashy backdrop of shops, fast food outlets and even a dip inside the Boston Stock Exchange. Against that display of modern consumerism, Mr. Holmes describes 18th-century Boston as a city"full of people on the make," some, he says, who"felt their freedom to make money and get rich was being restricted."

British troops are portrayed with sympathy. After the battle of Concord, British soldiers stumble on the body of a dying comrade, scalped, his ears and other parts cut off in what Mr. Holmes describes as"the first atrocity of the war."

John Hancock is described as a rich merchant and smuggler, which is a bit of British overstatement. Margaret Kemble, the American-born wife of Thomas Gage, the British commander of North America, is believed by many historians to have been a rebel spy. Here she is a saucy temptress whose act of"personal betrayal" looks as much like adultery as espionage.

Mr. Holmes tries to explain the rebels' point of view, but a British sensibility dominates."Rebels and Redcoats" relies on costumed re-enactments of battles and key historic moments and also on the vivid narration of the bald and bespectacled Mr. Holmes, who gamely tramps through swamps, forests and fields, and travels in an amphibious vessel, a bus, a jeep and even, by the time he reaches the pivotal battle of Cowpens in South Carolina, astride a white horse. (As British losses pile up, Mr. Holmes reveals his true allegiance, trading Ralph Lauren shirts for a Barbour jacket.)

The program does not raise new issues but follows the more politically correct interpretation of history found in books like Joy Hakim's multivolume textbook,"A History of Us," that so irritate many conservatives and others.

Mr. Holmes underlines the revolution's moral failure to end slavery and explains that the Proclamation Line of 1763, which was intended to prevent colonists from seizing territory beyond the Appalachians, was created by the British partly to protect Indian populations from land-hungry frontiersmen.

Mr. Holmes spends quite a bit of time on David George, a slave who joined the British side to gain his freedom, and even attends a Sunday service in the Silver Bluffs, Ga., church that George founded. He is openly contemptuous of slave-owning freedom fighters, saying of George Washington that"the father of American liberty was only for freedom if it did not apply to his black brethren or slaves..."

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Matthew Lind - 5/15/2005

"It may not be exactly fair — the British bias is blatant — but it is fairly accurate." How can something not be "fair," but at the same time, "accurate." Isn't the idea behind this documentary to challenge all of the assumptions we carry with us from our grade school education? I just watched this video, and I almost teared up during its discussion of Washington's exploits. The point is, it is impossible to tell a story without a point of view. Whether that point of view is "fair" or not depends on whether you agree with it or not. As long as Holmes gets his facts straight, I am happy to listen to his opinions--much in the same way I enjoyed the series "Liberty" on PBS.

Jimbo Babineaux - 7/2/2004

I think it was a good program. I enjoyed the British perspective, or slant if you wish to call it that.