by Gary Gordon
The other night Jay Leno did one of his man-on-the-street interviews of folks at Universal Citywalk, asking them simple questions about the American Revolution. What year was the Declaration of Independence written and adopted? Who did we fight for independence? When was Washington president? Can you complete the phrase, "Taxation without _______?"
The answers he aired featured blank or bewildered looks and were funny and dismal. It turns out Washington was president in the 1920s, and Lincoln was president in the 1940s. On this time-scale, we have WWII, Vietnam and Reagan to look forward to and endure.
And some were pretty darn sure it was the Germans we fought to gain our independence. I'm pretty sure they weren't referencing the Hessian troops at Trenton.
No one got it right. But this isn't really surprising. The American Revolution is the forgotten war in American history. Want confirmation? Go to a bookstore and see how many books there are in the American History section on the American Revolution, especially as compared to the Civil War, WWII or Vietnam. Name movies about the American Revolution. I can think of four: "Drums Along The Mohawk", "1776", "Revolution", and, stretching it a bit, Disney's "Johnny Tremain".
As a 60s and 70s activist, I used to believe that the American establishment, in D.C. and Hollywood, wanted to bury the revolution because they didn't want to stir up trouble. The last thing you want to do when you're running illegal wars and covert ops all over the world against democratically-elected leaders and revolutionaries is remind your own public of the vital details of its origins and the value of the actual practice of democracy.
In the 80s I saw Reagan and the right-wing periodically reference the American Revolution as justification for attacking government. This ignorant trend continued in the 90s, as if the American Revolution was a revolt against all government, all the time, instead of a revolt against unjust and unrepresentative government and a revolution for a system of government that would be just and representative.
Now I think something more terrifying is at work: Hollywood story structure combined with the reknown failure of our education system. Exhibit number one: The Patriot.
While the acting, directing, and cinematography in The Patriot are all fine, and some of its depictions of the "the way it was back then" are viscerally stirring, the choices made regarding the storytelling-the protagonist and his arc-doom it.
Where The Patriot fails is precisely where a lot of movies fail: the writer and producers chose to stick with a formula that does not allow for the hero to be heroic from the beginning. So we are saddled with another reluctant hero. This is because modern American movie drama requires the hero to progress thru an arc of behavior so he (or she) can change. If the hero starts out good and heroic, the thinking goes, it diminishes the possibilities of change and therefore reduces what conventionally passes as drama in American cinema.
Now there's nothing inherently wrong with this story structure and much right about it in that it generally satisfies the audiences' requirements for entertainment.
The problem arises when historic events are at stake. Here, the implication is that people who fought for the ideals of the American Revolution are less interesting than someone who was at first reluctant and then gets involved only when a personal tragedy is suffered. Put another way: if the Continental Army or Colonial Militia had killed one of Mel Gibson's character's sons, would he have then fought for the British, against the Revolution? The answer, relative to this movie's storyline, is yes. Ideals are secondary.
And in the American Revolution, ideals were not secondary.
Now I'm sure there are some folks reading this who are about to rush to their computers to write screeds suggesting I'm pie-in-the-sky na´ve, that the American Revolution was sponsored by wealthy, white land speculators and slave-owners who had no interest in freedom and democracy. There is some truth in that. But it's not the whole truth, because somewhere early on it was necessary to write things like the Declaration of Independence and involve "the masses" in order to defeat the British, and that's a whole lot of hoops to envision, create, jump thru and maintain in order to score a few acres in the Illinois territory. Certainly, if true, then the joke was on them when Martin Luther King and others used those very documents and ideals to overturn much of what was left of the slave system in the 1960s.
If the American Revolution was not about ideals, would Tom Paine have described those days as "the times that try men's souls"?
So the shame of this movie is the writer and director and producers opted for the conventional Hollywood story arc and imprinted it on this historical event, and they didn't have to.
Gibson's character is modeled on three or four partisan leaders including Francis Marion (a.k.a. The Swamp Fox). These leaders were essentially guerrilla fighters fighting the invading British similar to the way the Viet Cong fought American invaders in Vietnam roughly 200 years later. In my reading, none of them fought the British because they had a son killed by Tarleton or someone like him; all fought for home country (which might've meant colony) against distant government and invading troops; for the ideal of freedom from tyranny.
