Round Tablers were undoubtedly among the more avid participants in the controversy stirred by the Mel Gibson film, The Patriot. Everyone had an opinion, from Brandeis historian David Hackett Fisher, who trashed it in the New York Times to Spike Lee, who denounced it in the Hollywood Reporter. Reenactors quarreled about it on various websites.
Tom Fleming reports he spent almost an hour on the phone with a reporter from the London Daily Telegraph, who wanted him to say the British were not as brutal as portrayed in the film. The reporter's knowledge of the Revolution was zero. After Tom finished telling him about the 11,000 men who died aboard the prison ships, the uncounted hundreds of men women and children killed on the frontier by Indians unleashed at George III's express order, and random incidents such as the hanging of 15 American prisoners by ``the King's Ranger,'' Thomas Browne, during the siege of Augusta in 1780, The Brit abandoned the argument.
The best article on the film ran in Smithsonian Magazine, and was largely ignored by reviewers and other commentators. The Smithsonian Institution acted as consultants for the film. Writer Lucinda Moore stressed that the film was not a documentary. It advertised itself as fiction. The Gibson character, Benjamin Martin, was not a real historical figure. No one said he was Francis Marion or Andrew Pickens or Thomas Sumter. The same principle applied to the sadistic British cavalry officer, Colonel Tavington. No one said he was Banastre Tareleton.
One of the Smithsonian's top experts was Rex Ellis, an African American who helped recreate the Gullah Village where Martin and his family hide. Ellis admitted the village would not have been on the seashore, as in the film. These maroon (runaway) villages were usually deep in the swamps. But he recognized that the movie had to consider other values beside scrupulous historical accuracy in such matters. The same principle was applied to the climactic battle scene, which was a blend of Cowpens and Guilford Court House.
Spike Lee was exercised about the way Gibson handled slavery. In George Magazine, Gibson admitted to an interviewer that he now realized it was a mistake to portray Benjamin Martin as a man who had freed his slaves. It would have been more accurate to portray him as a kind master. Mr. Lee was even more exercised about the black soldier who fought in the ranks of Martin's guerilla band. Tom Fleming reports a similar outrage on the part of his London Daily Telegraph reporter about the film's handling of blacks. Tom nonplussed this poor fellow again by telling him one sixth of Washington's Continental Army was black in 1780 and the black soldier functioned as a believable symbolic character.
Mr. Lee's knowledge of history can be glimpsed by his portentous statement that the film should have mentioned that two of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, were slave owners. Horrors! What would Mr. Lee think if he discovered there were at least another thirty signers who also owned slaves?
Another good commentary on The Patriot appeared in the Wall Street Journal. It was written by Bill Kaufman, author of Every Man A King and America First . Mr. Kaufman's research revealed a long history of Hollywood's inability to deal with the American Revolution. One of the oddest stories he turned up was the fate of the first major film on the subject, The Spirit of 76. Produced by Robert Goldstein, who had worked with D.W. Griffith on ``The Birth of a Nation'', it opened in May 1917, a month after the United States had declared war on Germany. Imitating Griffith's epic style, Goldstein had mobs denouncing George III, Patrick Henry bellowing ``Give me Liberty or Give Me Death!'' and numerous scenes of British soldiers gunning down Americans in battle. Within days of its premiere, federal agents seized the movie and arrested Goldstein for violating the Espionage Act. He was soon on trial, accused of trying to stir up animosity against ``Great Britain...an ally of ours.'' The case was listed on the docket as ``The United States Versus The Spirit of 1776.'' Goldstein got ten years in jail, served three and emerged a broken man.
D.W. Griffith, an anglophile, made his own Revolutionary epic, America, in 1924. The villain was not an Englishman -- he was Walter Butler, the ruthless loyalist guerilla of upstate New York. Griffith's script writer said his goal was to show Americans that they and the English shared ``a common ideal and purpose.'' This lovefest approach deservedly flopped. After surveying a dozen other films, such as Al Pacino's ludicrous 1995 ``Revolution,'' Mr. Kaufman concluded that The Patriot would not have to be very good to be the best so far.
AP reporter Chris Carola went to Cherry Valley, NY to see if the descendants of the infamous 1778 massacre thought The Patriot was unfair to the British. Carola did not find anyone who sympathized with this point of view. The locals took him to a monument marking the spot where an elderly woman was hacked to pieces when she struck an Indian with a frying pan. They noted that the raiders were mostly Senecas and loyalists but a sixty man detachment of British regulars participated in the raid, in which 32 men, women and children were brutally murdered. In four years, the King's men burned every town and farmhouse between Utica and Schenectady, leaving the Mohawk Valley a desolate wilderness.
As a postscript to the contentious summer, the New York Historical Society, in cooperation with the New York Military Affairs Symposium, has invited Tom Fleming, John Buchanan and several other historians to discuss ``Dramatizing the Revolution'' on Sunday, October 8 from 2-4 p.m. Round Tablers are cordially invited to attend and participate in the this gabfest.
The silver screen was not the only place that dramatized our favorite subject during the balmy days of July. Onto New York's Off Broadway stage strode ``Fair Liberty's Call'' a musical about the Revolution, set in New York in 1775. The plot revolved around a Tory, a Patriot and a slave couple and dealt with the ambiguities of freedom, political independence, and slavery. Some of the songs related to the British attempt to recruit slaves by offering them emancipation. Others were cheerful drinking tunes. Therese McNally, who bought a ticket, reported she enjoyed it ``very much.'' The voices were ``beautiful'' and the writing was ``excellent.'' Therese introduced herself to the producer, Nina Hill, and told her about the Round Table. Ms Hill expressed an interest in paying us a visit.
Years ago, when visiting Charleston, SC, I toured St. Michael's Church and was astonished to hear the pastor say that the building was constructed totally by slave labor. I recalled this revelation when I read about TV reporter Edward Hotaling's research for a film on the 200th anniversary of the White House and the Capitol. He unearthed Treasury Department pay slips and found that 400 of the 600 workers who erected these shrines to freedom and democracy were slaves, whose wages of $5.00 a month were appropriated by their owners. Why should anyone be surprised? The District of Columbia was created from land controlled by two slave states, Virginia and Maryland, and slavery was legal in the city until 1865.
Now here's an interesting question. Before and during the Revolution, slavery was legal in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Who built Federal, Faneuil, and Independence Halls? Have you ever thought about it?
The June answers to the ``After the War'' quiz, correctly submitted by Betty Zinn: Charles Cornwallis was governor general of India and Ireland. Henry Clinton was governor of Gibraltar, John Burgoyne was a playwright, George Clinton was NY governor and U.S. vice president. Benjamin Lincoln quashed Shay's Rebellion, Anthony Wayne won at Fallen Timbers, John Paul Jones led Catherine the Great's Navy, Daniel Morgan helped end the Whiskey Rebellion, John Sullivan was a federal judge in New Hampshire and ``Light Horse Harry'' Lee was Va. governor and wrote ``Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department.''
Name the battles associated with these buildings:
A free drink to the first three winners!