D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

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Joe Thompson

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D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostSat May 19, 2012 9:00 pm

Image

I spoke to the local branch of the Daughters of the American Revolution today about D W Griffith and the American film industry, his picture America, and the general lack of success of Revolutionary War pictures. If the projector had been working, I would have showed them Paul Revere's ride.

My thoughts about the lack of success, and some thoughts gleaned from other sources:
-- Little great literature

People wrote poetry and sermons (lots of sermons) during Colonial times, but novels in English were just getting started and writers in America don't seem to have had time, being busy working hard to stay alive. American literature really got rolling with Emerson and Thoreau and the like and grew with Hawthorne and Melville. Don't tell me about James Fennimore Cooper. Compare that to WWI and WWII, where lots of great novelists served, then wrote books about their experiences.

-- Relations with Britain

At the time people were starting to make big movies, our relationship with Britain got much closer, as we moved towards entering WWI. It was hard to make the British the bad guys (see below: Robert Goldstein).

-- Americans vs Americans

Some people have said that the big battles with the British mostly involved the French as well. The majority of battles were more American vs American (Patriot vs Loyalist). I don't know if I hold with that one. Civil War pictures are popular and that war involved actual cases of brothers fighting brothers.

-- Expensive – costumes more intricate, weapons, props, buildings have to be built

This seemed like a good argument. Costume houses are full of WWII uniforms. There are thousands of Civil War re-enactors running around. Revolutionary War uniforms are more intricate, and I'll bet often have to be made from scratch, as do weapons and other properties. The only downside I could think of is that the French seem to make lots of movies about their revolution, and the costumes would be similar. Maybe they have better stocks of costumes and props.

-- Danger of R rating

Big, expensive epics don't want to get R ratings because their audiences will be limited. Spurting blood will get you an R rating. Think about the way they fought battles in the Revolutionary War and you are likely to get lots of spurting blood.

-- Public does not seem to care

I don't know if this is a cause or an effect, but in general people don't seem to want to go see Revolutionary War movies. Think of Revolution with Al Pacino. I had forgotten it existed before I started researching my talk.

I'd be interested to hear other opinions.

I concluded with the story of Robert Goldstein, whom Slate Magazine in 2000 called "The Unluckiest Man in Movie History." He was a German Jewish immigrant who ran a costume business in Los Angeles. He decided in 1917 to make a movie that would do for the Revolutionary War what Birth of a Nation did for the Civil War. He spent $200,000 to produce and direct The Spirit of '76. Unfortunately, at about the same time, we entered WWI on the British side. Goldstein showed the movie in Chicago and the censor seized it, apparently at the request of the Justice Department. They made him cut out all footage of British atrocities. He took it back to LA and showed it. He was accused of putting back the anti-British stuff and was arrested by Federal authorities. Charged with undermining the war effort, he was sentenced to 10 years in the penitentiary. He was let out after three years.

Goldstein couldn't find work in the film industry in the US, so he went back to Europe, but couldn't find work there either. The original article said he was last heard of in 1935, stuck in Germany because he couldn't afford $9 to renew his passport. The author speculated that he might have become a victim of the Holocaust. A follow-up article reported finding a 1938 letter where he said he had been expelled from Germany. His only bit of luck.

The DAR ladies were very interested by the story of Goldstein, and were sad to hear that The Spirit of 76 is lost.
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Lokke Heiss

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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostSat May 19, 2012 11:50 pm

Your question has many different answers, but first: What era are you talking about? Today? 1920? The last hundred years?

I'd say the largest reason is that the myth of the Revolutionary War was only useful for about fifty years. By then the nation had so outgrown its boundaries that the myth of the Western was far more applicable. It had the huge advantage of flexibility of story and location.

By its nature, the Revolutionary War is extremely limited story, and falls into two camps: stories of founding fathers, and stories about who became loyalists and who became rebels. That question was so quickly muted that in 20 years no one was worrying about it anymore.

