November 29, 2003

Remedial Thanksgiving Work

The Thirteen-Year-Old's American history teacher has announced that the class is going to skip straight from the causes of the American Revolution to the Constitution, skipping the entire Revolutionary War.

So we are going to do some remedial work: reading the collected works of Richard Ketchum (Decisive Day, Saratoga, and Winter Soldiers) and watching The Patriot, the Last of the Mohicans, and a three-tape documentary.

Question: why is The Patriot so long? Would anything have been lost if it were a 90 minute movie rather than a 145 minute movie?

Posted by DeLong at November 29, 2003 01:16 PM | TrackBack


Maybe it's like Das Boot, director's cut. It's somewhere near four hours and could probably have been cut down a lot without losing any real "content" or "plot". But it wouldn't be the same movie without lengthy scenes of heavy breathing over the muffled profanity of sweating men contemplating immanent death.

I've never put much thought into Patriot, so I won't comment specifically on that.

Mozart is to have said, if I recall correctly, that to understand music one must first understand silence, for silence is the canvas upon which musical art is painted. That's a paraphrase but I think the general idea is correct.

Maybe, analogously, the impact of the "important" events in a movie depends directly on the ostensively more bland context in which such events are placed.

I don't know that your question was asking for an answer from aesthetic philosophy (or pesudo-philosophy since you're hearing it from my mouth), but this is the first thought that comes to mind.

Posted by: Michael on November 29, 2003 01:54 PM


If only they cut out that scene where they burn down the church with everyone in it, it would be a good movie.

Posted by: Bobby on November 29, 2003 01:59 PM


"The Patriot" -- or as I like to call it, "Death Wish 1776" -- is a travesty and a farce. Think twice before watching it as an exercise in history.

The real story of South Carolina's Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, "The Swamp Fox," was told in my youth by Disney, with Leslie Nielson playing the role. Mel Gibson's fictionalization only diminishes the tale -- not least of all by casting about artlessly for a name to replace "Swamp Fox."

The rest of the movie is just attractive white people from the '90s pretending to be involved in a revolution.

Posted by: Daniel Hatch on November 29, 2003 02:55 PM


Daniel Hatch is correct. The Patriot is a marginally entertaining action movie, with no real connection to the past beyond the costuming. There's probably a good movie about the Revolution, but I can't really think of one off the top of my head.

Posted by: Neel Krishnaswami on November 29, 2003 04:57 PM


Good God! If it's not too late, avoid 'The Patriot' at all costs! It's about as historically accurate as 'Blazing Saddles' and a lot less funny.

If you need a Revolutionary War film, and your kid doesn't mind old black-and-white movies, try to find a copy of 'The Devil's Disciple.' It's based on a George Bernard Shaw play about Burgoyne's invasion of New York, with Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, and Laurence Olivier.

Posted by: matebir on November 29, 2003 05:22 PM


What a strange curriculum choice - the Revolutionary War is narratively interesting, and I would expect it to be on standardized tests of knowledge, should such worldly concerns apply.

Posted by: clew on November 29, 2003 07:08 PM


I don't know anything about The Patriot, but The Last of the Mohicans is a very good movie, even if it is about the French and Indian Wars and not the Revolutionary War, and even if it doesn't follow the book exactly. A lot of boys like the book.

For a lot of guys who do outdoors type work, especially, that is usually one of their favorite books.

My sister's ex-boyfriend watched that movie over and over again, and his parents were Holocaust survivors. I never really figured out the exact connection to the story for him, just New World fatalism, I guess.

Posted by: northernLights on November 29, 2003 08:03 PM


The Patriot is just awful even in its own terms as an adventure movie, and is most unlikely to have any value as history to boot. They could at least have cast an American in the lead role rather than one of my compatriots.

I haven't seen the film of the Devils Disciple, but I've read the play. Its full of the usual brilliant Shavian wit, as well as the usual dreadful Shavian shit (he really had read too much Nietszche). But regardless, it isn't really about the American revolution, any more than St Joan was about the Hundred Years War.

