‘Sons of Liberty': Not much of the Sons, but plenty of liberties

Here’s how The History Channel describes their new miniseries: “SONS OF LIBERTY is a dramatic interpretation of events that sparked a revolution. It is historical fiction, not a documentary.”  That’s quite an understatement.  It’s like calling Godzilla a reptile of above-average stature.

I knew I was in for a doozy from the very start of last night’s first installment, when Samuel Adams escaped from a party of redcoats by bounding parkour-style across Boston’s rooftops.  No wonder they made him twenty years younger and thirty pounds lighter than his historical counterpart.  Can’t have the main character keeling over from cardiac arrest during a big chase sequence.  Hey, if video games have taught us anything, it’s that the eighteenth century was all about aerial stunts.

The History Channel claims that one of the show’s aims is to “convey the personalities of the main characters.”  If that’s true, they might want to head back to the drawing board.  The two main protagonists, Sam Adams and John Hancock, share little in common with the historical figures other than their names.

J.L. Bell has weighed in on the problems with Adams’ depiction at his blog.  As for Hancock, the miniseries portrays him as a dandy who’s quite uncomfortable walking into a tavern full of toughs.  The real Hancock was indeed a stupendously wealthy man, certainly no stranger to fine clothes, lavish parties, and good wine.  But he was also a man who, when informed that British regulars were en route to Lexington, brandished his gun and sword and swore up and down that he “would never turn my back on these troops.”  It took the entreaties of Sam Adams and Paul Revere to convince him to escape.

It was instructive—and a little depressing—to follow the Twitter hashtag #SonsOfLiberty during the premiere.  Most of the tweets I saw were pretty positive about the show.  There were plenty of remarks about how modern politicians could learn a thing or two by watching real ‘Murican patriots on TV.  I found these sentiments highly ironic, since the larger political issues surrounding the onset of the Revolution were actually absent from the first episode.

Instead, the miniseries emphasizes the personal aspects of the Whigs’ involvement.  Adams and Hancock aren’t motivated by abstract notions of rights and liberties.  They’ve got a beef with Hutchinson (promoted to governor in the first episode) over his meddling in their financial activities.  When the mob attacks Hutchinson’s house, they do so because he’s persecuting Adams, not because of the Stamp Act.  The premiere basically has the whole Revolution boiling down to a bunch of personal grudges.  Personal conflicts certainly played a role in the Revolution, but the show de-emphasizes principles to such an extent that I can’t fathom why so many back-to-the-founding folks tweeted enthusiastically about it.

Many tweets ran something like this: “Psyched about #SonsOfLiberty bc I’m such a total history nerd LOL!!!1!11!”  I hate to break it to you, kiddo, but if you were a “total history nerd,” you wouldn’t be so psyched about two hours of pure fiction.  You’d be reading Pauline Maier.

You could fill pages on the show’s historical discrepancies, both major and minor.  The chronology is hopelessly mangled.  John Adams’ house looks nothing like the real thing, nor does it bear any resemblance to any intact eighteenth-century home I’ve ever seen.  There’s far too much facial hair for the late 1700s.  Gen. Gage was already in America during the events depicted in the series.  You get the idea.  For a detailed breakdown, check out Thomas Verenna’s episode-by-episode critique.

I think the only thing the first installment really got right was the sense of tension and volatility in Revolutionary-era Boston, a place where the streets roiled with passion and violence, where officials were sitting on top of a volcano that could erupt in revolt at any minute.

If I disliked the first episode so much, I’ll be skipping the other two, right?  Yeah, I would…except I’ve always wanted to see Lexington and Concord on film.  It’s the prospect of a few well-executed battle sequences that will bring me back to the TV, in spite of my better judgment.  No doubt I’ll be disappointed, but not as disappointed as all those gals who watched the premiere will be when they do a Google Image search for Samuel Adams.

“Lllllllladies.” Wikimedia Commons

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A Christian-themed Rev War movie about a masked vigilante trying to clear his name

That seems to be the gist of it, anyway.  Sort of like if you combined Zorro with The Fugitive in 1770s Philadelphia, with some proselytizing thrown in.

