Revolution on Film: 9 Motion Pictures That Chronicle the American Revolution

Revolution on Film: 9 Motion Pictures That Chronicle the American Revolution

Larry Holzwarth - October 7, 2017

For reasons unknown except perhaps to Hollywood producers, the American Revolutionary was has received short shrift when it comes to feature-length films. When movies covering the Revolutionary War period have been produced they have often followed clichés; Washington as a bewigged demigod with blue coat and white horse; Benjamin Franklin as almost hopelessly wise and respected and bespectacled; American citizen-soldiers using unconventional methods to give the Redcoats a sound thrashing; the populace responding to Yankee Doodle with full-throated support of liberty and independence.

The politically nuanced and socially complex period of the American Revolution is simply too complicated for most films to present honestly, and those that tried have too often succumbed to trivialization. As history, few approach an accurate accounting.

The American Revolution was but one theater in a global war for empire which eventually included conflicts in India, the Levant, and the Caribbean, involving France, Spain, the Netherlands, the Russian Empire, and dozens of Native American tribes. Americans, non-surprisingly, tend to focus narrowly on the villages of New England, the 4th of July, and Valley Forge.

While none of these lacked for drama and all contain stories yet to be told in film, too often movies which even hesitantly nod to the American Revolution repeat the same hackneyed scenes containing the same hackneyed myths.

Motion pictures featuring the American Revolution as their setting usually focus on fictional personal stories interwoven into the war’s dramatic events, with historic personages often used as emphasis for the story. Here are some examples of motion pictures which use the American Revolution as a backdrop, blending a portion of its epic story with that of their own.

Revolution on Film: 9 Motion Pictures That Chronicle the American Revolution
A statue of George III is pulled down in New York. It was later melted for use as musket balls. Wikipedia
Revolution on Film: 9 Motion Pictures That Chronicle the American Revolution
The Boston Tea Party is one of the events presented in the film Johnny Tremain. National Archives

Johnny Tremain

A Walt Disney production from the 1950s, when the studio was flush with the success of its Davy Crockett films and the resultant national craze, Johnny Tremain is based on a Newbery Medal-winning novel published at a time when children’s novels were still read by children.

The film depicts events in pre-revolutionary Boston through the eyes of a young silversmith’s apprentice by presenting his interactions with the leaders of Boston’s rebellious factions. Paul Revere is a character of note, as is the nearly forgotten to American history Dr. Joseph Warren, who did more to shape events than the far more famous Samuel Adams and John Hancock.

The historical characters in the film largely stick closely to their real-life counterparts, and the hero – a silversmith’s apprentice named Johnny Tremain – interacts with them in a manner of an unobtrusive observer and only occasional contributor to the historical sequence of events. Characters such as Revere and Warren are allowed to go about their daily business without their dialogue reduced to uttering platitudes. Warren is depicted as a respected surgeon in Boston – which he was – and Revere’s skill as an artisan and tradesman are given greater exposure than his adroit delivery of messages on horseback.

In the end, Johnny is offered the ability to return to his hoped-for profession – silversmith – as well as being able to serve in the newly formed Continental Army. Johnny Tremain does not delve into the issues of the Revolution beyond those which occurred in Boston during the early 1770s, and it breaks no new ground towards understanding the causes of the conflict. Nor does it overstate them to the point that its characters become caricatures.

Revolution on Film: 9 Motion Pictures That Chronicle the American Revolution
Francis Marion (center) was one of the real American guerrilla fighters upon which The Patriot was based. US Senate

The Patriot

Very loosely based on the guerrilla warfare in the American South led by real-life heroes such as Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion, The Patriot makes the British Army, in the form of the fictional Colonel Tavington, an 18th-century version of the Waffen SS. Prisoners are routinely executed, civilians heartlessly butchered, and Americans – rebels and loyalists alike – are considered a subspecies to the man who hopes to one day sit as lord and master over vast estates beyond the Ohio River. His commander, Lord Cornwallis, is depicted as a battlefield genius lacking the ability to control his troops – or even his pet dogs – against superior American leadership.

In reality, the American Revolution in the South was both a civil war and an armed rebellion, with both loyalists and rebels committing atrocities over long-held grudges with furious regularity. Banastre Tarleton – the basis for the fictional Tavington – was not known for showing mercy or taking prisoners, but he was not a butcher who burned churches full of innocent civilians.

Looting and burning of plantations, lynchings, the killing and/or stealing of slaves, and many other crimes occurred with alarming frequency in the Southern campaign, nearly always committed by Americans of one side or the other. The majority of the loyalists who fought did so independently of the British army, in the same manner as the American guerrillas whom they opposed, often over ancient grudges rather than over liberty.

The Patriot fails to show an aspect of the American Revolution which is generally ignored in nearly all films which touch upon the era. Over two-thirds of the population of the 13 American colonies did not support seeking independence from England and nearly half of those actively fought or supported those who fought, against it.

