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Where Is the Great Revolutionary War Movie? We've Got Some Ideas.

July 3, 2014

The Civil War has Glory and Lincoln. World War I has All Quiet on the Western Front. World War II has Patton and Saving Private Ryan. The Korean War has M*A*S*H, the Vietnam War has Platoon, the Gulf War has Three Kings , and the Iraq War has The Hurt Locker. Every major American war has been the subject of a great American movie, with one glaring exception: the Revolutionary War. Arguably America’s most important conflict, the war that saw a bunch of plucky freedom fighters shake off the tyrannical yoke of the red-coated Brits has been depicted in flops like Jefferson in Paris and Revolution and in embarrassments like 1776. The most famous movie to take place during America’s finest hour is The Patriot, an inaccurate melodrama starring an Australian.

Why has it been so hard to dramatize one of the most dramatic periods in history? “We’ve so mythologized [the revolution] that it’s boring,” says Carol Berkin, professor of American colonial and revolutionary history at Baruch College in New York. “It’s impossible to dramatize well when you say, ‘Everybody in America was for the revolution, and the British were evil, and everyone loved George Washington, and we won the war single-handedly.’” There are an untold number of Revolutionary War stories out there for Hollywood’s taking. We consulted with a couple experts about five tales that are just begging for a greenlight:

The George Washington biopic
Given the number of biopics that Hollywood has churned out over the past decade, it’s a surprise our greatest Founding Father has gone without. Darren Aronofsky might change that soon, but until then we’re left to wonder what Hollywood would do with the “old fox.” Berkin suggests telling the story of the attempts to make Washington king. “They tried to make him king twice,” she says, “because nobody ever heard of a country without one.”

The battle movie to end all battles movies
The Battle of Yorktown, which essentially ended the war, is already the subject of a one great piece of art. Why not another? Berkin imagines a scene depicting the traditional sword surrender in which the British general Cornwallis refused to participate. “Cornwallis sent his second in command to give his sword, so Washington sends his second in command. As the story goes, the British marched out to surrender and the band played ‘The World Turned Upside Down.’ There’s just so much drama.”

The female ensemble movie 
As the American obsession with the Founding Fathers makes clear, our stories about the revolution tend to leave out women. University of South Carolina history professor Woody Holton suggests Hollywood can correct that by focusing on all the better halves. “What I would propose is a chick flick on the revolution,” Holton says. There are the prominent women, like future first lady Abigail Adams, and the forgotten, like the thousands who watched over their homesteads as their husbands went off to war. There’s Molly Pitcher, the storied heroine who famously fought alongside the men. And there’s Mary Bartlett, who ran the family’s farming business while her husband, Josiah, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, played dress-up in Washington. (Yes, West Wing fans, there really was a Josiah Bartlett.)

An adaptation of Baroness Riedesel’s diary
The wife of a German general hired to help the British, Riedesel, along with her three young daughters followed the redcoats on the Saratoga campaign in 1777 and kept a diary along the way. Berkin calls the resulting book “spectacular.” She says, “‘It’s got the surrender at Saratoga. It’s got this amazing woman. It’s got a great scene with American and British generals having a lavish meal as all the men are outside starving.” And just in case producers need further convincing, how about this charming detail: Riedesel’s fourth daughter, born in New York City, was named America.

The dysfunctional family drama
"Most people don’t even realize that the American Revolution was a genuine civil war," says Berkin. "Brothers fought against brothers. Fathers and sons took different sides." One of the most famous cases pitted Benjamin Franklin against his illegitimate son William Franklin, the one-time colonial governor of New Jersey whose fierce loyalty to the British crown drove a wedge between him and his father. If there was ever a role to get Jesse Ventura back into movies, this is the one

Photo credit: © Everett Collection