There is certainly at least one great epic movie about the American revolution yet to be made - it needs a director who is not interested in just cashing in on cheap jingoism but wants to make something more enduring, with strong resonances. What's Francis Ford Coppola doing these days?

Posted by: derrida derider on November 29, 2003 09:34 PM


Maybe they should see "Sweet Liberty" beforehand, that should help them getting perspective on film values.


Posted by: Antoni Jaume on November 30, 2003 02:35 AM


They might have had to leave out some of the atrocities from WW2, which I think would have given a thoroughly inaccurate picture of the revolution.

1776 is one of HM's favorite movies, and a fair amount of the dialogue is taken from primary sources. I would definitely put it on the list.

Posted by: julia on November 30, 2003 02:54 AM


While you're doing your remedial on the Revolutionary War, Brad and kids, you might want to look into the numbers: the revolutionary warriors were the violent minority; most of the colonists were loyal to Britain, whence came their freedoms. Tories and Whigs, not yer republican-democratic rabble.

Tar and feathers were the main principles of the American revolution, so you ended up with the USofA, which stands for "life, liberty and the enjoyment of happiness", and Canada, land of "peace, order and good government." The fifth chapter of the original American constitution laid out the terms for the absortion of Canada. The writers were too stupid to understand why Canada didn't want to be absorbed.

Class assignment: consider whether peace, order and good government are the precursor essentials of life, liberty and the enjoyment of happiness.

Posted by: David Lloyd-Jones on November 30, 2003 06:21 AM



Might I suggest an addition to the Thirteen Year Old's reading list: the American Heritage Book of the Revolution. Written by Bruce lancaster, forward by Bruce Catton. A marvelous read. Out of print, but I was able to find a copy on Amazon's used books section may wll have it.

I have been told has just been released, under a slightly differant title, available through the History Book Club. Not certain about that, though.

Posted by: Steven Rogers on November 30, 2003 07:58 AM


Allow me to add my voice to those suggesting Patriot is not a good movie to use if the goal is education.

Posted by: Ian Welsh on November 30, 2003 11:08 AM


Hmmm. I don't really agree with the comment "the revolutionary warriors were the violent minority; most of the colonists were loyal to Britain." Some areas - like upstate New York and parts of the South - had strong loyalist elements, others - like New England and Virginia - were overwhelmingly pro-patriot, while many places and perhaps most people shifted their allegiances with the tides of war. We'll never know the details, since they didn't conduct many opinion polls during the Revolutionary War. Still, it seems that the patriots were stronger overall, or at least far more dynamic, since the loyalists were never able to gain secure control of any area unless they were directly supported by British troops. And while both sides used coercion, I don't think it was applied systematically enough to have a decisive effect on public opinion.

Back to movies... I'd mentioned that 'The Devil's Disciple' was a fine old film, and so it is - but Derrida Derider is right, it has lots of wit and fine acting, but minimal insight into the revolution. You'd do better with '1776' as Julia suggested. But it is strange, isn't it? The Revolutionary War was dramatic, was rich with vivid personalities and stirring issues, was central to American history - and had great costumes - but no one has ever made a really great film about it. Bizarre.

Posted by: matebir on November 30, 2003 11:29 AM


If "Johnny Tremaine" is availabe at your video store, it's a much better piece of historical fiction than "The Patriot."

Posted by: Daniel Hatch on November 30, 2003 12:26 PM



You shd add The Madness of King George III to the Thirteen Year Old's viewing (even substitute it for The Patriot if it's as bad as some are saying).

It's a pretty good depiction of the British society and regime that the American colonists are getting out of, with its awkward mix of ancien regime monarchy and rowdy parliamentarism, and it's a great film. The colonies are mentioned!


Posted by: Will on November 30, 2003 01:02 PM


The Patriot is at least as bad as everyone's been saying. If what you're interested in is getting some feel for what the actual combat might have looked like, I have two movies to recommend. For small-unit frontier-style warfare I'd second Last of the Mohicans; for a sense of eighteenth-century stand-up battles you can do no better, IMHO, than the battle scenes in Barry Lyndon (though maybe not so suitable for young ones).

