Thursday, February 5, 2009


I just finished reading David McCullough's 1776, and I am sad. I am sad because the scope of the book was limited to just the events of the eponymous year, and even though I know how things turn out, I am sure left wanting to continue my trek with His Excellency General George Washington and his rag tag Continental Army. This book was written as a companion piece to McCullough's Pulitzer prize winning John Adams, which I have not read yet. I watched the excellent HBO mini-series starring Paul Giamatti , which I recommend highly, and thought I'd read 1776 as a warm-up to tackling Adams. So my sadness is tempered with the joy of expectation for my next read, but, if the mini-series is faithful to the book, many of the great historical occurrences may just be glancingly presented in relation to the effect on Adams' life. But I trust McCullough to do it right enough.

I don't need to spend much time singing McCullough's praises, he is a much read and honored writer of history. 1776 is the first book of his that I have read, however, and I was completely engrossed throughout the chronicle. The portrait of Washington in this book , though preserving some of the enigma that all great historical figures seem to present, made me consider the man, not the icon. For the first time the fragility of the birth of our nation , the uncertainty, the danger, the true ballsyness of rebelling against the Greatest Power On Earth was brought home to me.

It occurred to me how this great tale has been somewhat shrouded in the gauziness of myth.We all learned the basics, the Boston Tea Party, crazy old King George III, and the almost miraculous coming together of the Founding Fathers to Declare Independence, and shoot at Redcoats from behind trees until they gave up. But the real nitty gritty, desperate, brave, freezing, green, conflicted and uncertain struggle is not as well portrayed. I was trying to think of other movies concerning the American Revolution, and the only one that came to mind was Revolution, an Al Pacino starrer that I believe came out in the 80s and was, if memory serves, a stinker. There was also The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, but this one, while dealing with some historical characters and events, was a fictionalized account. And of course, the musical 1776.

And this begs the question: why hasn't the story , the real story, ever been told in all the glory and horror that it deserves?

My theory is that the heart of the average member of the Powers That Be is much more in line with the priggish ruling Tories, and the average Founding Father with his patriotic and libertarian zeal would be considered a religious whack-job militia man.

If you want to see the Civil War portrayed, you can take your pick of any number of films, some of them very fine. I think that apart from being closer to our own time, the central theme of slavery is a more fun "teaching moment" for filmmakers to engage in. There may have been a time when the assumption that the details of the story are too familiar from repeated exposure in school, but that was before society crumbled.

In any case, there are always books, and 1776 is a great place to start. Maybe McCullough will finish the job and grace us all with a complete history of the Revolution someday. Then maybe we'll get our movie!

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