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The History of America in 30 Films (Part 2)

Imagine, if you will, a movie theater that, over the course of a single month, will show films covering the entire length of American history. Each night they’ll play a movie that evokes a certain period, moving chronologically to the present day.

Over the course of several articles, I’ll pretend to be the programmer for this imaginary theater, doing my best to capture America over 30 films. Each of these movies will serve as an entry in a larger story… think of it as the American Cinematic Universe.

Before digging into one of the juicier parts of American history, the Revolution and the birth of the United States, you might want to check out Part 1 for the Pre-Revolutionary history.

This week for Part 2, we’ll look at when the United States of America actually became a real thing. Here in four films are movies depicting America’s fight for independence, as well as the nation’s sometimes tumultuous early years.

1776: 1776 (1972)

Dir. Peter H. Hunt
Photo via Columbia Pictures

The best filmed adaptation of the signing of the Declaration of Independence is in the HBO miniseries John Adams. Seeing as an entire miniseries would be impractical to add to this list of movies, we’ll have to settle for the second best filmed depiction of the signing.

The thing is, it just so happens to be a musical.

An adaptation of the Broadway show, 1776 tells the story of the Second Continental Congress, culminating with the events of July 4th when the United States were officially established.

As is to be expected, the movie is riddled with minor historical inaccuracies (not to mention the fact that there was not so much singing at the Continental Congress…or so we think). Despite these inaccuracies, the film actually does provide a good portrait of how the debates and discussions leading up to the Declaration may have taken place. When appropriate, it even makes use of the actual writings of participants at the Congress.

1776-1779: Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

Dir. John Ford
Photo via 20th Century Fox

There are surprisingly few great films about the Revolutionary War itself. Some may have fond memories of Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot but it has a few glaring inaccuracies and issues that make it inappropriate for this list. Perhaps the best depiction of the war on film comes in Drums Along the Mohawk, one of the lesser known works by one of the most renowned directors of all time.

The story itself is mostly fictional, though it’s set against a largely accurate (at least in mood) historical backdrop. Real conflicts, such as the Battle of Oriskany are portrayed, though the move is unusual in that the villains are the Iroquois tribe and British loyalists; Ford purposefully downplayed the role of actual British soldiers, seeing as in 1939, the British were on the precipice of war with Germany. He felt if would be unfair, at what seemed to be a pivotal moment in history, to make England out to be too bad.

1810s/Early 1820s: The Better Angels (2014)

Dir. A.J. Edwards
Photo via Amplify

Here’s something a little different! The Better Angels portrays the very early years of Abraham Lincoln, as he grows up in rural Indiana. It’s a very arts-y take on the subject, influenced heavily by the likes of Terrence Malick (who served as a producer). Though the movie received mixed reviews, others (including me!) found the movie both dreamy and transportive — watching the movie, you really do feel like you’re watching a group of people struggle with the harshness of life out in the wilderness in early America.

There’s not a whole lot of story here, but the mood Edwards creates is off the charts. The movie is almost so unspecific as to be about any family, but clearly draws some details from Lincoln’s early life. This is included on the list, not just as a portrayal of the early life of one of the greatest Americans, but as a film that accurately depicts daily life during this early period of American history.

1812: The Buccaneer (1958)

Dir. Anthony Quinn
Photo via Paramount

Consider this one a little bit of a bonus pick, as I’ve never seen it and don’t know all that much about it. Still, it felt wrong not to include a movie about the War of 1812. As you can probably guess, the War of 1812 isn’t a hot commodity when it comes to film. The Civil War and World War II, for example, have been the inspiration for hundreds of movies combined… the War of 1812 just doesn’t have the same cultural cache.

Still, this movie stars Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson and Yul Brynner as the French-American pirate Jean Lafitte, which should be enough of a selling point. It focuses mainly on the story of how at the Battle of New Orleans, Lafitte assisted Jackson in defeating the British. My educated guess would be that there are historical inaccuracies a-plenty, but that you might still learn a thing or two about this lesser known American war if you watch it.

NEXT TIME: Slavery and Civil War

Any movies about the Revolution or the period after that could also be included? Shout ’em out in the comments below.

5 thoughts on “The History of America in 30 Films (Part 2) Leave a comment

  1. “A More Perfect Union: America Becomes a Nation” on the ratification of the Constitution. Another good one would be “Lafayette: The Lost Hero”, documentary following the life and contributions of the Marquis de Lafayette during and after the Revolutionary War. I would also recommend “I Will Fight No More Forever” on the Nez Perce tribe and their leader, Chief Joseph, who rebelled against resettlement away from their traditional lands.

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