Movie Review: Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot (1957)


Title: Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot
Release Date: March 30, 1957
Director: George Seaton
Production Company: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation | Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

For 63 years, visitors to Colonial Williamsburg have been introduced to the Historic Area with this docudrama account of the years leading up to the Revolutionary War in Virginia.  I first saw in 1985 at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitors Center and later on hotel tv loops, and now I got to revisit it on a Zoom presentation from the Williamsburg Regional Library (which included a slide presentation on the making of the film and its restoration).  This movie is short, and a bit corny, but I maintain a stupid love for it that I cannot explain.

A young Jack Lord stars as John Fry, a wealthy plantation owner who serves in the Virginia legislature in the 1760s and 1770s.  He interacts with famous historical figures like Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington as well as less famous historical figures like William Byrd III, John Randolph, and George Wythe.  The movie expertly depicts the series of incidents that precipitated the Revolution and the vote for Independence, and through Fry we see the gradual transition of someone from being a loyal British subject to supporting independence.  The movie also offers an introduction to the many sites in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, especially when Fry gives a tour of the city to his family.

The movie does fail from a social history perspective, as views of historical events outside of Fry’s patriarchal, slave-owning planter class are kept to the margins.  Nevertheless, the movie packs in a lot of historical detail in 37 minutes.  And it does it with a score by Bernard Herrmann (of Vertigo, Psycho, and Taxi Driver fame) and in beautiful technicolor.  When I worked at Colonial Williamsburg in the 1990s, I frequently had people ask if I starred in this movie which demonstrates that the movie doesn’t look like it was made 16 years before I was born and that these people did not watch Hawaii 5-0.

Can You Spot the Difference?

Jack Lord
Me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

All these years later, Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot remains “ever the best!”

Rating: *****

Book Review: Siege by Roxane Orgill


AuthorRoxane Orgill
TitleSiege: How General Washington Kicked the British Out of Boston and Launched a Revolution
Publication Info: Candlewick (2018)
Summary/Review:

I received a free advance reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Siege is a book that tells the story of the Siege of Boston in 1775-1776 from multiple perspectives and entirely in verse.  It’s a spectacular way of presenting how the Continental Army was able to fortify the hills surrounding Boston and force the British Army to evacuate the city. And while there’s poetic license, almost all of this book is based on historical fact.  The characters include familiar names like George and Martha Washington, Colonel Henry Knox, Sir William Howe, and Abigail Adams, but also Washington’s aide-de-camp Joseph Reed, Washington’s enslaved manservant William Lee, and rank-and-file Continental Army privates Caleb Haskell and Samuel Haws.  Orgill also versifies Washington’s daily orders and the news from Boston.  This is a wonderful approach to presenting a moment in history and highly recommend it.

Favorite Passages:

“Funerals – three, four, five a day
General Gage has ceased
The pealing of church bells
They cast too melancholy a mood
They do not bring back the dead” – p. 31

“I believe it
from the jetsam
washed ashore
spindles
headboards
tables without legs
splintered drawers
carved backs of Chippendale chairs

they’re leaving the town intact
but nothing to sit upon.” – p. 171

Recommended books:

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick, A Few Bloody Noses: The Realities and Mythologies of the American Revolution by Robert Harvey, and 1776 by David McCullough

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson


AuthorLaurie Halse Anderson
Title: Chains 
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, ©2008.
Summary/Review:

This historical novel set during the early days of the American Revolution focuses on 13-year-old Isabel, an enslaved girl promised freedom on the death of her master, but finds she has no recourse when she and her sister Ruth are sold to cruel new masters in New York.  Working a Loyalist household she finds herself drawn into spying for the revolutionaries, but soon learns that despite promises from Loyalists and Patriots alike, that neither side is concerned with freeing Africans from the bonds of slavery.  Anderson captures the anger of Isabel, but doesn’t neglect to also characterize her as having many concerns typical to a young teenager as well.  The author also really captures the uncertainty of the Revolution, the people of New York taking different sides in 1776, with some among them willing to shift loyalties to whomever has the upper hand.  She also doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war on the civilian community from a brutal fire to depictions of captured Americans cruelly held in cold, overcrowded, and disease-ridden prisons.  The book is the first of a trilogy of books called The Seeds of America and ends on a cliffhanger at a momentous occasion in the narrative so I will be sure to read the rest of the series.

