The United States vs. The Spirit of ’76

The provocative title of this morning’s post happens also to be the name of an actual American court case, one of the most ironically yet aptly named in history, right up there with “Loving v. Virginia”. I learned about it because today happens to be George Washington’s Birthday and I was intending to do a post on that Founding Father’s depictions in the movies, as I had previously done with Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. Almost instantly I discovered that the staff at Mount Vernon, surely one of the premiere house museums of the United States, had already beaten me to the punch. And more remarkably, they’ve done it to my satisfaction. I shouldn’t be so surprised, and yet you would be shocked by the lack of thoroughness that usually presides over the creation of such listicles. This one is not just well researched, and well written, but also graphically sensible and easy on the eyes, and technically snazzy. It’s rare to get all of that in one package. I highly recommend it. You’ll find it here. But be sure to come back!

…Because, wonderfully complete as Mount Vernon’s list is, it does omit a small handful of movies. I thought I would devote my post this morning to all of the ones they left out (e.g. George Arliss’s 1931 Alexander Hamilton) but instead, I opted to discuss one particular film, for reasons that should be, to use the Revolutionary adjective, self-evident. The film in question is called The Spirit of ’76 (1917). Mount Vernon may have left it off their list because it’s kind of a can of worms, which is the precise reason why I take it up.

Years ago, I remember some critic or historian making the observation that, for an event of its significance, compared with many other historical events of similar import, there are relatively few Hollywood movies about the American Revolution. And it’s quite true. Not only are there very few of them, but none is particularly distinguished. (The most ambitious may be D.W. Griffith’s America (1924), but somehow that one fails by a mile to be as monumental as several of his better remembered pictures.) And the reason this pundit gave for the lack of movies on the topic has to do with timing. At the very moment that the cinema was being born, America was finally only just softening in its traditional animus against John Bull. Coincidentally, 1895 happens to be the crucial year on both fronts. In that year, the Lumière Brothers first projected motion pictures for an audience. That was also the year of the Venezuelan Crisis, the last time there was any danger of hostilities between the U.S. and Great Britain, as well as its peaceful resolution, and the beginning of what is now called The Great Rapprochement — the final thawing of what had been a traditional antipathy between the two English-speaking countries. This “Special Relationship” as Teddy Roosevelt termed it, intensified with the two World Wars plus the Cold War, in which America and Great Britain became allies so close it is impossible for many to imagine any other condition possible — to the extent that millions of Americans have apparently grown to be in thrall of the British monarchy, a development that would have appalled Americans of the 18th and 19th century, and certainly appalls me!

Given this state of affairs, you can see where it would be difficult to make a movie in which the British are the VILLAINS. Bloody tyrants. Oppressors. This would be especially difficult during those periods when the U.K. was our wartime ally in battles against other countries we were calling those names, chiefly Germany and later the Communist Bloc. And that covers, really, most of the 20th century and most of Hollywood history. So, that has always been a convincing explanation to me about why America doesn’t make films about the American Revolution. Mel Gibson’s The Patriot (2000) is one of the few examples I’ve seen that illustrate what the problem is (and leave it to him to dare such a thing). The British in that film are S.O.B.s — Nazis in Redcoats. And that’s pretty sound thinking. Before there were Nazis, Redcoats are what Americans used to think about as their mental image of cruel, autocratic, even murderous invaders. But nowadays, that’s an inconvenient topic, and so, like an old family squabble, we just don’t talk about it. Which, come to think of it, is a very English thing to do.

This is a lot of preamble, but it’s required for perspective. For at any rate, if there is one film that embodies the consequences of taking on America’s renewed Anglophilia head on, it’s The Spirit of ’76. Sadly, no known copies of the film survive, so all we have is a few bald facts to guide us. The title of the film is misleading. The story was a highly fictional romance featuring several made-up characters whose interactions affect the American Revolution (as opposed to a straight-up telling of the history). Frank Montgomery was the director. For the record William Beery (brother of Noah Beery and Wallace Beery) played Washington, though he was far from the main character. And the British? Are not treated with kid gloves. The Redcoats commit atrocities. They impale American babies on bayonets. They rape American women. (Offscreen of course). George III is depicted as a wanton philanderer, and he slaps Benjamin Franklin — Benjamin Franklin! — across the face. Now. A good bit of that sounds true, with the exception of the Franklin-slapping, which wouldn’t have happened for a whole stack of reasons. But all the rest sounds true to both life and war. But this movie had the grave misfortune to have come out one month into America’s entry into World War One, and that proved a problem. All the more so because the film’s producer Robert Goldstein had German ancestry. (The fact that he was also Jewish was not considered to be the issue it would come to be after 1933).


Goldstein, who had been the costumier on The Birth of a Nation, initially tried to get Griffith to direct The Spirit of ’76, but after initial interest the latter drifted away with the intention of making his own epic, the aforementioned America. But Goldstein went ahead anyway, making what he assumed would be widely considered in any sane and rational universe to be a highly patriotic film. Instead, his movie was banned, and Goldstein was prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917. All for showing America’s ally at the time, Great Britain in a negative light. It was claimed that the film sowed dissent and disloyalty and was, in effect, German propaganda. Like such major figures as Eugene V. Debs and Emma Goldman, Goldstein did jail time for this. (He was sentenced to ten years and a $5000 fine; he served three). When he emerged from incarceration, he lived in exile for a time, settling at one point in, of all places, Germany (from which he was thankfully expelled circa 1935. As a Jew things could have gotten much worse for him there).

The great Anthony Slide, author of The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville and many other similarly valuable books, wrote one about this film, entitled Robert Goldstein and “The Spirit of ’76”, which came out in 1993. If you wish to learn more.

I won’t shock you, I imagine, if I use this occasion to pontificate. It seems that a long time ago Americans lost the clarifying spirit brought about by the Revolution. We’re in such a precarious place at the moment; a HUGE minority in the U.S. wants to restore something like monarchy (that’s what you call it when you have an all-powerful, lifetime ruler, I remind you, which is what 45’s followers sought and still seek). This would appall, not to say enrage George Washington, who made a very deliberate point of retiring his Presidency after two terms, clearly setting a precedent that the world would admire and be grateful for, for all time. He was the American Cincinnatus — the guy who went back to his farm after ruling the nation. This is what we used to admire. It changed at some point. Based on its television habits, this is now a country that can’t get enough of the Royal Family, and apparently would like one of its own. But that’s not the only scenario to fear, as we once again seem to be edging toward international conflict. Freedom of Speech, though guaranteed by the First Amendment, always seems to be one of the first rights we jettison when the country is at war. Indeed, our amnesia goes all the way back to John Adams, a chief author of our founding documents….who promptly threw their high ideals away and passed the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, during the Quasi-War with France. I never think of later aberrations like the Espionage Act, and, in our time, the Patriot Act, without remembering that precedent. Your freedom is always vulnerable. It can always be taken away by those in power. Of course, we live in a twisted time when large numbers of people are misusing words like the ones I just used in order to reinstall a man who repeatedly referred to the press as “enemies of the people” and wanted the power to sue comedians who made fun of him. When you reach that point, you’re Through the Looking Glass. Repeat after me: press and artists: good. Tyrants: bad. If it seems muddy, go over it again, you’re not doing it right.

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For more on silent film history please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.