A couple of weeks ago, the American History Guys at Backstory took on the issue of representations of history in film. Of most direct interest to those of us here at the Junto was the interview of Mark Peterson by Peter Onuf, asking why there were so few movies about the American Revolution, and why they were so terrible. The answer Peterson proffered was about patricide. The difficulty of evoking sympathy for the killing of a father figure that wasn’t manifestly evil led the British to be portrayed as caricatured villains – and even Hollywood audiences weren’t buying a tale so badly spun.
I wonder, though, if the real answer lies in the limitations of a 90-minute feature film. After all, “1776: The Musical” takes a small slice of the Revolution, and certainly takes historical liberties along the way, but overall portrays an entertaining yet challenging and moderately complicated version of the route to the Declaration of Independence. That might be easier when the key characters are Adams, Jefferson and Franklin—the audience already knows they are heroes, so there is less need to establish their characters—but nevertheless, it shows that it’s possible to do something more advanced than the crude characterization of “The Patriot.” But it’s hard to create especially well-drawn characters and portray action and tie everything together in sufficient time to keep audiences interested in a movie theater.
Of course, the development of revolutionary historiography emphasizes just how complicated the story of the Revolution is. I can’t remember the exact quote or reference, but I remember early in graduate school reading an essay by (I think) Linda Kerber which concluded that no historian could any longer confidently write of ‘the’ American Revolution, but rather many different overlapping revolutions. A similar approach is inherent in the essays in the new Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution—whose contributors don’t even use a common periodization of the revolution (which, incidentally, I think is one of the book’s greatest strengths).
In my teaching, too, I try and emphasize the diversity of the revolutionary experience in Britain’s North American colonies. Not just from a perspective of difference between colonies, but between urban and rural communities, easterners and westerners, not to mention religious, ethnic, gender and class differences. Even though I strongly believe it is possible to tell a story of ‘the’ Revolution, it is a finely textured, complicated, and uneven story. My students have said they are surprised how complex my retelling of a familiar story is. To me, though, it is the complexity—and indeed the unlikelihood—of a successful revolution that makes it such a compelling story, and that made researching the political history of the Revolution seem like a worthwhile enterprise.
Which brings me back to dramatizations of the American Revolution. The most compelling TV shows (“The West Wing,” “Friday Night Lights,” “The Wire”… you get the picture) of the last 15 years or so have all relied on a similar formula—a large cast of characters who all largely pull in the same direction, even as changes in circumstances affect them in divergent ways. A show that began in 1763 could easily portray a vast array of conflicting experiences, without having to rely either on hagiography or unthinking definitions of liberty. (Indeed, one of the strongest things that could be achieved from such an approach would be showing just how violent and coercive many of the key moments of revolutionary mobilization were). And there are clear models for the sort of approach that could be taken here. Speaking as someone who’s focused on Pennsylvania, Francis S. Fox’s Sweet Land of Liberty would tell a very human story about how the process of revolution affected a typical community. Ray Raphael’s account of Worcester County, Massachusetts, could work as well—or a hybrid account of much of the excellent work that has been done on the cast of characters who participated in Boston’s revolution.
All of this does make me have one final reflection, though. Because as I was thinking through the idea of a multi-part series on the American Revolution, my mind naturally turned to the HBO’s “John Adams.” It’s not particularly original to observe there’s a disconnect between the stories about the Revolution that find a popular audience, and the stories of the Revolution prevalent within the academy. To me, the multi-layered story with a diverse cast of characters is far more compelling than a story told through the primary lens of one actor. When there are so many good models for how this might be done, why are our options for the American Revolution as light entertainment so poor?