When Hollywood Makes History

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When the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty failed to enchant local audiences, a distributor begged MGM to make “no more pictures where they write with feathers.”

Nevertheless, people have been writing with feathers since the dawn of the industry: as soon as movies began to tell coherent stories, they found subjects in the past.

For good or ill, movies have played an enormous part in giving us a sense of our history. For instance, they invented an American West for all of us, and if its inhabitants sometimes went about their business with the stylized inevitability of the Japanese Noh theater, they nonetheless reflected something we wanted to believe about the conflicts that formed our country. To protest that it is not true is to miss the point.

With the help of Michael R. Pitts, a film historian, we take a Hollywood tour through the American past, running from colonial days to Watergate and, in Hollywood time, from the silents to the talkies to Technicolor. However cynically readers may approach these glimpses of our history, they are sure to come across a few frames that ring absolutely true to both historical and emotional fact.

FROM DAY ONE TO JACKSON “See them brave young men? Some from the farm. Some from the city. Some indentured. Now they’re free. Every man jack of them’s a hero come to the aid of his country.” — Sergeant Jones, REVOLUTION

 

PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE (1952) The stem Mayflower captain Christopher Jones (Spencer Tracy) is confronted by Dorothy Bradford (Gene Tierney) over his harsh treatment of the Pilgrims. This saga of the Pilgrims’ voyage to the New World was more big-budget gloss than actual history. Mayflower: The Pilgrims’ Adventure (1979) covered the same ground.

 

THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1936) More than a dozen films have been made from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, about pioneer life in upper New York State. This Edward Small production is an adequate retelling of the saga.

 

JOHN PAUL JONES (1959) Well-staged naval battles and fine cameo performances by Charles Coburn as Benjamin Franklin and Bette Davis as Catherine the Great were not enough to save this stiff, reverent, lifeless biography. Robert Stack plays the great sailor.

 

COLUMBUS (1949) Fredric March, in the title role, sights land in the distance in a film biography that, despite its historical accuracy and finely re-created period settings, was too dull to be entertaining.

 

NORTHWEST PASSAGE (1940) Spencer Tracy plays Maj. Robert Rogers, whose 1759 expedition to defeat the Abnaki Indians in Quebec broke the French control of the area. Especially realistic in its depiction of the horrors of war on the frontier, this movie ranks among the best historical films ever made.

 

REVOLUTION (1985) Though handsomely mounted, this Warner Brothers effort suffered from a ponderous script and unbelievable acting. The movie tells the story of a trader (Al Pachto) who is drawn into the American Revolution against his will, and a patriot (Nastassja Kinski) who opposes her Tory family.

 

DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (1939) Centered on the fighting between settlers and British and Indian troops in the Mohawk Valley in New York during the Revolution, this John Ford epic is a first-rate historical drama.

 

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? (1945) While working for the USO during World War II, the 4-F Bill Morgan (Fred MacMurray) finds a genie in an old lamp and is offered three wishes. One wish is granted when he meets George Washington (Alan Mowbray). He also gets to discover America with Columbus and buy Manhattan from an Indian chief.

 

JOHNNY TREMAIN (1957) The beginnings of the American Revolution, as seen through the eyes of the fictional title character (played by Hal Stalmaster), provided the setting for this solid Walt Disney production. Here the Sons of Liberty dump tea into Boston Harbor.