After 1975, the Western had run its course in mythmaking and the genre splintered into the action film (incorporating also science fiction), and the vigilante film. So today you're not going to get any contribution to either the Western or the Revolutionary film except for 'stragglers.'
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostSun May 20, 2012 7:11 am

One good reason as mentioned is that there was no American voice and there was no great novel about the Revolutionary War mostly because the novel form was not established in America. The first writers worked with poetry and short stories. Cooper, arguably the first great American novelist, wrote about a mythic America in the making. The war was left to historians. American novels by Hawthorne and Melville pursued other topics (Melville was a bust in his lifetime). Emerson and Thoreau were not novelists, and the Transcendentalist movement did not concern itself with wars.

Aside from Griffith's America, the only other silent film I can think of is Janice Meredith, which was not as big a bomb as history has it.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostSun May 20, 2012 8:01 am

My thoughts:

1) It's a time and place we don't feel that much kinship with. They wore funny foppish clothes and had girly hair and powdered wigs. They had weird, unsympathetic beliefs (puritanism). They were fighting for... the extreme east coast and South, neither of which has the mythic resonance of, say, the west or even the heartland.

Of course, some of this is tautological— the west has mythic resonance because there were movies about it.

2) It was brother versus brother, but one of those brothers has no constituency today. Both the North and the South in the Civil War have adherents today, they have meaning today. There is no Loyalist contingent in America bemoaning the noble lost cause of monarchy.

I had not thought about the lack of contemporary fiction about it but that's a very good point— the Civil War and the West both gained certain tropes very quickly which gave others a framework to work in— brother versus brother and the noble lost cause; frontier independence and the gunslinger. No one ever really established the outlines of a Revolutionary War genre. Probably the most successful revolutionary war movie artistically, the musical 1776, is built on a specific narrow historical event. The most successful one at the box office of recent times, The Patriot, basically lifts the plot of a Civil War movie.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostSun May 20, 2012 9:03 am

Disney added to the effort with Johnny Tremayne, but all I remember about it is the song "The Sons of Liberty."
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostSun May 20, 2012 9:34 am

Could be we've fallen so far down the scale of real education and real virtue
that we can't understand them anymore.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostSun May 20, 2012 8:42 pm

The Last of the Mohicans movies did a good job with the French-Indian wars preceding the Revolutionary War. I agree that the white wigs and lofty ideas of freedom make it harder to identify with the era. There's no big sense of loss or tragedy either, like in the American Civil War, WW I or WW II. It would be hard to make a good movie about the Spanish American war too.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostSun May 20, 2012 9:37 pm

"It would be hard to make a good movie about the Spanish American war too."
I think you would find the "Rough Riders" (1997)) to be an excellent film about the Spanish American War.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostSun May 20, 2012 9:57 pm

To me the problem would be finding some well-written story material. That's true of any movie though... The marketing would be a big hurdle also. If it gets tagged as "that old Revolutionary War movie," all might be lost.

An author on C-SPAN recently gave a talk on all the spies in the Revolution. It was fascinating. He has been researching the topic for 18 years and keeps track of all the spies in a database. Some spied only once and lost their nerve; some only to get a certain amount of money, etc.

http://www.booktv.org/Program/11375/Inv ... ution.aspx

The events of the Rev. War can be made just as interesting as other times. There were the same conflicted loyalties, loves, power grabs, etc. It's hard to market in a CGI dominated movie world though.

My own ancestor, the Rev. George Micklejohn came to minister in the colonies. He was a loyalist until it became apparent that he would have to switch sides or move to Britain or Canada. He had a family by then however, so he had to promise to be a good boy. A movie could be made, if it hasn't, about such divided loyalties.

http://www.bookrags.com/biography/georg ... ejohn-dlb/

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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostMon May 21, 2012 2:12 am

One further factor is that foreign markets for films about the Revolutionary War are limited, unlike WWI & WWII.

Other than the United States won, very little of the story of that war is known outside the USA. Curiously the Civil War is very well known, not least due to Hollywood treatment of the story.