Almost nothing I know of will deal with the issues of the period. The Patriot is a global-search-and-replace of Mad Max, Braveheart, and probably other Mel Gibson flicks I've forgotten about: peaceful quiet fella wants nothing more than to live in bosom of home and family, avoids involvement, finds family member(s) cruelly slaughtered, is mobilized to seek vengeance, finds same.

The revolutionary period is very hard for Americans to do right. Our period acting tends to be terrible, for one thing, and the postulates of the time are very far removed from ours and hard to render sympathetic and/or approachable.

Not to mention whether/how to deal with the violence, political strong-arming, chicanery, buck-passing, reliance on a regular army though greatly suspicious of same, and other ignoble or ambiguous actions on the part of the patriots in addition to the noble and courageous things they did. Even implying any of the former is taboo in certain circles-- see what happened with the Reagan movie-- and the real problem now would be dealing with slavery.

The real period to be depicted was messy and full of questionable actions and even claims; Hollywood (and audiences conditioned to that style) by and large wants simple tales of right and wrong. The Patriot resolved this problem by putting endless energy and research into getting the costumes right. It falsified virtually everything else. But it's hard to see how any other Hollywood effort could turn out any different.

Posted by: Altoid on November 30, 2003 03:34 PM


Mel Gibson is actually a US citizen by birth, despite spending many early years in Australia.

The rebels were probably slightly numerically superior to the active loyalists, though not to the go-along-with-things sort.

The lack of loyalist control over areas is a misleading test. Considered as a civil war, what is most important is overrunning the recruiting grounds. Outside force is needed to recover the places to stand. Even so, it's all highly misleading; of British colonies, only the central group were overrun by insurrectionary elements (who used terror tactics to keep their opponents pacified). The Floridas, the Bahamas, the "Canadian" maritime provinces, French Canada and some important outlying West Indies not in the theatre never revolted despite having rebellious types around (where do you think Hamilton came from?). The appearance that most of the colonies revolted is a statistical artefact resulting from the fact that most of those that did not were not incorporated into the USA directly after that war (Spain got the Floridas).

But things like British atrocities should be kept in perspective; Light Horse Harry Lee and his like did far worse to loyalists and Indiands than Tarleton ever did to rebels.

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence on November 30, 2003 06:07 PM


Yet another vote against that piece o' crap "The Patriot" .

As for "the real story" of Francis Marion, I wouldn't look to the Disney version either. Aside from the irony of an American hero played by a Canadian, Disney seems to have oddly overlooked some of the more colourful aspects of Marion's history, like, you know, the murders and stuff.

Posted by: Keith on November 30, 2003 07:04 PM


Yet another vote against that piece o' crap "The Patriot" .

As for "the real story" of Francis Marion, I wouldn't look to the Disney version either. Aside from the irony of an American hero played by a Canadian, Disney seems to have oddly overlooked some of the more colourful aspects of Marion's history, like, you know, the murders and stuff.

Posted by: Keith on November 30, 2003 07:11 PM


I see I don't have to post about the terrible ahistoricness of The Patriot, which was infamous when it came out. Whatever made you think to choose it as a teaching tool?

Its main faults are a)making up lots of stuff that never took place to make the British look like Nazis, and b) sugar-coating Francis Marion, who, as others have said here, was himself what would now be called a "war criminal."

The Last Of The Mohicans is one of my (long list) favorite movies, one I've watched many times, and will continue to see again and again. It's not going to teach much history, though, beyond costuming. Lots of fun, beautiful, and moving, though, so what the hey.

If you're feeling silly, and want to add to the Constitutional Convention part of the curriculum, the film of the musical 1776 is at least vaguely close to the truth, and is pretty memorable.

Good films on the Revolutionary War is a pretty thin list, I'm afraid. A tangential film might be Jefferson In Paris, but it's a rather ponderous film for a thirteen year old, I'm afraid. Of course, knowing the course of the battles isn't really terrible important, unless you're just interested. Knowing about the political problems of Washington and the States, and between and within Britain and France is of far more importance, but it's not a subject really ever dealt with in film, that I know of.

