The name Lafayette is well known, but the true story of the young Frenchman who risked literally all for the American ideal of liberty is rapidly fading from history. Many, if not most Americans know nothing of him. In nearly all movies which use the American Revolution as the setting, he has been reduced to an image of a token Frenchman worshipful of George Washington; a character needed to include a French accent in support of the American cause. His name is prevalent throughout the eastern United States, particularly in Virginia, though a person on the street would hard pressed to explain why.
This film, produced in 1961, explains why and although some liberties are taken with historical truth – as they often are – it generally presents the French volunteer accurately. Lafayette did not sell his lands to fund his efforts, as depicted here, but he did place them at risk of confiscation by his angry sovereign. The young general did ingratiate himself to Washington, worked tirelessly with Franklin to encourage French intervention in the war, and did offer to Congress to serve without rank, and without pay. When he was offered a command he served with distinction and was seriously wounded at the Battle of Brandywine, all of which the film depicts.
Perhaps because the film is a foreign production (French) it is less inclined to present patriotic sobriquets as everyday dialogue, and Lafayette is presented as the young and passionate – albeit inexperienced – soldier that he was. In the latter part of the movie, as in the war it presents, Lafayette’s actions in Virginia explain why his name remains so much a part of the landscape in that state in the 21st century.
Although this film, like Johnny Tremain, is at heart a children’s film, it is a more accurate presentation of the American Revolution than some of its more sophisticated counterparts, and one of the few in which Gilbert Motier, Marquis de LaFayette is more than a caricature.