Favorite Passages:

“Momma said that ghosts couldn’t move over water. That’s why kidnapped Africans got trapped in the Americas. When Poppa was stolen from Guinea, he said the ancestors howled and raged and sent a thunderstorm to turn the ship back around, but it was too late. The ghosts couldn’t cross the water to help him so he had to make his own way in a strange place, sometimes with an iron collar around his neck. All of Momma’s people had been stolen too, and taken to Jamaica where she was born. Then she got sold to Rhode Island, and the ghosts of her parents couldn’t follow and protect her neither. They kept moving us over the water, stealing us away from our ghosts and our ancestors, who cried salty rivers into the sand. That’s where Momma was now, wailing at the water’s edge, while her girls were pulled out of sight under white sails that cracked in the wind.” – p. 25

The woman in the yellow head cloth worked the pump for Grandfather. “The British promise freedom to slaves but won’t give it to the white rebels,” she said as she pushed the handle up and down. “The rebels want to take freedom, but they won’t share it with us.” She set down the first bucket and picked up the second. “Both sides say one thing and do the other.” – p. 166

Recommended booksThe Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson
Rating: ****1/2

Podcasts of the Week (s) (July 22-August 11)


I’m way behind on posting anything to this blog.  Here are some podcasts from the past few weeks that are worth your while:

BackStory – Are We There Yet?: Americans On Vacation

An interesting history of how Americans made use of their leisure time in the past.  Oh and try not to get fumed about the idea that people who worked with their brains needed vacations while manual laborers did not, an idea still well ingrained in labor policy today.

Ben Franklin’s World – Rosemarie Zagarri, Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution

Mercy Otis Warren – writer and revolutionary activist – is a remarkable women of her time and someone you should know more about.

Decode DC – Should Historians Be Pundits?

Doing a better job of comparing our present political situation with the past, and finding what in the past brought about the political climate of the present.

LeVar Burton Reads“The Second Bakery Attack” by Haruki Murakami

I’m really enjoying this new podcast series, which is basically Reading Rainbow for grownups.  In addition to LeVar Burton’s great reading voice, the production values are really strong.  This was the story that introduced me to Murakami over 20 years ago, and coincidentally I first heard it read aloud on a radio program.

99% InvisibleWays of Hearing

This podcast introduces a new series exploring the changes in sound between analaog and digital audio.  As an added bonus, there’s an appearance by Red Sox announce Joe Castiglione.

Politically Re-Active – Is this what democracy looks like? Jake Tapper & Jessica Byrd give their take

I enjoyed learning about Jessica Byrd who helps underrepresented communities engage in the political process.

The Story Collider Epidemics: Stories of Medical Crises

The first story by Ken Haller is a particularly powerful reminiscence of his personal experience of the first signs of the AIDS epidemic.

Twenty Thousand Hertz – Sound Firsts

Some of the oldest surviving recordings provide a jaw-dropping window into the past.  Check out FirstSounds.Org for more.

 

Book Review: My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78 by Robert Sullivan


Author: Robert Sullivan
Title: My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78
Narrator: Mike Chamberlain
Publication Info: Dreamscape Media (2012)
Other Books by Same Author:  The Meadowlands and The Thoreau You Don’t Know

Summary/Review:

Robert Sullivan and I share a surname and a lot of common interests.  In this case, local history and travelogue.  The American Revolution famously began in New England and ended in Virginia, but the majority of the war took place in New York and New Jersey where the battles are greatly overlooked.  Even the coldest winter on record when the Continental Army encamped at Morristown, NJ doesn’t get the press of the somewhat milder winter at Valley Forge, PA.