An interesting topic for a cable mini-series, it seems to me, but I'm not going to hold my breath for it to get made. I'd keep an eye out for documentaries on The History Channel, instead.

Posted by: Gary Farber on November 30, 2003 08:15 PM


Incidentally, Brad: I'd like to visit your site more often, but on the 56k connection I'm back on, it takes over five minutes to load. It would be lovely if you could make the site a tad less large.

Posted by: Gary Farber on November 30, 2003 08:21 PM


What could watching "Patriot" possibly teach you about the history of the Revolutionary War? Revolutionary War history is quite easy. MA shoots at British. Loses battle at Bunker Hill. British eventually forced out of Boston. Washington loses battle. Washington loses NYC. Washington loses another battle. Washington makes successful raid on Trenton. Washington successfully retreats avoiding the British. Washington loses another battle. British lose battle in the woods of NY. French give tacit support to independence. British quit the northern colonies and head south. British defeat Americans in Carolinas. British trash Americans in the Carolinas. British encamp at Yorktown. French troops surround British along with Washington and a few Americans. The French fleet blockades. British surrender. The French force British to surrender to Washington to increase the humiliation. Independence is won.

The American Revolutionary War is the story of an army of occupation (British) that wins all the battles against poorly trained insurgents, but loses the war (in spite of support from 1/3 of the populace). They can control the sea, the cities and the ports, but not the countryside. Eventually, the economists prevail. The costs of battle are not recoverable. Cut them loose and put more resources into more valuable possessions such as India. Of course, the French resurgence has to be dealt with at Waterloo by blood and honor. This is far cheaper than 100 years war in the Americas.

As for the length of the Patriot, 90 minutes is just not enough time for Mel to pose in front of the cameras. He needs his full 145. If you want a war movie that delivers reality watch Gallipoli. (Mel dies.)

Posted by: bakho on November 30, 2003 09:32 PM


'The Patriot'? Isn't that the one where black slaves, bless their simple cotton heads, live in blissful harmony under Massa Mel Gibson until the SS- sorry, British Redcoats, no difference- come a-lootin' and a-rapin'? If you're teaching your kids American history by letting them watch that, what next? 'Hey kids, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is all true.'

Posted by: Dan Hardie on December 1, 2003 02:24 AM


I think thirteen years is old enough for Gore Vidal's Burr, which teaches one a lot about both the war itself and the early history of the Republic. (Why oh why does Vidal turn from fine historical novelist to author of paranoid ravings once he gets to the 20th century?)

I agree with what several others have said: the absence of a truly first-rate movie about the revolutionary period is a mystery. Distance in time and outlook is no explanation: there are many good movies set in the middle to late 18th century but outside America.

Posted by: Matt on December 1, 2003 07:24 AM


I vote for "1776," since John Adams was my great-great-great-great-great-great-uncle.

In fact, "The Adams Chronicles" is probably available on tape somewhere. The first few episodes deal with John and are historically accurate.

Posted by: Daniel Hatch on December 1, 2003 08:40 AM


I would recommend an Al Pacino movie titled Revolution. I'm guessing it is 15 years old or so. I'ts a pretty good look at the common man's involvement in the war. I'd also suggest the book Cast Two Shadows by Ann Rinaldi about the Revolution as it occurred in the south. The reading level is more difficult than the school librarian says; it has a female main character,but I found that 8th grade boys liked the book as much as the girls did. Rinaldi does excellent historical fiction for the middle level. And I second the above mentioned sentiments about Patriot and 1776.

Posted by: Pam Gall on December 1, 2003 11:57 AM


Bakho, you accurately sum up what the British mpire was facing in the New World, but you leave out a rather important factor: France was doing more than just sparring with the British in America, they were actively engaged all over the world, in alliance with Spain and The Netherlands no less. In the strategic balance, the British were gravely outmatched both on land and at sea by the coalition that opposed them.

I strongly second the recommendation of the movie Revolution. Fine film.

