"The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic." - Oscar Wilde
Since its conception, cinema has played a vital part in transforming our society. Film can be used to instill entertainment, education, and emotion. Sometimes it can cause grief, laughter, and happiness, but most importantly, it has the ability to make people think. The audience should not only contemplate the time in which the movie was made, but the era in which the plot actually takes place. Usually, historical films provide the audience with a general understanding of the past. However, if one does not know fact from fiction and history from Hollywood, it might be considered truth. This could be considered dangerous to society.
"Through video rentals and reruns, film and television recycle themselves to consummate their impact on popular culture. All citizens should ponder the implications of such statistics, but historians should be particularly concerned about this phenomenon, for what millions see on theater and television screens defines what is called 'popular memory,' the informal—albeit generally accepted—view of the past. Indeed, visual media defines history for many Americans." 
Surprisingly, unlike the American Civil War and World War II, there are not many films about the American Revolution. The few that do exist are often full of historical inaccuracies, fabricated romances, and theatrical absurdities. Yet, these movies are still entertaining for the majority of movie goers. Comparable to almost any film, these revolutionary tales often have maniacal villains. These devilish shoes are frequently filled by British generals, officers, and other Tory sympathizers. They are occasionally inspired by real people, but twisted and fictionalized. In reality, the majority of British officers were professional gentleman who held conduct and honor in high esteem. However, this is not how Hollywood has portrayed them.
In 1909, D.W. Griffith, the impending mastermind behind the Civil War epic, A Birth of a Nation, directed the first American Revolution film, The Hessian Renegades.  In 1924, Griffith would direct yet another revolution movie entitled America. Both of these silent films portrayed British and Hessian soldiers as either incompetent, murderous, or both. In America, a cold-blooded British captain and a group of Iroquois Indians violently butchered women and children on the frontier.  These early examples of American film demonstrate that the actions and attitudes of the British have repetitively been distorted or exaggerated.
DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (1939)
The Golden Year of Hollywood was in 1939. During this time, classics such as Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, and other box-office films became iconic. Another popular movie, Drums Along the Mohawk, follows settlers Gilbert (Henry Fonda) and Magdelana Martin (Claudette Colbert). Magdelana is a young, wealthy woman from Albany, New York who eventually marries Gilbert. They move west, settling at his property in Deerfield, New York. 
Stopping the night at a tavern, the couple sits down to eat supper, but the meal is soon interrupted by a mysterious man perched by the glowing fireplace of the inn. He turns and glares at the newlyweds through his one good eye, a patch covering the other socket. The stranger's long, black cape flows to the floor. He demands to know if the local populace is Tory or Patriot. Gilbert proudly replies that they are all Americans. The nameless visitor continues to warn them of potential Indian raids, foreshadowing the impending plot. This scene is quite ominous, not only to the main characters, but to the audience as well. 
Soon the peaceful countryside is uprooted when British Tories and Seneca Indians attack, burning and pillaging anything in their path. The leader of this raiding party is, of course, the one-eyed stranger—now given the name of Captain William Caldwell (John Carradine). He leads his raiding party through the Mohawk Valley, torching every farm and barn house, ultimately causing the nearby settlers to flock to the nearest defense, Fort Schuyler. 
Raiding parties, unbelievably similar to the ones depicted in the film, actually occurred quite often in the Mohawk Valley. In fact, the main reason behind these attacks was to deprive the Continental Army from its main food crop. "Between the years 1777 and 1781, the population of the Mohawk Valley dropped from 10,000 to 3,000 people. The terror and suffering experienced by the people of the valley during these years of the Revolutionary War was far greater than that of any other area of the 13 colonies." 
William Caldwell's story is surprisingly based in partial truth. He was an Irish merchant who immigrated to the colonies in 1773, eventually settling in Philadelphia.  He fought in the Pennamite–Yankee War, a heated land dispute between Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Caldwell also fought for Lord Dunmore in 1774, in which the governor of Virginia waged war against the Indians of Pennsylvania. He became familiar with the Native Americans and soon became part of the British Indian Department in 1775. He was wounded during Dunmore's War and then again at the assault of Norfolk, Virginia in 1776.  The location of his wounds are unclear, so maybe the film's eye-patch is not so far-fetched after all.