Sullivan visits sites in New York and New Jersey, attempting to experience the long marches of a Continental foot soldier, while also exploring the popular memory through books, poems, museums, and reenactments.   I really like the premise of the book and some of the historical details of the Revolution and how the landscape continues to inform the New York/New Jersey area.  On the other hand, the book is meandering and not very cohesive, and well … a bit boring at times.  For example, a long portion of the end of the book Sullivan describes in detail many visits to the Watchung Mountains in New Jersey to attempt signaling his family in Brooklyn using a mirror.  It’s just not lively reading.  All the same, I like the way Sullivan thinks and will seek out his other books.

Recommended books:  Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell, Snowshoeing Through Sewers by Michael Aaron Rockland and Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz
Rating: **1/2

Book Reviews: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell


AuthorSarah Vowell
TitleLafayette in the Somewhat United States
Narrator:  Sarah Vowell, with  John Slattery, Nick Offerman, Fred Armisen, Bobby Cannavale, John Hodgman, Stephanie March, and Alexis Denisof
Other Books Read By Same Author:

Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2015)
Summary/Review:

This audiobook includes numerous well-known actors performing the quotes of  historical figures in addition to the author reading the main text.  As the “Lafayette” part of the title implies, this is a biography of Marquis de Lafayette, the young French aristocrat who helped George Washington win the American Revolutionary War.  Vowell starts with Lafeyette’s historic tour of the United States in 1824-25 and then flashes back to Lafayette’s experiences in the war.  I wish that we learned more about the Grand Tour or Lafayette’s post-American Revolution activities, but the war-era biographical details are solid with a mix of Vowell’s humor and pop culture references.  For example, Vowell details the arrival of Baron von Steuben with falsified credentials on a direct continuum to the parade and dance party in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

The universal admiration is contrasted to the “Somewhat United States” where it seems that Americans can never agree on anything or get along. The Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, the Election of 1800, and the Election of 1824 all provide numerous examples of this disunity through which the United States still persevered. It is somewhat comforting that if even the esteemed founders of our country had difficulty agreeing and maintaining cordial relationships that today’s political discord is just par for the course.

The book also takes the form of a travelogue as Vowell and various traveling companions visit sites associated with Lafayette, leading to an amusing side trip in Freehold, NJ to see Bruce Springsteen’s childhood home (both Springsteen and I were born in Freehold), and a very positive experience at Colonial Williamsburg for Vowell, her sister, and nephew.  Particularly interesting is an interview with the historic interpreter who portrays Lafeyette and his experience during the Iraq War era when anti-French sentiment was high.

This is an enjoyable popular history which makes a good introduction to Lafayette and his place in America’s cultural consciousness.

Recommended booksRevolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America by Jack Rakove and Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Rating: ****

Book Review: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow


Author: Ron Chernow
TitleAlexander Hamilton
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Publication Info: New York, N.Y. : Penguin Audio, p2004.
Summary/Review:

A straight-forward biography of General Washington’s right-hand man, Constitutional crusader, and founder of American finance as first secretary of treasury. It does not shy away from Hamilton’s failings such as an ill-tempered tongue and poor decisions, but mostly presents him as an honorable person who set the United States on the course to greatness before his own fall from grace (followed by his being felled by a dueling pistol).  Chernow relies on the unnuanced history that presents Aaron Burr as pure villain, but Burr did kill the book’s protagonist, so I suppose it’s only fair.  If you’re looking for an introduction to one of the United States’ overlooked but fascinating founders, this is it.

Recommended books:Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America by Thomas Fleming, Ordeal of Ambition: Jefferson, Hamilton and Burr by Jonathan Daniels,  Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis, Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side by Leonard W. Levy, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams by Joseph J. Ellis and John Adams by David McCullough
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Glorious Cause by Jeff Shaara


Author: Jeff Shaara
TitleThe Glorious Cause 
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2003
Summary/Review:

Turns out that wasn’t the book I intended to read. That’s okay, because this is an entertaining historical novel about the American War for Independence. Or is it a novelistic history? Because it really reads like a history book.  But a history book with an unusual knowledge of the thoughts and private conversations of its protagonists.  Because there’s a lot here that would never be known from the historical record and is at best educated supposition. Nevertheless it provides an interesting perspective where people are the heart of the narrative rather than a string of battles and military strategies.

