Lafayette: The Lost Hero to air Monday, September 13 on PBS

On Monday, September 13 at 9PM Central Time (check local listings), PBS will air a documentary on one of the more unique and important figures from the Revolutionary War, the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette was a French noble, who came to fight for the American cause at only 19. Lafayette: The Lost Hero presents the intimate story of the man who served as major-general in the Continental Army, and was a close friend of George Washington.

The story of Lafayette involves struggle and troubles, as while he is from a noble family, he strives to prove himself in French aristocratic society. He marries Adrienne, daughter of French aristocrats in 1775. In his youth, he became enamored with the idea of liberty and found sympathy with the American cause, which motivated him to travel to America, leaving a pregnant Adrienne in France.

The Revolution is but one part of the whole story. Lafayette’s life after the Revolution is covered very well, including his role in the French Revolution, imprisonment in France and Austria, and return to America to a hero’s welcome in 1824-5. The interesting aspects of this film are the love between him and Adrienne, as well as how both France and the United States have seemed to forget Lafayette (an example given was a statue of him donated by American schoolchildren being moved from the center of Paris to an obscure park). Through wonderful use of living history demonstrations, interviews with scholars and descendants of the Marquis, and wonderful use of images and animations, Lafayette: The Lost Hero is a documentary that you should record and watch.

Here’s a trailer:

Lafayette: The Lost Hero from The Documentary Group on Vimeo.

Click here for images and information on the documentary from the PBS website.

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Review of “The Battle of Bunker Hill”

Cross-posted to Military History Blog

This film is the first in a planned series under the title of America: Her People, Her Stories, which is produced by Tony Malanowski, who seeks to creat positive, family friendly productions that present a more positive outlook on American history. The film features a docudrama and a section providing the historical context, presented through interviews with historians. Having had a couple of weeks to reflect on the production since viewing it, I have found both positives and negatives within it.

First, as a historian, I want to commend Mr. Malanowski for his idea, as presenting history in an interesting light for children is always good. Despite covering a violent subject, like war, he presents the battle in a way that younger children can learn without being frightened. In addition, despite limitations he was able to pull off an over two-hour production rather well.

The film consisted of two main parts, a docudrama and a historical perspective. The docudrama part consisted of a movie reenactment of the battle, focusing on two fathers and sons, living in the area. The historical perspective placed the battle and the Revolutionary War within the larger context of early American history, incorporating interviews with three, as the film puts it, “historical experts.” Gregory J. W. Urwin is a scholar of both the Revolution and Civil War at Temple University who has written many works. Richard Patterson is the director of the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton, NJ, while William Chemerka has written several books on Texas history and has appeared on History Channel documentaries. My only problem is that Urwin is the only scholar working in the field covered by the film. Patterson is a good choice given his public history work at Trenton, but Chemerka seems out-of-place, as I could find no information related to any work he did on the Revolution. Though this is merely a difference of historical outlook, I had to mention it.

That said, the docudrama was an interesting work. The battle scenes were  well done, given the budgetary issues. It was portrayed well for an audience geared towards younger children and makes the colonial militia out to be heroic, which is good. My only observation was that the acting seemed a little over done at the beginning. The sons portrayed in the film present an interesting issue, as they seem to be fourteen or so. Their presence at the battle is a conundrum, as if old enough to come and help, they likely would have been allowed to stay and fight, as they would have known how to use a musket. Further, what about leaving the son home to tend the farm? Again, this is my observation and reflects training and a slightly different outlook.

The historical perspective was rather good and placed the battle in context, which is very important. Despite my concern over the experts chosen, they did well. In addition to the two main parts, a few extra features were added, including Reagan’s farewell address, which I enjoyed immensely.

Now, the only real artistic difference I would note is that I would have chosen a battle involving George Washington, likely Trenton, as while Bunker Hill was a significant engagement, the struggle of the army under Washington, especially at Trenton would have better achieved the goals of Mr. Malanowski.

Overall, the docudrama is a good program for families with young children to engage them in history. However, as I always state with any film, be sure to supplement the viewing with proper books and documents, as reading is always good. Get children reading the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and other primary documents. I look forward to seeing more from this project.

Click here to learn more about the film and to order a copy.

