Segment from Real to Reel

Patricide in Hollywood

Historian Mark Peterson shares his thoughts on why films about the American Revolution are so terrible.

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PETER: All right, give yourself five seconds and try to think of one film about the American Revolution. OK, there’s The Patriot with Mel Gibson. And then there’s– well, OK. The Patriot is probably the only one most of us can think of. Recently, I sat down with fellow early-American historian Mark Peterson to try to figure out why Hollywood has been so unkind to what would seem to be the most important moment in America history.

MARK PETERSON: I mean, there are certain historical genres that get played up enormously in the movies, the Western, of course, being the biggest one. And everyone could probably rattle off a dozen World War II movies off the top of their head. But Hollywood has tended to stay away from the American Revolution.

And when it has made movies about that time period, they have not been big hits. They have not been great box office successes. They have never won Academy Awards. And in my own highly amateur judgment, they are bad. They tend to be quite terrible movies that don’t last in the theaters, and people don’t remember having seen.

PETER: To understand why there are so few films about the Revolutionary War, Mark says you have to think about how most historical films work. Typically, they present complicated politics as a family drama, think brother against brother in dozens of Civil War films or the manipulative mother, brainwashed son dynamic in the Manchurian candidate. But when you try to do the same thing with the Revolutionary War, you run into a problem. It’s already a family story, and a kind of problematic one.

MARK PETERSON: I think the big problem is that, essentially, it’s a family story of patricide. It’s of the children killing the father figure. And in my own estimation, the relatively conservative world of Hollywood filmmaking is not particularly comfortable with putting a patricide story on the screen.

Well, let me rephrase that. They might be comfortable with it if it weren’t patricide leading to the birth of a free and prosperous nation, that is you have to kill off the father in order to create the United States. And, essentially, that’s what the family story of the American Revolution comes down to. And so what you find, and I admit not many people have done this, because they aren’t wonderful movies to watch.

PETER: No, I admire you, Mark. You’ve got great courage.

MARK PETERSON: I know. Well, someone has to do the dirty work. And I guess that’s me. So I did. I found a half-dozen or so of these. And I got them from Netflix and wherever and sat down and watched them. And as I looked at these, and as we talked about them in class, a certain pattern emerged because they’re so strange.

And the pattern is this. In order to have it be a revolution story, the patricide element is inescapable. But a whole bunch of these movies figure out plots to make patricide tolerable, or acceptable, or even admirable.

And the way that they do it is this, they set up the conflict in the movie as a conflict between a bad father, who almost always represents the British government in some way, and a good father who has to step in and prevent his own children being mistreated by the bad father. So what it gets turned into is a war in which bad patriarchy is overturned and got rid of but in order to reinstall or reaffirm a good kind of patriarchy. And it’s remarkable that these varied movies, produced in different eras by different directors, actors, et cetera, tend to resolve themselves around this very same plot in one strange version or another.

PETER: OK, let’s talk about some of the particular shows that you found particularly horrible.

MARK PETERSON: At the top of my list is the Mel Gibson movie, The Patriot, which came out at around 2000.

MALE SPEAKER: I understood you to be a patriot.

MEL GIBSON: If you mean by patriot, am I angry about taxation without representation, well, yes I am.

MARK PETERSON: And it is front and center an example of exactly the same kind of plot that I’m talking about. The Mel Gibson character is a kind of thinly-disguised version of South Carolina’s Frances Marion, who was a real figure, a military leader in the rebel side in the American Revolutionary War. And his story is that he had fought in the Seven Years’ War and had witnessed so much violence, and it was so horrible and disturbing that he is now a pacifist. And he has sworn off violence of all kinds.

And when the conflict that begins the American Revolution starts heating up, there are these scenes where he’s standing up in the South Carolina provisional legislature and saying, I am not going to fight, and this is not a time to fight again, and all this kind of stuff.

MEL GIBSON: I will not fight. And because I will not fight, I will not cast a vote that will send others to fight in my stead.

MALE SPEAKER: And your principles?

MEL GIBSON: I’m a parent. I haven’t got the luxury of principles.

MARK PETERSON: But he also has this large family with many sons. And the oldest and the most hotheaded of the sons, who has not lived through the violence of the Seven Years’ War, does want to go off and fight. And so he joins the continental soldiers. And then the War passes by Mel Gibson’s plantation. And that’s where everything changes, because here appears the bad father.

MEL GIBSON: This is a uniformed dispatch rider and carrying a marked case. He cannot be held as a spy.

MALE SPEAKER: Well, we’re not going to hold him. We’re going to hang him.

MARK PETERSON: This utterly despicable, incredibly violent and sadistic British officer. And he has taken the eldest son of Mel Gibson captive in the fighting. And they’re taking him away. And one of the younger sons comes up in protest against his brother being taken away. And the sadistic British officer just shoots him down in cold blood.

