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Sep 3, 2013

Revolutions On Screen: Then and Now

tags: movies,revolutions,1776

I spent a good deal of the summer writing about how the Haitian Revolution and Caribbean slavery have been depicted in film. Many films depicting these subjects are disappointing, which inspired me to read some of the foundational scholarship on film and history, such as Robert Rosenstone’s. As Rosenstone has argued, historians are almost inevitably disappointed when they watch the events that they study depicted on screen. Scripts call for narrative structure that real history does not present.

Fiction films on revolutions illustrate Rosenstone’s principle well. Real revolutions proceed haphazardly, with more monotony than viewing audiences will tolerate. Moreover, there are often so many actors involved in a real revolution that simplifications become necessary. Filmic revolutions often present characters who are composites, so that viewers will have only a few characters to follow (see Fiction and Film for French Historians [link at http://h-france.net/fffh/tag/french-revolution/ ] for recent scholarly analyses of films on the French Revolution).

I do have one favorite revolution movie – not necessarily for the accuracy of its portrayal, but because it is great fun: Sherman Edwards’ and Peter Hunt’s 1776 (made in 1972). The music is catchy, and the script is filled with witty gems. The film appeals to all age groups (I watched it this summer with an enthralled group ranging from small children to septuagenarians).

Of course, many details in the movie could not pass the scrutiny of American Revolution specialists. The film papers over the subject of slavery, portraying it as a Southern issue while implying that northerners were all abolitionists. The film also oversimplifies Abigail Adams’ political interests, turning her correspondence with John into one chiefly concerned with love and sewing. One would also not know from the film that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were close friends (“You’re obnoxious and disliked; that cannot be denied/…Mr. Adams, you are driving me to homicide!” Jefferson sings in “But, Mr. Adams!”).

Despite these simplifications, 1776 offers many useful lessons on revolutions. One is how hard it is for people in real time to decide to raise arms against their government. Often today, the public imagines the American Revolution as clear-cut or even inevitable: “we” (Americans) decided to oppose “them” (the British) because they were being unfair. And yet….it was a wrenching decision for the Britons of North America to opt to wage war against their own countrymen, including their crowned King. “Sit Down, John” - in which members of the Continental Congress shout at Adams as he exhorts them to “vote for independency!” - is a fantastic song in this regard. In addition to sharing vivid truths about summer in Philadelphia (it is “hot as hell” and there are often “too many flies!”), the song illustrates how uncomfortable many delegates were with a radical notion like independence.

The film also shows the critical roles of contingency and human factors in revolutions. Delegates sometimes had to leave the Congress for illness or family reasons, and votes could have gone in different directions depending on who was present on a given day and how they felt inspired to vote based on others’ decisions.

Watching social movements explode on TV today reminds me, however, of one great shortcoming of 1776: it leaves out the violence that accompanies almost all revolutions. Soldiers in the film sing about the battle dead in Washington’s army, but such losses are off screen and bloodless. Moreover, when we hear about the physical harm inflicted by pro-independence forces against loyalists in 1776, it is as a joke. The stalwart advocate of independence Benjamin Franklin is delighted to hear that his son William (the loyalist governor of New Jersey) has been captured and ill-treated because of his pro-British beliefs.

Today, fiction films are not our only option for watching revolutions unfold on screen. Journalists capture live footage on stations like CNN and Al-Jazeera, and participants can upload their own videos and pictures to sites like YouTube and Twitter. Even though they are not scripted like fiction films, we cannot forget that these glimpses of revolution are mediated in their own way; journalists are still making choices of where to go and what to film, and participants show only their own vantage point at any given moment. Perhaps violence is overemphasized in how we understand revolutions today, since the more boring parts of revolutions are less exciting to film (and also may take place in private spaces rather than public squares). With new media will come new ways of understanding revolutions, which in turn will offer us fresh perspectives on revolutions of the past. Nevertheless, it is critical to remind our students – and others - that whenever we see a revolution on screen, we are getting only a partial glimpse into revolutionary reality.

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