Review of HBO’s John Adams

Now that I have had time to digest it and watch it again with friends, I am now prepared to review the recent HBO series John Adams for this site. The series link to the Revolutionary War and early National period are quite appropriate for this site. I was thoroughly impressed with this program, though did notice areas of artistic license and a couple areas of inaccuracy.

The series begins in Boston in 1770 and presents Adams coming upon the Boston Massacre, which likely did not happen, but was a way for the series to link the event to Adams’ defense of the British soldiers. The bulk of the first episode revolves around the trial of the soldiers, the Boston Tea Party, Intolerable Acts, and Adams’ election to the Continental Congress. There are a couple of disturbing scenes, first, the aftermath of the Massacre, and the second showing a man being tarred and feathered. In addition, the members of the Adams family, particularly Abigail, are introduced.

The second episode deals with the beginning of the Revolution and the debate over independence and introduces George Washington and Ben Franklin into the series. The portrayal of Franklin was quite good, but I personally found the portrayal of Washington a bit troubling. In the series, Washington is portrayed as rather soft-spoken, which may recall his humble personality, however, given his temper, particularly when he dismissed Lee at Monmouth, I argue that the actor portraying Washington could have been humble, but spoke louder. The appearance of Washington is also a bit inaccurate in the early episodes, as he appears as a much older man, when he was only in his 40s. The appearance is likened to the portrait on the dollar bill.

The third episode finds Adams and his son John Quincy journeying to France to assist Franklin in securing aid. This episode portrayed the French as a bunch of prissy people, with men and women wearing lots of makeup and the men acting rather feminine. This portrayal of the French was quite amusing, as was the clear discomfort displayed by Adams towards the rather liberal culture of France displayed. Adams is then dispatched to the Netherlands to appeal for financial assistance for America and is initially unsuccessful. At the same time, he sends John Quincy (who was fourteen at the time) to Russia as a diplomatic aid. He contracts illness and is shown near death.

The fourth episode finds John and Abigail reuniting in France to negotiate the Treaty of Paris. This episode begins to illustrate the eventual split between Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The Adams are dispatched to England, where Adams meets with King George III. The Adams are unhappy in England and John requests recall. The recall is granted and they return to America, with John finding his children much older and Charles heading down a path to destruction. Adams is elected Vice President and we see a great scene of the inauguration of Washington.

The fifth episode finds Adams serving as VP and President of the Senate. His personality causes the Senate to change the rules barring him from speaking when he attempts to create an elaborate title for Washington, which annoys the Senators. Adams experiences conflicts with Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, as well as being excluded from Washington’s Cabinet meetings. Much of the episode revolves around the ratification of Jay’s Treaty. The episode ends with Adams being elected President.

Episode six focuses on Adams’ presidency, particularly the XYZ Affair and Quasi-war with France. The split between Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton becomes complete. The episode also shows John and Abigail entering the White House. Adams’ son Charles plays a prominent role in the episode, as Adams confronts his son’s alcoholism and disowns him. Charles dies in 1800 and Adams will not forgive his lost son. Adams is defeated by Jefferson and retires to private life.

The last episode of the series finds Adams living at his farm Peacefield in the last years of his life. This episode contains the most inaccuracies of any episodes. In addition, the passage of time in this episode is the greatest, with twenty-five years passing through the hour-long episode. The episode revolves around the deaths of his daughter Nabby in 1813 and Abigail in 1818, as well as his aging and rekindling his friendship with Jefferson. The inaccuracies include when Adams and Jefferson reignited their friendship, which was in 1812, but portrayed in the series as after Abigail’s death in 1818. This inaccuracy contains another within it, as Dr. Benjamin Rush encouraged Adams to write Jefferson, but in 1812 (he died in 1813) In addition, a scene involving Adams criticizing Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence signing painting is inaccurate, as Adams only mentioned the door that Washington bolted out of when he was nominated to be commander of the Continental Army. The election of John Quincy to the Presidency is portrayed nicely. The end of the episode features a touching segment dealing with the deaths of Adams and Jefferson and is very well done.

Overall, the series is quite good, despite some inaccuracies. John Adams and most of the other persons portrayed are done well. John Adams is the Band of Brothers of the American Revolution and I hope that the series will ignite renewed interest in the American Revolution and early National periods in our history. I encourage everyone, except kids (there is adult content) to watch the series or order it on DVD, as it is reasonably priced. Great job HBO on another great historical series.

