For many, July Fourth is a day of barbecues, concerts and fireworks. While all those things are great ways to celebrate, people may forget the historical aspect of the Fourth of July. On top of the delicious food and pretty fireworks, you could also watch some historical drama pieces to get a better sense of what led the Founding Fathers to sign the Declaration of Independence. Of course, you could just watch “Hamilton” on Disney+, but if you want to try something different, I have a few recommendations. Strangely enough, the American Revolution did not inspire a ton of big titles like other events in American history. Nevertheless, I have compiled a short list of shows and movies that you could watch depending on what mood you are in.
“Turn: Washington’s Spies”
A great historical drama to watch, not only on July Fourth but any time of the year, would be “Turn: Washington’s Spies.” This show is based on a true story from the early stages of the American Revolution. The basic plot starts with an officer in the Continental Army, Ben Tallmadge, contacting an old friend named Abraham Woodhull who lives in a town under British occupation. Ben somewhat coerces Abraham into spying on the officers controlling his neighborhood.
From there, Abraham’s assignment consistently leads him behind enemy lines, where he runs into some of the most important figures in the Royal Army. But at the same time, there is internal tension because Abraham’s father is the town magistrate; he is loyal to the crown and would be very disappointed if he found out about Abraham’s schemes.
Additionally, there are other narratives about slaves and officers from both the Continental and Royal armies. The great production quality of the show is illuminated by the excellent costumes and a strong cast that does a great job of portraying Colonial-era citizens. These aspects combine with an excellent story to make this show a binge-worthy one.
There are many interesting characters on both sides of the conflict. Unlike most American shows that retell history, this one gives the enemies more human elements, which gives viewers a better perspective about the other side of the conflict. While it will certainly take more than a day to complete the series, just watching a few episodes offers an adequate remembrance of American history.
HBO’s “John Adams”
Another historical drama that you could watch is HBO’s “John Adams,” which chronicles the pre-Revolutionary years and those that follow from the perspective of John Adams. This show deals much more with the politics that led to the Revolution, which may be more interesting for an older audience.
The first episode is largely about the Boston Massacre, which took place a few years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams, an attorney at the time, elected to defend the British soldiers who fired upon the citizens because he believed that everyone had a right to a fair trial. This episode brilliantly captures the underlying tension between the colonists and the Royal Army, all while a revolution is brewing.
The second episode details the negotiations that took place between the delegates at the Second Continental Congress, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. While the actual event that the Fourth of July celebrates (the signing of the Declaration of Independence) isn’t until the second episode, both are worth a watch if you have an itch for history. The rest of the series is more about the end of the Revolution and the years that follow for the United States. Every episode is certainly relevant to American history, but if you just want to watch 2-3 hours’ worth of content, just stick to the first couple of episodes. You will be plenty satisfied.
Mel Gibson seems to have a habit of getting involved with historically inaccurate projects, as both “The Patriot” and his film “Braveheart” are both on Time Magazine’s “Top 10 Historically Misleading Films.” I recently re-watched this film and actually quite enjoyed it. While there are plenty of historical inaccuracies, I will say that “The Patriot” is a well-made film in regards to the action sequences and production quality. The performances from Jason Isaacs, Heath Ledger and Tom Wilkenson all demonstrate their talent as actors. Even Mel Gibson does a good job of fitting into his character. The costumes and weapons are spot on, and the battles feel large and intense.
Mel Gibson plays a former soldier who is haunted by his actions during the French and Indian War. He is so haunted that he does not want to go to war over independence. However, after his son gets killed by a British officer, he fights for the Continental Army by assembling a militia made up of regular townsfolk. The plot and action are interesting enough to keep most viewers engaged throughout the film. However, this movie has so many historical inaccuracies that are clearly meant to give the viewers a certain conception of American history. For one thing, the British soldiers are portrayed as overtly brutal fighters who commit inhumane atrocities.
There is one scene in which the main villain burns down a church with innocent people inside of it. This kind of cruelty to civilians was never ordered by a British officer during the Revolutionary War. The filmmakers intentionally made the antagonists monstrous to appeal to the American audience. Additionally, this film completely whitewashes the element of slavery. Mel Gibson’s character owns a farm and has darker-skinned people working on the farm for him.
Any historian would conclude that Gibson’s character owned slaves; in fact, the real-life person that he is based on did own slaves. However, the workers explicitly say in the movie, “We’re not slaves, we work this land as freemen,” implying that the protagonist is so moral of a human that he didn’t even exploit the benefits of slavery when this would have been extraordinarily unlikely. I understand not wanting to have the film focus on slavery, but this kind of white-washed dialogue in a historical drama is basically propaganda. So, if you choose to watch “The Patriot,” just remember it is just a movie with cool action sequences that not so subtly encourage blind patriotism.
If you’re looking for a patriotic historical drama to watch this Fourth of July, be sure to check these ones out!