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.
Joe Thompson ;0)
Joe Thompson ;0)