Tag Archives: Thomas Sumter

Movie protagonists and the past as a foreign country

I’ve taken as one of my creeds novelist L.P. Hartley’s oft-quoted statement: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”  As I’ve said before, I love it when historical films manage to convey this “otherness” of the past.  The tricky part is that audiences are supposed to identify with a movie’s protagonists, and it seems like underscoring the differences between historical characters and moderns would only make that more difficult.  So how do you depict the “otherness” of a historical film’s protagonists without undermining an audience’s sympathy for them, especially when that otherness consists of attitudes and practices that are morally repugnant here in the twenty-first century?

The easiest approach is to cheat and eliminate the otherness altogether.  If your hero is a prominent landowner in eighteenth-century South Carolina, you’re going to have to deal with the fact that men of his stature, place, and time tended to be slaveholders.  The makers of The Patriot sliced through this Gordian knot by making Benjamin Martin a remarkably forward-thinking guy.

It’s a simple solution, but it also leaves a lot to be desired.  Whereas the movie shows the British dragoons tearing free blacks away from their homes, the reality was in many cases the reverse, with many slaves escaping their Patriot masters to make a bid for freedom behind British lines.  Ironically, Benjamin Martin’s fictional military exploits are similar to those of a real South Carolina officer named Thomas Sumter, who paid his recruits with slaves confiscated from Tories.

The makers of 300, by contrast, didn’t try to gloss over the unsavory aspects of their historical protagonists.  The Spartans leave weak infants to die of exposure, they savagely discipline their own children to turn them into hardened soldiers, they cherish the idea of death on the battlefield, and they slaughter their wounded enemies and desecrate their bodies.  And the audience is expected to accept the characters for what they are—even to celebrate them for it.

The movie not only gives us the Spartans in all their ruthlessness, but makes us empathize with them.  You probably wouldn’t want to live among them, and you certainly wouldn’t want to be a wounded Persian falling into their hands, but it’s fun to root for them for a couple of hours.  This solution seems more historically honest than the approach taken in The Patriot, and it works pretty well when you’re telling a story in which there are obvious good guys and bad guys.

Of course, 300 tells the story entirely from the Spartans’ perspective.  Can filmmakers tell the story of some historic event holistically—that is, from a variety of perspectives—while conveying the past’s “otherness” and still make audiences empathize with all the characters involved?  Can they do on film what David Hackett Fischer did in his book Paul Revere’s Ride, approaching “both Paul Revere and Thomas Gage with sympathy and genuine respect” even though the main characters act in opposition to each other?  I think one movie that handles this really well is John Lee Hancock’s 2004 film The Alamo.

As this scene demonstrates, the movie presents the Alamo’s defenders as heroic.  Indeed, for some critics, they come across as too heroic.  A number of reviewers accused the filmmakers of whitewashing the story.  What struck me about the movie when I saw it, however, was its remarkable frankness about the protagonists’ shortcomings.  Early scenes establish that David Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Travis have all experienced some sort of disappointment or disgrace, and Texas represents a second chance for them.  A short but sympathetic side plot involves a very young solider marching in Santa Anna’s army.  Most notable, though, is how upfront the film is about the relationship between its heroes and their slaves—fittingly so, since the peculiar institution was one of the points of debate between the Texians and the Mexican government.

In one scene, Travis assigns two slaves named Sam and Joe the task of digging a well within the fort’s walls.  “Ain’t bad enough we got to fetch ‘em the water,” Sam complains, “now we got to find it for ‘em too.”  Later, Sam tells Joe that when the Mexicans storm the mission, he should worry about saving his own life and let his master to fend for himself.  (Travis did indeed own a young slave named Joe, who was wounded when the Alamo fell and escaped to freedom one year after San Jacinto.)    These scenes establish that the enslaved members of the garrison have their own interests at stake, interests at odds with those of the protagonists with whom we’re supposed to identify.  Contrast this with earlier depictions of black characters in Alamo movies, which tend to employ the familiar “faithful slave” narrative.

At the same time, though, the film’s revisionism doesn’t extend to demonizing the Alamo’s white defenders.  We sympathize with Sam and Joe’s predicament even as we admire the courageous last stand of the men holding them captive.  As prejudiced slaveholders of another time, Bowie and Travis seem foreign to us, but we also become invested in their confrontation with their own impending death.

As I said, the movie’s approach didn’t go over well with everybody.  The essay linked above, for example, notes that “the realistic portrayals of Joe and Sam may be to the credit of the filmmakers, but ultimately the film does little to question the ideological values inscribed onto the Alamo battle, which have gone largely unchallenged for the last 175 years, even if it does alter aspects of the story prevalent in its cinematic representations.”  In other words, the 2004 version is more frank about its main characters’ slaveholding, but it somehow manages to leave their bravery and heroism intact.  The movie leaves these contradictions unresolved.  It’s messy, complicated, and ambiguous, as history often turns out to be.  It didn’t work for many critics and historians, but from a purely historical standpoint, I was impressed.  Your mileage may vary.

Anyway, The Patriot and 300 grossed $113 million and $456 million respectively, but The Alamo flopped.  Maybe audiences prefer their historical heroes to be as straightforward as possible.

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The Patriot: Considering Creative License

My mom is a high school principal and English teacher, and from time to time she uses film clips in her classes to liven things up.  Her American Lit students are doing a unit on the Revolution, so the other day she asked to borrow my DVD copy of The Patriot, intending to show a scene or two just to set the mood.  To her surprise, the students really got into it, and they ended up watching quite a bit.

