Everybody loves the new musical about Alexander Hamilton, including a lot of prominent historians.
If Hamilton seems an unlikely subject for a musical, keep in mind that this isn’t the first time somebody has set the Founders to music and put them on a stage. One of the all-time best films about the Revolution originated as a Broadway show.
The first time I saw the movie version of 1776, it was totally by accident. This was back when I was a teenager, before I’d developed any kind of serious interest in history. In the summer I used to stay up to watch Letterman and the other talk shows, and then I’d flip through the channels for a while before dozing off. One night (or in the wee hours of the morning, I suppose) I happened to land on a movie channel right before 1776 came on.
Next thing I knew the stodgy figures from all those old paintings were alive—bickering about the heat, swapping insults, longing for their wives, and occasionally bursting out in song. It humanized the Founders without diminishing their achievement, it was hilarious without trivializing the events it depicted, and it somehow made the unfolding of history seem contingent and uncertain.
I don’t know why I got such a kick out of it; I wasn’t a fan of American history or musicals at the time. But now that I look back, seeing that movie was one of the things that got me interested in the American Revolution. Seeing 1776 didn’t turn me into a history nut overnight, but it was definitely a step along the road to where I am now. Maybe if I’d been in the habit of going to bed at a decent hour, I’d be in a different line of work.
On a related note, the Spanish version of Evita with Paloma San Basilio is so good it’ll knock you right on your keister.
I’ve been looking up early American course syllabi recently to see if I’m on track with my ideas for teaching a colonial course this fall. Not long ago I ran across a website with teaching resources, including a list of films dealing with early American history.
For reasons I’ve never understood, the Revolution hasn’t fared well on the silver screen. There are a few period films that I enjoy watching. 1776 remains a personal favorite of mine, because it helps restore some of the suspense and urgency that two and a half centuries have worn away from the debate over independence. I’ve also got to confess that I’m a fan of The Patriot. It’s a compelling story told well, and it focuses on the critical war in the South, even if it plays fast and loose with the facts. A&E’s made-for-TV films The Crossing and Benedict Arnold: A Queston of Honor also deserve an honorable mention. I haven’t seen HBO’s Adams miniseries yet, but I’ve heard some great feedback. Still, the Revolutionary War can’t match the Civil War or WWII in terms of number and quality of film adaptations.
This hasn’t always been the case. As the filmography at the above website shows, the Revolutionary War was a pretty popular subject during the infancy of moving pictures. From the early 1900’s to the 1920’s, filmmakers were turning out Revolutionary War stories at a surprisingly high rate. Similar projects often appeared close to the same time: Paul Revere and Nathan Hale were both popular subjects in the 1910’s, and Francis Marion got his own film in 1911 and again in 1914.
It’s clear that moviemakers were interested in the Revolution from the first days of putting stories on film. It’s also clear that interest in making Revolutionary War films didn’t keep up with this initial burst of enthusiasm.
There are a lot of stories from the War of Independence I’d like to see on the screen, but it doesn’t look like it’s happening anytime soon. Countingdown.com lists quite a few WWII movies in the works, but I couldn’t find any Revolutionary War-related projects in any genre. Maybe the current Founding Fathers craze will bring more filmmakers around.