MALE SPEAKER: Gabriel, run!

MEL GIBSON: Thomas! Wait! No!

MARK PETERSON: Right, and so we have it, a bad father figure destroying the son of the good father figure. And this instantaneously changes everything for Mel Gibson. And he gives up his pacifism and becomes the most ferocious warrior that you’ve ever seen in your life.

And he gathers all of his sons that are still alive. There seem to be an unlimited number of them together. And they go off and they wreak vengeance against the British army in general and against the sadistic officer in particular. And so the movie can’t end until he’s finally killed the bad father in solo combat and made everything right again.

PETER: So, Mark, let’s put one other movie on the table. Let’s go back a little bit, though. Is there something from an earlier period, an effort to make sense to the American Revolution?

MARK PETERSON: Well, it’s interesting, because the next movie– if we’re going sort of backwards in time– that takes this up is a movie that came out around 1980 that Al Pacino made. The movie was called Revolution. And it too pretty much died in the American box office.

In fact, when I tried to go find it, the only copy I could get was on a DVD where it was either a Portuguese or a Brazilian distributor. And it was paired with some other movie. And there were subtitles in Portuguese on it. It’s really did not succeed.

PETER: Very cool. That’s exporting democracy, isn’t it?

MARK PETERSON: Oh, yeah. But its failure is not for the lack of a good cast. Because in addition to Pacino, it has Donald Sutherland in a major role. And it has the lead singer of the Eurythmics, Annie Lennox, in a walk-on cameo role. So it had star power for the time. But it also had one of these convoluted plots.

So the way this story goes is that Al Pacino plays this upstate New York small farmer boatman who happens to sail down the Hudson into Manhattan just as all hell is breaking loose. And just like Mel Gibson at the beginning, he has nothing to do with it. It’s not because he’s seen so much violence. It’s because, and he says this again and again, he says, it’s not my fight.

AL PACINO: Fight the whole of our life to get born, to stay alive. Fight nature to gain food and [? warmth. ?] Fight our faults to stay decent. And now to fight someone else’s [BLEEP] fight that I have no understanding of, no reason for.

MARK PETERSON: He doesn’t know what the stakes are. He doesn’t know why people– he’s not from there. He just wants to sell his stuff and go home. And with him is his little boy, a son who’s maybe 12 years old or something.

The son is unwillingly dragged into first the Continental Army. But then he gets out of that. And then he’s dragged into the British army. And while he’s in the British army, he is seized by Donald Sutherland’s character who plays a Master Sergeant.

And in a series of really ugly, although kind of vague scenes, the suggestion is made that the Donald Sutherland Sergeant is sort of the procurator for an upper-level officer who likes to prey on young boys. And so Al Pacino’s son is clearly abused by both the Sergeant and whoever this officer is. And Pacino finds out about this and comes to rescue him. And he does. And he rescues him.

And there’s all kinds of crazy scenes of the son being healed by Heron Indians off in the woods. And there’s a lot of strangeness to this movie. But this basic story is set up again that a sadistic, evil father figure, in this case, Donald Sutherland, has abused the son of a good father who now knows that he has to fight. He no longer says it’s not my fight. He’s now going to take revenge.

And the rest of the movie plays out in terms of Al Pacino hunting down Donald Sutherland just the way that Mel Gibson had hunted down the evil British officer in his movie. It’s just striking how, even though the politics of the movies are completely different, the people who made them have different ways of looking at the world, the same store is at the heart of how this works.

PETER: So I wonder, Mark, if what we’ve lost is the ability to tell the story in the terms that, well, some of the revolutionaries would have told it in that they wouldn’t have talked about killing the father figure. But they would talk about overturning despotism. And aristocracy would be a key word. Is it impossible to make a moving picture about the struggle of democracy against aristocracy.

MARK PETERSON: Oh, no. I don’t think so at all. But I think it would have to come up with some kind of plot structure that was more complicated and probably more ambivalent about the nature of authority than movies about the Revolution tend to be.

There isn’t, compared to a lot of other historical events in the United States, I don’t think there’s much willingness to imagine that the public is going to be able to think about the pros and cons of the American Revolution. It’s something that people see as an unequivocal, positive good. And so it’s not an easy world into which you can introduce a lot of ambiguity or have negative patriot characters and beneficent loyalists and that type of thing.

PETER: Imagine that you were an indie auteur kind of guy and you’re into ambiguity and conflicted loyalties, you’d have a field day, wouldn’t you?

MARK PETERSON: Oh, yeah, absolutely. The material is there. I think it’s just the willingness to believe that the American public is ready for it or a willingness to put it on the screen that prevents people from going there. But I think there’s an amazing array of potential stories there.

PETER: Mark Peterson is a professor of American History at University of California, Berkeley. If your appetite for terrible Revolutionary War films is not yet sated, you can hear Mark’s take on a third movie at our website