The leading mercenary for the British East India Company, Will Reynolds has just been double-crossed and now is on the run in the American Colonies. Working to redeem his name and win back the affections of the woman with whom he’s never been fully truthful, Will now hides behind a new mask in hopes of thwarting his former employer. As his past life closes in on him, Will must somehow gain the trust and the help of his beloved Charlotte – as well as Ben Franklin – while he races against time to defuse a plot of historical proportions. Coming to theaters Spring, 2015, Beyond the Mask is a revolutionary new family film that brings history to life in a faith-filled adventure celebrating grace, liberty, and the true freedom that can only be found in Christ.

Sounds unusual.  Heck, I’ll probably see it.  (Hat tip: Flintlock and Tomahawk)

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The Battle of New Orleans on the big screen

From NOLA.com:

Two hundred years after the Battle of New Orleans was waged — earning it an eternal place in Louisiana history books and further burnishing Andrew Jackson’s reputation as one of America’s original action heroes — it is getting the Hollywood treatment.

In a ceremony timed to coincide with local bicentennial celebrations of the historic skirmish between American and British troops, fought in January 1814 as one of the closing salvos of the War of 1812, Hollywood producer Ken Atchity and brother Fred unveiled plans Friday (Jan. 9) for a major feature film about the battle’s place in history and Jackson’s role in it.

With a planned budget of $60 million to $65 million, the independently financed “Andrew Jackson and the Battle for New Orleans” is being targeted for a possible 2016 release, with shooting to begin as early as this summer. Envisioned by Ken Atchity as a sweeping action epic in the vein of 2000’s “The Patriot” and 1995’s Oscar-winning “Braveheart,” the film will be shot entirely within a 30-mile radius of New Orleans, he said.

A script for the film has been written, and while it will strive for historical accuracy, it will function as a mainstream Hollywood-style movie, not a “schoolroom movie.”

I’m really excited to see this happening, but as I’ve said before, what I’d really like to see is a sprawling, three-hour, Patton-esque Old Hickory biopic.  I’d start with a brief scene at the American lines on Jan. 8, 1815, zoom in on Jackson’s face as he scans the horizon for signs of the British, and then flashback to his boyhood injury at the hands of a redcoat officer during the Revolution.  Flash forward to the Dickinson duel and the run-up to the War of 1812, cover his Creek campaign, then New Orleans for the big climax.

Time permitting, I’d include the whole 1818 Florida imbroglio, and then cut to James Monroe and John Quincy Adams mulling it over and discussing the fact that the country hasn’t heard the last of Jackson…annnnd roll credits over some rousing military music.

Here’s an earlier Hollywood take on Jackson in New Orleans, with Charlton Heston as Old Hickory and Yul Brynner as Jean Lafitte in The Buccaneer (1958).  Heston was probably used to filling Jackson’s boots at that point, since he’d played the same role in The President’s Lady just a few years earlier.

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When is “early America,” anyway?

This semester I’m taking a course on early America and the Atlantic.  A lot of our reading deals with expanding the physical boundaries of what we think of as “early America,” incorporating insights from scholars working on Latin America, the Caribbean, and the connections between the Americas, Europe, and Africa.

Last week we spent some time discussing temporal boundaries along with physical ones.  When exactly was early America?  If we’re using a chronological term to describe an area of study, shouldn’t there be a better notion of what constitutes the period under discussion?

Columbus seems like a logical starting point, but coming up with an end date is a lot trickier, and your choice of a terminus will reveal a lot about your historical priorities.  If you decide to cut things off at 1776, 1783, or 1789, you’re  privileging politics over markers of culture, religion, and other factors that remained much more constant after those dates.  You’re also more or less saying that U.S. history is the only early American history that really matters.

What if we set our end point at the date when Latin America became independent? That privileges politics, too.  And there’s a sense in which a cutoff point in the early 1800s makes even less sense than 1783 or 1789.  In many ways, the social, technological, and economic atmosphere of the 1820s looks more similar to the mid-nineteenth century than it does to the late eighteenth.

We could arbitrarily pick a nice, round year, like 1800, but the fact that it’s a nice, round number is just about the only thing it’s got going for it.

Does the question of early America’s chronological boundaries matter?  I think it does, because the way we create these containers for particular fields of study inevitably shapes the questions we ask about the past and the places we go to find answers.  On a more practical level, it also determines who goes to which conferences, who gets hired for particular positions, and so on. These chronological boundaries might be artificial, but their effects on the way we conceptualize the past are very real indeed.