The four point-of-view characters in this book are George Washington, Nathaniel Green, Lord Cornwallis, and Benjamin Franklin.  Each of these men is presented as brilliant and noble in their own way.  Their rivals are depicted much less well.  For Washington and Greene that includes Charles Lee, Horatio Gates, and members of Congress, while Cornwallis has to deal with Generals Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne.  Meanwhile, Franklin faces off against the intrigues of the French court.

As I said, it’s entertaining as a novel and historically sound, and worth a read for a different take on the Revolution.

Recommended books1776 by David McCullough, A Few Bloody Noses: The Realities and Mythologies of the American Revolution by Robert Harvey, The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood and Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America by Jack Rakove
Rating: ***

Book Review: First Family by Joseph Ellis


Author: Joseph J. Ellis
Title:  First Family
Narrator: Kimberly Farr
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2010), Edition: Unabridged
Previously Read by Same Author: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, and Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
Summary/Review:

Historian Joseph Ellis explores the relationship of Abigail and John Adams, and how it was effected by the Revolutionary Era, not to mention the effect they had on fomenting revolution.  The main source for this history is their voluminous correspondence which shows that they saw one another as intellectual equals discussing the issues of the day, but also demonstrated a romantic attachment.  While Abigail is the more grounded of the two balancing John’s fiery personality, there are instances where Abigail seems more extreme, such as her support of going to war with France during John’s presidency or her approval of the Alien & Sedition Acts.  Since the book relies so heavily on correspondence, there is more material for the times that they were apart than when they were together and obviously not writing one another.  For the later years after John’s presidency, Ellis relies on the pair’s correspondence with other individuals (including the famed letters to and from Thomas Jefferson), but it loses the intimacy of the earlier parts of the book.  Ellis may have done better to pare the book down just to the years where correspondence between Abigail and John exists rather than attempt the story of their entire lives, but that’s a minor quibble.  This book paints a human portrait of the “venerable” couple from the time of the nation’s birth.
Recommended books: John Adams by David McCullough and Revolutionaries by Jack Rakove.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Bunker Hill : a city, a siege, a revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick


Author:  Nathaniel Philbrick
TitleBunker Hill : a city, a siege, a revolution
Publication Info:  Penguin Books; Reprint edition (April 30, 2013)
Other Books by Same Author: Mayflower
Summary/Review:

Another brilliant work of Massachusetts and American history by Philbrick.  Like Mayflower, which was about the first three generations of the Plymouth colony through King Phillip’s War, Bunker Hill is more than it’s title implies.  It covers the period of a little over two years from the destruction of tea in Boston Harbor to the evacuation of Boston by British troops.  While covering historical ground that I’m familiar with, Philbrick has a way of shedding light on people and events in ways I never thought of them before.  One key element of this book is how the Revolution grew not just from political and ideological differences of the Massachusetts’ colonists with the mother country, but with very personal relationships and slights.  The Battle at Breeds Hill is the centerpiece of this book, but it also provides good accounts of Lexington and Concord, the fortification of Dorchester Heights, and the political and military maneuvering before and after this events.  Not to mention the infighting among the Patriots and the Redcoats, as well.  I highly recommend this accessible account of the events and decisions that lead to the American Revolution.
Favorite Passages:

“For Gage, the patriots’ complaints about British tyranny seemed utterly absurd since British law was what allowed them to work so assiduously at preparing themselves for a revolution. Never before (and perhaps since) had the inhabitants of a city under military occupation enjoyed as much freedom as the patriots of Boston.”

“For most Americans, England was an abstraction: a mythical homeland that despite its geographic distance from America remained an almost obsessive part of their daily lives.”

“The irony is that by the time Gage received Dartmouth’s letter, the anger of the ministry, along with that of many Massachusetts patriots, had cooled. If Gage had done nothing that spring, the patriot leaders, already beset by growing discord within their own ranks, would have had even more trouble maintaining a united front. The ministry had played perfectly into the radicals’ hands when Gage finally chose to act on a letter based on information and instructions that were several months old.”