The Politically Correct Revolutionary War

I take children’s television programs dealing with historical events very seriously because not only are kids our future, but if they are given a bad education on history, I will end up attempting to fix the mistakes when they arrive at college (shudders). This leads me to examine a series, originally put out by PBS called Liberty’s Kids. The goal of the program is to educate kids age 7-12 about the American Revolution (God forbid that kids are encouraged to read books on the subject). This is certainly a noble effort, but the show falls short, choosing to present a politically correct story of our war for independence that ignores many historical facts. While you may be wondering why I would follow a kid’s show, I must state that I take such things seriously and want to make sure that history is presented correctly to kids, especially in today’s society where kids are not as likely to pick up books and seek out historical truth.

The main characters of the show report the events of the Revolutionary period while working for Dr. Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. While it is true that Franklin printed such a paper, a Google search is inconclusive for the time of the Revolution. However, two details of Franklin’s life support the idea that he was not publishing the paper during the Revolutionary period. First, he was serving in an ambassadorial role to England on several occasions from the mid 1750s until 1775, which meant being in London for years at a time, which would have prevented him from publishing the paper. Likewise, his service in France during much of the Revolution would have also prevented him from publishing the paper. While I certainly understand that the cartoon is somewhat fictitious, I also do not want children to get the wrong ideas about Benjamin Franklin and the Revolution. In addition to the child reporters of Dr. Franklin, is another character named Moses, a former slave who taught himself to read and purchased his freedom, who now works for Franklin. This is even more unlikely given the nature of society at the time with regard to slavery and the status of blacks in society.

The major problem I have with this show is the over emphasis on minority characters and the glossing over of the negative aspects of these characters for the sake of political correctness. For instance, African Americans are frequently highlighted in areas where they would have had little presence at the time, particularly in the Continental Army (less than ten percent of all Continental soldiers were black, but you would get the impression from the show that it was much higher). American Indians were also shown in favorable light, with characters such as the Shawnee Cornstalk used to give the impression that American Indians were at peace and harmony until the white man arrived, which contradicts mounds of evidence to the contrary.

In addition, several key battles are overlooked. For instance, George Rogers Clark’s expedition to liberate the Illinois Country was not covered by the series. Instead, the series focuses on two of the main characters traveling down the Mississippi River to meet Governor Galvez with a Continental officer. The series does not examine Quebec, which was an important early battle in the war, specifically because of the amazing journey through the Maine wilderness by Benedict Arnold and his men. Only one episode covers the entire Southern theater of battle, which has the important events of Camden, Gulliford Courthouse, and Cowpens. While I understand that covering everything in the war would be too much for young children, consider this, the series was made up of 40 episodes at roughly 30 minutes each, which is 20 hours of total time. In contrast, the groundbreaking series by A&E The American Revolution covers the entire war very well, including the events overlooked by Liberty’s Kids, in a little over eight hours (I watched The American Revolution when I was ten, which is the target age area for the PBS show).

To be fair, there are some aspects of the show that I like. The show does a wonderful job of portraying George Washington to be a wonderful man of character, which is somewhat lacking in today’s historical discourse. The portrayal of Benedict Arnold is quite good, and the battle sequence, though a little quirky, is done very well, so not to scare young kids, but give them a decent concept of the nature of the battles during the war. In addition, the show illustrates the trials of the Continental army at Valley Forge, their training by Baron von Steuben, and the attempts to seize power from Washington by other officers. The political and international relations aspects of the show are also very well done.

In closing, PBS’s attempt to present a politically correct American Revolution to kids fails this historian’s litmus test for the most part. While it is important to tell the stories of minority participants in history, the over emphasis of minority characters, as well as the neglect of several events in the Revolutionary War only serve to give kids a misguided idea about this critical time in our history. There are some good qualities to the show, but they are overshadowed by the problems noted. I encourage parents to watch the show, if available, and talk with your children and make sure they have access to books on the Revolution and the major players, so that they can gain a better education about this time in our nation’s past than through the tube. Kids, do not let your knowledge of American history be only what you watch on television, get out and read, as you will discover many wonderful things that TV will not provide.