So why choose to have a reluctant hero? Why not choose to tell Francis Marion's story, or the story of the character played by Chris Cooper? Is it because we, as an audience, don't understand revolution as we do understand World War II? Do we not accept the notion that Americans readily fought for freedom against the British as we accept the notion that we readily fought against the Japs and Krauts? After all, we don't question Tom Hanks' motivation in Saving Private Ryan. No arc is built on a reluctance to enlist when it comes to the multitude of WWII movies. So why must heroes in movies about our Revolution be reluctant? Washington did not say "Um, maybe we should cross the Delaware-well, I don't know." Nathan Hale did not say "Big mistake. Should'a stayed at the 7-11." No, we would not have beaten the British Empire and won our independence if we'd been reluctant.
The further shame, or missed opportunity, is that the movie only touched on but really didn't incorporate another truth: many colonists throughout the colonies were for the King, and especially in the South, many colonists and militiamen switched sides, back and forth. A lot. So you have some people fighting for ideals, and some people switching sides, perhaps for survival. But again, not the smarmy, sentimental reluctance of Gibson's character. At one point Continental Army General Nathaniel Greene was said to have observed that his army was composed of many British deserters fighting a British army composed of many former colonial militia.
Instead of exploring this fascinating story in The Patriot, the producers and writer chose to downplay and distort slavery and the fact that many slaves escaped and fought with the British because the British offered freedom. Also missed was that many Indians fought on the side of the British because the British treated the Indian tribes as sovereign nations (and even tried to draw a line over which American colonial settlement was not to cross and intrude on Indian land).
Also left out is that Tarleton's savagery was not confined to the British, nor was Gibson's character's savagery confined to the French & Indian War. American soldiers on the frontier (like those lead by George Rogers Clark) were ruthless in their fight against the Indians allied with the British, warrior and civilian alike, burning villages, murdering women and children.
Okay, it's just a movie. But my argument is that choices were made for inferior reasons, and those choices were unnecessary as the truth was just as dramatic.
Unfortunately, the sad fact is, in these modern times we don't understand revolution. (Hell, most people don't even want to take the time, or have the attention span, to follow a train of thought or sit in a meeting to work through a difficult decision.) We don't want to acknowledge that revolution is a bloody mess of ideals and dreams and fears perpetuated by heroes and opportunists, and rarely does revolution have the overwhelming support of the population. This lack of understanding is why, in part, we have found it so easy to condemn the Cuban revolution (against an American-supported dictator), the Iranian revolution (against an American-supported dictator) and other revolutions for the violence, the ruthlessness, and for the aftermath effects on loyalists-cum-refugees. A study of our revolution reveals many, many of those who sided with the British were chased from their homes, their property was seized, many suffered violence at the hands of the victors, and many fled the country. (It makes Lincoln's offer of amnesty and his statement regarding "malice toward none" that much more astounding and profound.)
This is not to equate all these revolutions; it is to suggest there are some common occurrences: victors grabbing spoils, losers fleeing is one of them.
One thing The Patriot got right, but perhaps didn't do enough of: revolutions are violent. Why, when the wife and son of one of Gibson's men are killed is there no blood?
To what extent any of this matters is, of course, the question, though not the kind of question asked on popular quiz shows.
One imagines Regis Philbin asking "Why is it important that we know our history?" The multiple choice answers are: 1) Because. 2) So we can pass the test. 3) Is this really a multiple choice question? And 4) Chevy Chase.
And one imagines Jay Leno asking folks at Universal Citywalk if Tarleton's actions in South Carolina can be equated to Calley's actions at My Lai in Vietnam (for example) and getting a blank look for a response.
Better that people be asked if they really want Bush or Gore to continue making war on Iraqi civilians and turning Columbia into the next Vietnam.
Of course, if Leno would only come to Santa Monica, he wouldn't get those blank looks and incorrect answers.