“For many months now, the regulars had endured the taunts and outright maliciousness of not just the Bostonians but also country people just like these. It was the country people who had refused to allow the barracks to be built that might have saved the lives of the soldiers’ comrades and loved ones who were now buried at the edge of Boston Common. For the regulars this was personal, not political. If any of these farmers dared to fire their muskets, a British volley was sure to follow.”

“It’s estimated that approximately half the total deaths that occurred that day (forty-nine for the provincials, sixty-eight for the British) happened in and around Menotomy.”

“Benjamin Russell was the thirteen-year-old student at Boston’s Queen Street School who had followed Percy’s brigade out of Boston. Once in Cambridge he and his classmates had decided to spend the afternoon playing games on the town’s common, only to discover on the evening of April 19 that they were now trapped outside Boston with no way to communicate with their parents. Instead of despairing, they volunteered to serve as errand boys for the officers of the emerging army. Russell would not hear from his parents for another three months.”
“Stark, Prescott, and Putnam were part of the same army, but as far as all three of them were concerned, they were each going to fight this particular battle on their own. With Prescott confined to the redoubt, Putnam preoccupied with building a fortification atop Bunker Hill, and Stark supervising at least the eastern portion of the rail fence, there was no one to synchronize the three of them into a single cohesive unit. Adding to the difficulty of getting these three commanders to work together were preexisting personal animosities. Stark didn’t like Putnam—a feeling that was probably mutual—and as had already been made clear by the interchange about the entrenching tools, Prescott and Putnam didn’t exactly see eye to eye. It also didn’t help that the three of them were from different colonies. At this point a continental army did not yet exist, and in the absence of a unifying “generalissimo,” a quite considerable intercolonial rivalry had developed. General Ward might be the head of the provincial army, but only the soldiers from Massachusetts and New Hampshire were officially a part of that army; Connecticut had not yet formally placed its soldiers under Ward’s control. What had been true in Cambridge a few hours before was true now on the hills overlooking Charlestown: no one seemed to be in charge. But that wasn’t necessarily all bad. There might be, in essence, three different commanders on the American lines, but as far as General Howe was concerned they amounted to a single, very difficult-to-read enemy. In just the last hour he had watched as the provincial fortifications organically evolved in ways of which not even he was entirely aware. Howe wasn’t up against a leader with a plan to implement; he was watching three different leaders try to correct the mistakes of the other two. The workings of this strange amalgam of desperation and internal one-upmanship were baffling and a bit bizarre, but as Howe was about to discover, the end result was surprisingly formidable.”
“As Washington perhaps sensed, the Battle of Bunker Hill had been a watershed. What he didn’t realize was that the battle had convinced the British that they must abandon Boston as soon as possible. Now that the rebellion had turned into a war, the British knew they must mount a full-scale invasion if they had any hope of making the colonists see the error of their ways. Unfortunately, from the British perspective, Boston—hemmed in by highlands and geographically isolated from the colonies to the south—was not the place to launch a knockout punch against the enemy. Rather than become mired in an unproductive stalemate in Boston, the British army had to resume the fighting in a more strategically feasible location—either in New York or even farther to the south in the Carolinas. That was what Gage suggested in his correspondence that summer, and that was what the British ministry decided to do within days of learning of the battle on July 25. But, of course, Washington had no way of knowing what Gage and the ministers in London intended.”
“As had been proven on April 19, the militia, which could be assembled in the proverbial blink of an eye, was the perfect vehicle with which to begin a revolution. But as Joseph Warren had come to realize, an army of militiamen was not built for the long haul. Each company was loyal to its specific town; given time, an army made up of dozens of competing loyalties would tear itself apart—either that, or turn on the civil government that had created it and form a military dictatorship. An army that was to remain loyal to the Continental Congress could not be based on local affiliation.”

Recommended booksAs If an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution by Richard Archer, 1776 by David McCullough, A Few Bloody Noses by Robert Harvey, Ye Cohorn Caravan by Wm. L. Bowne, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party by Alfred F. Young, and Paul Revere and the World He Lived In by Esther Forbes.
Rating: ****