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Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

I’ve spent the whole War of 1812 Bicentennial waiting to post this. *squeals with delight*

Fun fact: Jimmy Driftwood, the guy who wrote this ditty, was actually an Arkansas schoolteacher and principal named James Corbitt Morris, who used music to liven up his history classes.  In 1936 he set his own lyrics to a traditional song about the battle called “The Eighth of January.”

Driftwood got a recording contract about twenty years later, but “The Battle of New Orleans” didn’t become a sensation until Johnny Horton heard it on the radio while driving home from a show and decided to do his own version.  Horton got a hit, Driftwood got a second career as a musician, and we got a song so awesome it almost makes up for the White House getting torched.

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Selma and LBJ: Do filmmakers owe anything to historical figures?

There’s been an interesting discussion among historians and movie critics about the movie Selma, which plays up the antagonism between Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here’s LBJ historian Mark Updegrove’s critique of the way Selma treats the president:

Why does the film’s mischaracterization matter? Because at a time when racial tension is once again high, from Ferguson to Brooklyn, it does no good to bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the Civil Rights Movement by suggesting that the President himself stood in the way of progress.

The political courage President Johnson exhibited in adeptly pushing through passage of the Voting Rights Act 50 years ago is worth celebrating in the same manner as the “Lincoln” filmmakers championed President Lincoln’s passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, putting a legal end to slavery.…

LBJ’s bold position on voting rights stands as an example of what is possible when America’s leadership is at its best.

And it has the added benefit of being true.

Selma doesn’t just portray LBJ as dragging his feet on civil rights.  It makes him complicit in the FBI’s attempt to silence King by blackmailing him with evidence of his extramarital affairs.

Others claim that LBJ’s defenders have overstated their case by attributing the march to Johnson himself, as if he came up with the whole idea.

This certainly isn’t the first time filmmakers have taken historical liberties—far from it—but it’s a particularly interesting case.  It portrays a prominent individual as standing further to the wrong side of history than he did, and deprives him of credit for contributing to equality and moral progress.

So leaving aside for the moment the well-worn question of whether filmmakers have a moral obligation to be as historically accurate as possible, do they have a more specific moral obligation to avoid portraying historical figures as acting less nobly or honorably than they actually did?  And does the fact that Selma deals with very recent history make this obligation greater?

I haven’t seen the film yet (although I plan to), and twentieth-century history isn’t really my thing, so I’m hesitant to weigh in.  What do you folks think?

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New year, old cabin

Here’s a little archival item to end one year and ring in a new one.  My mom ran across this vintage Marble Springs postcard and gave it to me as a Christmas present.  I don’t know the date of the photo, but somebody mailed the card from Knoxville to the tiny town of Godley, TX in 1910.  That was thirty-one years before the state purchased the property.  As you can see, the place needed some work.

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I’ve seen this same postcard image online, and something about it has always befuddled me.  If the building in the picture is one of the extant structures on the site, it could only be the kitchen, which is attached to the main cabin by a dogtrot.

By Brian Stansberry (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Since the main house is a good half-story taller than the kitchen, you should be able to see the gable end over the kitchen’s roof on the postcard.  But from the postcard, it looks like there’s no building on the other side of the kitchen.  Somebody evidently retouched the image to replace the main house with trees.  I have no idea why anybody would do this, unless the smaller, dilapidated kitchen cabin better fit some postcard maker’s notion of what an Appalachian homestead should look like.

I did a little poking around online and ran across a slightly different version of the image from UT Special Collections, dated 1921.  Here the main house is clearly visible, as it would be if you were standing there in person.  This version, however, also looks heavily retouched.  Did somebody try to clean up an earlier, already retouched version and produce this result?  I don’t know enough about early photo manipulation to tell precisely what’s been done to the images.

“John Sevier’s “Marble Springs Plantation”,” in Special Collections Online, Item #4225, http://kiva.lib.utk.edu/spc/items/show/4225 (accessed December 31, 2014).

Anyway, it’s an interesting glimpse at a place that’s changed a lot over the years, and one where I’ve been privileged to spend quite a bit of time.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History