In nearly all instances where colonial troops took the field against each other, the fighting was noted for its ferocity and lack of mercy. These traits exhibited by Americans against Americans were particularly present in the Revolution’s Southern campaign, as they would be again four score and seven years later.

Revolution on Film: 9 Motion Pictures That Chronicle the American Revolution
Cary Grant in a scene from The Howards of Virginia. Columbia Pictures

The Howards of Virginia

A young Virginia man whose father and uncle had died fighting with the British during the French and Indian War builds a great plantation, befriends Thomas Jefferson, and learns to oppose his Loyalist relations and become a patriot. The Howards of Virginia is a cliché ridden tribute to American patriotism, produced at a time when the United States was divided over whether to provide financial and military support to England, which was at the time fighting a losing battle against Nazi Germany.

In the film, George Washington makes occasional appearances, as does fellow Virginian Patrick Henry, and stirring patriotic phrases creep in and out of the film’s dialogue. Matt Howard, the film’s protagonist portrayed by Cary Grant, goes through the requisite crisis of conscience while his more impetuous sons know what fate has drawn them to do, and act accordingly. When one is wounded while attempting to deliver a message to Lafayette, the father is spurred to action.

While not historically inaccurate, although it does on occasion place certain historical personages in the wrong place at the wrong time, The Howards of Virginia does little to explain the causes of the rebellion against the King beyond the too often overworked “struggle against tyranny.” Virginia was a hotbed of revolutionary fervor for reasons often different from their New England brethren – many of them linked to England’s control of the slave trade – but these themes are unexplored.

The film does touch on the disillusionment of loyalists who feel that an uneducated and unruly mob will never replace the law and order offered by a king but such sentiments are washed away in patriotic fervor. All in all, the film could be placed with any of America’s wars as its backdrop, including the one about to take place as it was made in 1940.

Revolution on Film: 9 Motion Pictures That Chronicle the American Revolution
Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de LaFayette. Versailles


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.

Revolution on Film: 9 Motion Pictures That Chronicle the American Revolution
A Delaware Regiment at the Battle of Long Island, 1776. National Guard


When Revolution was released in 1985 it was immediately criticized for, among other things, the inappropriateness of the characters’ accents, which made them sound as if they were in a Brooklyn-based gangster movie rather than a historical drama. In addition, it was filmed largely in England, although it was supposed to be showing events in America. The film was a massive financial flop, for many reasons, chief among them being it isn’t a very good movie.

In the film a fur trapper from New York colony, largely apolitical, returns to York City as it was known, to discover his son has been forcefully taken into the British Army. Joining the army with the intent of protecting and ultimately setting free his son, the trapper finds many examples of tyranny, cruelty, and other undesirable behaviors among those empowered against those not, and gradually comes to believe in the American cause of deposing the British rulers and establishing liberty and freedom for all.

Throughout it is not made apparent that life in the army – in any army – is by necessity a harsher and less free existence than life without, but that is a minor detail.

It is the depiction of the harshness of life, in the army, along the docks, in the poorer parts of the cities, indeed everywhere, which makes this film worthy of mention when discussing films of the revolutionary war. The time of the American Revolution was notably harsh, idyllic living simply did not exist for anyone, and survival was an unending struggle, the success of which often simply came down to luck. Which side chosen politically was of little weight compared to what was needed to stay alive, as this film shows.

Revolution on Film: 9 Motion Pictures That Chronicle the American Revolution
Although fiction, Drums Along the Mohawk depicts the fighting along the New York frontier during the Revolutionary War. Old New York Frontier

Drums Along the Mohawk

To high school history books, the American Revolution began in Boston over stamps and tea, continued in Philadelphia in an argument over independence, nearly ended in the snow of Valley Forge, and was wrapped up in Virginia after timely French assistance. To an American living then on the east coast, which is where all of America’s cities and most of its population were, such a compression of history is not far wrong.

But for those American’s who had ventured out of the cities and moved along the inland waterways in search of fertile lands from which to scrape out farms, the Revolution was not about taxation. It was about survival. For decades the French, and later the English, had armed native American tribes and encouraged them to raid upon the frontier, driving the settlers back to the eastern cities, where they could be more easily controlled.

Drums Along the Mohawk is loosely based on real events which took place in the Mohawk and Wyoming Valleys during the Revolutionary War. American militia and settlers fought to defend their homes and forts against British led and supported Indian attacks, in a fight in which no quarter was offered by either side. The film presents – though fictionalizes – the death of General Nicholas Herkimer following the Battle of Oriskany in 1777, a part of the overall Saratoga campaign.

The story is not told from the perspective of the overall strategic situation facing the British army deep in the American woods, but from the local view of the settlers who had little to do with the war until it arrived at their doorstep, and little to do with it once it moved on.

For most Americans that is how the war affected their daily lives, once troops of one side or the other entered the area the war came with it and when the troops moved on, so did their commitment to the fighting. For the settlers in Drums Along the Mohawk, a flag and a country came after the threat to their lives and homes was defeated, not the other way around. Such was the Revolution on the frontier, a war for survival, with political and national issues of secondary, perhaps even incidental importance, especially to a people accustomed to governing themselves.