Posted by: Steven Rogers on December 1, 2003 04:44 PM


Another vote against The Patriot. Revolution is probably more accurate re social history, but a muddled obscure plot will not be that instructive.

John Adams estimated that 1/3 of population for the revolution, 1/3 against, and 1/3 indifferent. But one post said revolutionaries didn't use coercion(!?) Tell that to the over 100,000 wealthy tories who lost their property and ended up on other colonies (for example, Canada) and who knows how many more in prison for the duration (Ben Franklins son was one of them). Or the forced requistions of property, paid for in worthless continental notes.

I don't think there are any good movies on the revolution because it is part of a very holy US mythology, our form of ancestor worship.

But there are some interesting stories that could be told, as satires or black comedies. How about Alexander Hamilton's proposal to force the Southern Planters to give citizenship to their slaves if they fought the British, and Washington's quick quash before it split the colonies in two, and how the scheme ruined the career of Hamiltion's officer buddy (the name escapes me now) who co-authored it (he was the son of a southern planter and his idea was very unwelcome at home.)

Or, the interesting history of the African American Revolutionary heroes. Washington had to go through gyrations to recognize some of them properly while not outraging the southerners.

Posted by: jml on December 1, 2003 06:06 PM


A good movie on the AWI will be a difficult hat trick. Stanly Kubrick could probably have done it. Ridley Scott might be capable of pulling it off.

Posted by: Steven Rogers on December 1, 2003 06:53 PM


jml wrote "But one post said revolutionaries didn't use coercion(!?)" I'm pretty sure that's in reference to my post, but if you read it more carefully you'll see that what I actually wrote was "*both sides* used coercion." It's well known that the patriots used violence and the threat of violence against their enemies all the time. They used mob action as a political tactic beginning years before the start of the war, and - as you say - they drove thousands of loyalists out of the country after the war was over. As you might expect, the loyalists could be equally nasty given half a chance.

What I wrote was in response to someone who thought that most of the population was firmly loyalist, and that the revolutionaries were a small minority who gained political control by threatening to tar and feather the majority. I don't think that's true, and I doubt if it's possible. The threat of mob violence is a great way for a brutal majority to intimidate a minority, but I don't think it works as well the other way around. There are certainly cases where small revolutionary groups were able to establish control over generally hostile populations, but they did it by setting up large security forces to systematically coerce the public. That option wasn't open to the patriots - fortunately, there was no Cheka in the American Revolution. The point I was trying to make, and which I probably didn't clearly express, was that the patriots could not have gained control if they were a tiny minority, since they didn't have the means to systematically enforce their will against a large and hostile majority.

Posted by: matebir on December 1, 2003 07:48 PM


The Madness of King George (already mentioned) is as good as The Patriot is bad. So so so bad.

Posted by: Patrick Taylor on December 1, 2003 09:19 PM


Here's another vote for both "Sweet Liberty" and "1776". The music of the latter is
worthwhile, too.

The John Jakes mini-series of the period, starting with "The Bastard", is probably too hard to find as video. But the books are ALWAYS available on the used-book shelves. (the books should, I suppose, be better called a maxi-series, based on the thickness of the volumes and the number of the silly things.) A highly implausible plot drives the hero into contact with nearly every 18th century personage of any note whatever -- but as such it tends to cover much of the background leading up to the revolution. If you do get the video, look for Bill Shatner, doing his Cpt Kirk shtick while astride a fat horse, in the 90 second cameo role of Paul Revere. (Yes, he DOES get captured and no he DOESN'T raise the alarm to every middlesex village and farm...)

I'd assign -- as a research "treasure hunt" sort of project -- an investigation of Peyton Randolph of Virginia. At the time a universally admired figure: acclaimed as first presiding officer of the Continental Congress ... and now nearly forgotten.

Posted by: Pouncer on December 2, 2003 05:54 AM


I would like to get more inofs about

Posted by: Figueroa Yolanda on December 10, 2003 07:10 PM


Gratitude is the most exquisite form of courtesy.

Posted by: Watanabe Prascilla Charmichael on January 9, 2004 09:36 PM


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