Very few of my fellow Rev War buffs seem to share my positive view of this film.  In fact, several years ago I attended a fine symposium on the Revolutionary War in the South, and one thing shared by practically every attendee with whom I spoke was a strong dislike for this movie.

It’s not hard to understand their dissatisfaction.  The Patriot plays pretty fast and loose with the historical record of the Revolution in the Carolinas.  Here are some examples:

The chronology is warped beyond all recognition.  The film begins sometime around the run-up to independence, then jumps forward to the fall of Charleston.  This places most of the action after May 1780, but a subsequent montage seems to show the much earlier encampment at Valley Forge.  Furthermore, the DVD menu identifies the climactic battle as Cowpens, which took place in January 1781, but a bit of dialogue places this sequence in October.

That last battle merits some additional attention.  Although it’s supposedly Cowpens (depicted here in a rather inaccurate painting), it bears a closer resemblance to the larger battle at Guilford Courthouse.  Cornwallis is in command during this sequence, but he was not present at Cowpens.  Nor was Nathanael Greene, who is depicted leading a council of American officers on the eve of the battle.  The film’s Greene also seems to have a southern accent, while the historical Greene was from Rhode Island.

An earlier sequence depicts the American defeat at Camden in August 1780.  In the film, this battle unfolds across a picturesque open field.  The actual engagement took place in a swampy, wooded area.  Furthermore, the movie’s Continentals flee this battle en masse; in actuality, the militia ran in the face of British bayonets, abandoning the Continentals under Johann de Kalb.  On a side note, de Kalb’s wounds in the battle cost him his life, and his remains lie in a Camden churchyard.  On my first trip there in 2001 I visited his grave, and was surprised to find a small movie theater just down the street where The Patriot was showing.  It’s a small world.

Mel Gibson’s Benjamin Martin character is a mish-mash of several backcountry commanders.  The most obvious parallel is Francis Marion, visible in the center of this painting.  An early draft of the script actually had Marion as its star.  Like Marion, Martin is a partisan commander who takes refuge in the South Carolina swamps.  Martin loses a son named Gabriel in battle; Marion lost a nephew by that name.  Yet Martin also bears a similarity to Thomas Sumter, who took up arms when British troops burned his home.  Martin commands the militia at Cowpens, a role performed in actuality by Andrew Pickens.  At the same time, he devises a defense in depth, with the militia firing two volleys before retiring to the rear.  Here Martin becomes a fictional Daniel Morgan, the rough-and-tumble commander whose skillful use of militia and regular troops at Cowpens ended with a tactical masterpiece.

For an eighteenth-century planter, Benjamin Martin is a pretty progressive guy when it comes to race.  He owns no slaves, relying on free blacks to work on his farm.  When a slaveowner signs over one of his laborers to serve in the militia, Martin insists that the slave sign up for himself.  In actuality, Thomas Sumter used the confiscated slaves of Tories to pay enlistment bounties.

Col. William Tavington, the film’s villain, is obviously based on Banastre Tarleton, the notoriously aggressive young commander of the British Legion depicted in the portrait at right.  Tarleton’s unsavory reputation in the Carolinas is the stuff of legend today, and made great fodder for American propaganda at the time.  Compared to his fictional counterpart, however, he was an absolute Boy Scout.  Tavington shoots a young boy in cold blood, burns civilians alive in a locked church, and (in a deleted scene available on the DVD)supervises the torture of captured American militiamen.  Tavington dies a particularly unpleasant death at Cowpens/Guilford.  Tarleton’s independent command at the real Cowpens was a disaster, but he survived, and in fact was one of the few British soldiers to escape the field.  He suffered a nasty hand wound at Guilford but served through Yorktown, returning to England to live to a ripe old age.  Although he never again saw active command, he was made a general in 1812.

In the film, Cornwallis and Tavington keep up a running feud.  In reality, Cornwallis relied heavily on Tarleton during the Carolina campaigns of 1780-81 and lavished him with praise on numerous occasions.

In other words, The Patriot takes place in a wartime South Carolina that’s similar to, but hardly identical with, the real thing.  To me, that’s no big deal.

Dramatic works operate by their own logic.  We judge them based on whether they’re credible, not whether they’re factual.  It’s only when their creators present them as “the truth” that they become legitimate targets for this type of criticism.  Screenwriter Robert Rodat slapped the “based on a true story” label on the script draft mentioned above, but the finished movie makes no such claim.  In fact, by changing the namesof characters and the details of certain events, the filmmakers assert their intention to present us with a fictional story rather than a reconstruction of history. 

Most of the movie’s discrepancies are the result of conscious choices, not errors, and in the context of drama they make pretty good sense.  The movie’s approach to slavery, for example, garnered some especially harsh criticism.  But since diversity and tolerance are our values du jour, I don’t think an American audience could have sympathized with a slaveowning hero, no matter how common the practice in the film’s actual setting.  It was a sensible choice to serve the goal of telling a story.

Whether or not that story works is a matter of taste, and of the principles of plot and character, action and setting, and all the other factors by which movies either succeed or fail.  The world of The Patriot isn’t exactly the same as the world I’ve found in the historical record, but for a few hours, at least, it’s a pretty compelling place to be.

(I obtained the images here from Wikimedia Commons.)

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