Revolution on Film: 9 Motion Pictures That Chronicle the American Revolution
Copy of a coded letter from Benedict Arnold describing his proposed treason. New York Public Library

The Scarlet Coat

The Scarlet Coat is loosely based on Benedict Arnold’s attempt to turn over the plans of the American fortifications at West Point, a betrayal which made his name synonymous with treason. The film depicts a wholly fictional American Secret Service which attempts to expose Arnold’s accessory, British Major John Andre, as a spy and through him reveal the traitorous Arnold.

In real life, Andre was an aide to the senior British commanders and was more or less a patsy in Arnold’s correspondence with British General Henry Clinton. Andre protested being forced to travel between the opposing armies in civilian dress, preferring to operate under a flag of truce while carrying verbal messages. Arnold was determined however to provide his opponents with written evidence of his willingness to betray his country in order to justify his demands for money and a commission in the British Army.

When Andre was caught largely by accident by militia intent on robbing him, the materials Arnold had burdened him with were sufficient to condemn the Major as a spy and justify hanging him. Arnold escaped and later led raids against his former comrades in arms on Long Island and in Virginia.

As in most movies about the Revolution, the reality of history takes a back seat to the demands for drama, and the film ignores Arnold’s true motive (primarily revenge and money) as well as Andre’s lengthy and careful correspondence to the American general, calculated to induce him to change sides. Arnold’s reputation as America’s best field general – which was what made his treason so shocking in the first place – is also largely ignored. At the time of his treason, Arnold was the hero of America’s greatest victory, a point missing from the film.

Revolution on Film: 9 Motion Pictures That Chronicle the American Revolution
Forgotten today, James Wilson of Pennsylvania cast the deciding vote for independence. Later he served as a Supreme Court Justice. Supreme Court


According to the film 1776, which was based on a Broadway musical decades before Lin Manuel’s Hamilton, the founders sang and danced their way through the tumultuous debates which led to the adoption of the Declaration of Independence during the summer of the titular year. Even so, it presents the historical events of that summer in a largely accurate manner. Unlike all too many films which tend to present the founders as ponderous semi-deities, it reveals the human sides to their historical debates and personal interactions.

The largely forgotten role of Abigail Adams in shaping the attitudes and actions of her husband John are presented, with much of the dialogue and even some of the song lyrics attributed to her are based on surviving letters she wrote at the time. Other founders are represented accurately as well, with John Dickinson of Pennsylvania cautioning against independence while arguing for reconciliation with the King, and Caesar Rodney (largely forgotten in most other dramatizations) hesitant to act because the belief his cancer was affecting his judgment.

Jefferson is usually described as considering himself unworthy to draft the actual declaration, in part because of his youth, but here he is reticent because of his desire to return home to Monticello to be with his wife. This attitude on the part of the Virginian is reflected in his own notes and letters, written throughout that summer.

Finally, despite the highly visible Unanimous in the finished document’s preamble, the convention is accurately presented as being deadlocked when it finally votes on the issue of Independence, with the deciding vote for the colony of Pennsylvania being cast by the wholly unknown James Wilson. Wilson bucked tradition by voting for independence, breaking with John Dickinson and siding with Benjamin Franklin, an act forgotten by history.

Once the issue passed, the colonists decided on unanimity for reasons of posterity, sparking Franklin’s famous quip about hanging together or hanging separately. Once the song and dance are cast aside, 1776 tells the story as it was – according to the existing records of the convention – recorded by those who were there.

Revolution on Film: 9 Motion Pictures That Chronicle the American Revolution
The Revolution impacted colonial towns far from the battle lines, like this Dutch village in New York. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mary Silliman’s War

Movies featuring the American Revolution typically focus on battles or famous historical events such as Benedict Arnold’s treason or the drama over the passage of the Declaration of Independence. Like all wars, the Revolution evolved over time as most people remained at home, struggling with their everyday lives. For the majority of the colonists – the revolution was fought and supported by a minority of the citizenry – just getting by in trying times was their goal, regardless of the outcome of events. Mary Silliman’s War tells the story of those people.

The film presents their struggle for existence. Money became scarce and what money was available was hopelessly inflated and often simply not accepted as tender for goods or services. Neighbors grew to distrust each other due to suspected political leanings.

In some communities, Loyalists were prosecuted for crimes while Patriots were not, and in others the opposite held sway. In many instances property was confiscated without legal justification or jurisdiction. Deserters from either army could be sheltered or imprisoned based on prevailing political points of view. Religion too shaped behaviors and brought vengeance upon those whose piety was deemed insufficient.

Mary Silliman’s War presents the Revolutionary War as it was fought far away from the contending armies and their support or rejection of independence or the Divine Right of Kings. Throughout the film, perspectives and beliefs are challenged and changed based on events which escaped the history books and were not decided by military defeat or victory.

The rights of the minority are frequently trampled by the tyranny of the majority, a perspective of the Revolution which is seldom seen, and seldom considered by the victors. It is considered here.