Further subjects that foreign exhibitors do not like include films about baseball, - except perhaps Japan or in Cuba? and films about American football, guaranteed to produce empty houses, even if the story line is strong.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostMon May 21, 2012 7:29 am

Tho covering many more years than just the Revolution, HBO's John Adams miniseries won both critical and popular acclaim. So it can be done.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostMon May 21, 2012 9:03 am

It can be done on HBO. And likewise PBS with The Adams Chronicles. Just not, apparently, in a movie theater, unless it's like this:

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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostMon May 21, 2012 9:13 am

barry byrne wrote:One further factor is that foreign markets for films about the Revolutionary War are limited, unlike WWI & WWII.

Other than the United States won, very little of the story of that war is known outside the USA. Curiously the Civil War is very well known, not least due to Hollywood treatment of the story.

Further subjects that foreign exhibitors do not like include films about baseball, - except perhaps Japan or in Cuba? and films about American football, guaranteed to produce empty houses, even if the story line is strong.


After seeing a number of them, I believe most movies about American football deserved empty houses, even here in the US. I'd generally rather watch a film about boxing, or even baseball.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostMon May 21, 2012 9:28 am

Rick Lanham wrote:To me the problem would be finding some well-written story material. That's true of any movie though... The marketing would be a big hurdle also. If it gets tagged as "that old Revolutionary War movie," all might be lost.
Rick


Yet there are loads of movies about the French Revolution, it's fraught with dramatic potential. Never count out the "Reign of Terror" concept as a wellspring of later story ideas. Skipping that phase was wayyy shortsighted on our part, wasn't it? "It was the smidge better of times, it was the tad worst of times..." Doesn't have the same ring.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostMon May 21, 2012 9:28 pm

Thank you everyone for the thoughtful comments. I was referring to the whole period of the American film industry, except perhaps the earliest days when Griffith was shooting in Cuddebackville. One thing I found while researching was a comment that in the 10 years around 1900, there were only four Broadway plays about the Revolutionary War period and only one, about Nathan Hale, was a success. Griffith was thinking about making that into a movie when various people including Will Hays persuaded him to make something bigger.

After I talked about America, I spoke about the general lack of artistic and financial success for Revolutionary War movies. I said Northwest Passage and 1776 were good movies that made money. The Patriot was a pretty good movie that didn't make as much money as people expected. Revolution with Al Pacino was a disaster on a par with the Battle of Long Island (I had to throw that in for the Revolutionary War geeks). America was a pretty good movie that didn't do well financially and cost Griffith his independence as a filmmaker. Then I asked: Is there hope? I said yes, in television, and pointed to the 1986 George Washington miniseries and the John Adams miniseries. According to Wikipedia, Disney's Johnny Tremain was made for tv, but released theatrically, so it falls into both camps.

It was nice to have the opportunity to talk to people who don't know anything about silent movies. I hope some of them will look for the movie and watch it.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostTue May 22, 2012 11:24 am

Another one, The Flag (1927) has shown at Cinecon and on TCM. It stars Francis X. Bushman as George Washington.

Also, Janice Meredith (1924) with Marion Davies and W.C. Fields. I think it also was a flop.

Griffith also made The Hessian Renegades (1909) with Owen Moore, Linda Arvidson and Mary Pickford.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostTue May 22, 2012 11:29 am

What about Barbara Frietchie? And wasn't there an Alice Brady silent about Betsy Ross?

I don't think Janice Meredith was a flop.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostTue May 22, 2012 12:43 pm

Preceding comments give me the impression that few of those responding spend much time watching the History Channel or Nat Geo, which I turn on anytime I'm eating, having coffee, doing housework, etc. There are pa-lenty of programs dealing with the Rev War, as well as F&I, & what has become surprising popular recently, War of 1812. And in the heart of the places the Rev & F&I Wars were fought, New York, there is great historical re-enactment interest; the two big annual events at Fort Ticonderoga, for ex, each draw around 2000 participants each, & there are numerous smaller events at other historical sites. So in this part of the country, at least, such "ancient history" is not so obscure as it may be elsewhere in our muticultural paradise.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostTue May 22, 2012 12:59 pm

realist wrote:"It would be hard to make a good movie about the Spanish American war too."
I think you would find the "Rough Riders" (1997)) to be an excellent film about the Spanish American War.


I suspect I'd like the 1927 version too, if it could be found...
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostWed May 23, 2012 10:05 am

The mention of Griffith at Cuddebackville prompts me to inquire why there was a brief flurry of Revolutionary titles circa 1909-10.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostWed May 23, 2012 11:01 am

Barbara Frietchie was about the U.S. Civil War, not the Revolutionary War.

And Alice Brady was Betsy Ross (1917), which still exists.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostWed May 23, 2012 11:41 am

You are right....
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostWed May 23, 2012 11:41 am

I recall that Thomas Edison made a few films about the American Revolution, mostly for educational use.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostWed May 23, 2012 12:58 pm

How about Drums Along the Mohawk and The Great Divide. They both deal at least peripherally with the war....
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostThu May 31, 2012 11:43 am

There's a apparently a segment of the public that's definitely interested in the founding fathers, judging by the publishing success of biographies of people like Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and so on, and there was enough of a TV audience to make the John Adams series a success. But whether a mass audience shares the tastes of those book buyers and HBO watchers is a big question. I think many people still--wrongfully--regard Washington and the other founders as somewhat boring, and too elevated for dramatic interest. I think a good recipe for a hopefully successful revolutionary war film would include making the founding fathers as central to the story and as interesting as they really were, putting in plenty of sex and violence to draw in the punters (get plenty of battle scenes to use in the trailers), and facing disquieting issues like the slavery paradox head-on, instead of producing a safe, antiseptic history. If audiences realize such a film will not be as wooden as Washington's teeth, they might be interesting in the seeing the genesis of their country dramatized.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostThu May 31, 2012 2:48 pm

Robert Warwick starred as Nathan Hale in The Heart of a Hero (1917).
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostThu May 31, 2012 4:41 pm

IA wrote:There's a apparently a segment of the public that's definitely interested in the founding fathers, judging by the publishing success of biographies of people like Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and so on, and there was enough of a TV audience to make the John Adams series a success. But whether a mass audience shares the tastes of those book buyers and HBO watchers is a big question. I think many people still--wrongfully--regard Washington and the other founders as somewhat boring, and too elevated for dramatic interest. I think a good recipe for a hopefully successful revolutionary war film would include making the founding fathers as central to the story and as interesting as they really were, putting in plenty of sex and violence to draw in the punters (get plenty of battle scenes to use in the trailers), and facing disquieting issues like the slavery paradox head-on, instead of producing a safe, antiseptic history. If audiences realize such a film will not be as wooden as Washington's teeth, they might be interesting in the seeing the genesis of their country dramatized.



Not to sound priggish but I think what would be interesting is a cold, academic
look at their intellectual life, like Roberto Roselli's "Blaise Pascal."
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostThu May 31, 2012 4:46 pm

telical wrote:Not to sound priggish but I think what would be interesting is a cold, academic
look at their intellectual life, like Roberto Roselli's "Blaise Pascal."


I would definitely find that interesting as well. My earlier comment was directed at the idea of a revolutionary war film for mass audiences, rather than the film you envision, which would of course have a more limited appeal and lower budget.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostThu May 31, 2012 6:16 pm

Typo: I meant, Rossellini.
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Re: D W Griffith's America/Revolutionary War Flops

PostSat Jun 02, 2012 1:40 am

Frederica wrote:
Rick Lanham wrote:To me the problem would be finding some well-written story material. That's true of any movie though... The marketing would be a big hurdle also. If it gets tagged as "that old Revolutionary War movie," all might be lost.
Rick


Yet there are loads of movies about the French Revolution, it's fraught with dramatic potential. Never count out the "Reign of Terror" concept as a wellspring of later story ideas. Skipping that phase was wayyy shortsighted on our part, wasn't it? "It was the smidge better of times, it was the tad worst of times..." Doesn't have the same ring.


One thing the French Revolution has going for it is the fact that they guillotined their King and Queen. That's the kind of grand spectacle that the American Revolution never had.

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