After recovering from his injuries, Caldwell was promoted to First Captain in Butler's Rangers on December 24, 1777.  This unit was established by loyalist and militiaman, John Butler of Connecticut. Throughout the Revolutionary War, this provincial regiment battled mostly in New York and Pennsylvania, but traveled as far as Ohio, Michigan, and Virginia. They earned the reputation of committing war crimes and failing to prevent other atrocities. In July 1778, at the Battle of Wyoming, Butler's Rangers and their Iroquois allies' defeated the outnumbered Patriot troops. "Fleeing [Patriot] soldiers were chased down and killed; many captives were tortured and then scalped. Upon their return to Fort Niagara, the Indians collected bounty payments for 227 scalps."  This would later be called a massacre.
Another massacre happened again on November 11, 1778 when Walter Butler, the commander's son, led an assault on Fort Alden in Cherry Valley, New York. Butler instructed that the Indian allies not harm any civilians. However, this promise was not kept. "By the time the attack was over, 33 Americans had been killed, most of whom were women and children, and more than 70 were taken prisoner…More than 180 people were left homeless, including many professed loyalists."  Captain Caldwell was presumably present at these massacres. Similar to the raid in Cherry Valley, Caldwell and his rangers did nothing to stop the Indian atrocities in the film. This lack of mercy is especially clear when the Indians deny a courier the right of quarter. Instead, they inhumanely burned him alive in a wagon. 
William Caldwell definitely "saw action in Schenectady and Rochester area[s] of New York."  If one draws a line between these two cities it passes directly through Deerfield and Fort Schuyler. In Mary B. Fryer's King's Men: The Soldier Founders of Ontario, it is said, "In July , Captain William Caldwell left Niagara bound for Schenectady, and on August 3, he joined forces with Lieutenant John Hare....Together the two ranger officers advanced with their combined force that number 87 rangers and 250 Indians."  This further proves that the appearance of William Caldwell in Drums Along the Mohawk is surprisingly based in fact.
THE DEVIL'S DISCIPLE (1959)
The 1950s witnessed an engaging era of cinema that creatively delved into the themes of the Cold War. In the wide variety of historical films produced in that period, many of the movies reflected the potential dangers of the "red menace" in the form of Communism. With films regarding the revolution, the British soldiers, too seemed to be suitable red scoundrels. This idea is certainly demonstrated in British director Guy Hamilton's 1959 movie, The Devil's Disciple. The film examines questions of morality and conformity amid tense political times. 
The movie intertwines the story of three very different individuals as they are swept up in the fervor of the American Revolution in 1777 New Hampshire. Actor Burt Lancaster stars as the fictional preacher Anthony Anderson, a man of peace who nonetheless claims that justice must prevail during these hard times. Appropriately enough, the film opens with an execution–the death of a town patriarch at the hands of the British on false suspicions that he was a rebel. The hanging is overseen by General John Burgoyne (colorfully played by Laurence Olivier), who laments over the execution but comments to an officer, "The sooner he is hanged the better." The athletic Lancaster later enters the scene and demands that the body be taken down from the public square. A rigid British officer tells him to mind himself in a tense verbal showdown. Earlier, Anderson is seen hurled from his carriage as he is pushed off the road to make way for General Burgoyne's departure from town. These scenes speak of the British incivility that is exhibited throughout the film. 
The Devil's Disciple is hindered both historically and cinematically by the fact that it cannot decide if it is a comedy or a drama. The movie's unusual stop-motion animation introduction is lighthearted and rather childish yet much of the film is grim despite flamboyant performances by its lead actors. In a variety of ways, it is a New England rendition of the 2000 film The Patriot: a man of peace reluctantly drawn into war by the excessive force and violence of British soldiers who exhibit indifference or cruelty on innocent civilians. Eventually, Burt Lancaster's character defiantly rips off his parson's neckerchief to join the fight. 
Anderson grows deeply impressed with the Patriot forces waging a guerilla war and decides to take the battle into his own church. In a fight scene as preposterous as Mel Gibson's hatchet-wielding frenzy in The Patriot, Anderson combats redcoats in close quarters in his own parish—ultimately blowing up the cache of gunpowder stored beside the church. Ultimately, Anderson is a pacifist who becomes fierce when provoked. Members of his flock are hanged and their stores are pillaged by insincere invaders. All of this combined with the bravery of the Continentals in contrast to British offenses drive Anderson on the path to retribution. 
General Burgoyne's character serves as a charming villain of sorts. Olivier's performance is full of witty (though rather ahistorical) observances about the conduct of the war. Despite the fact that he just issued an execution order, he nonetheless suggests to his major, "In the future I must ask you to be a little less generous with the blood of your men and a little more generous with your own brain."  Defying the majority of the film's narrative at the finale, Burgoyne spares the hanging of another Patriot after an impassioned plea by Anderson. This gentler side of British military mentality, particularly in regard to Burgoyne's worldview, may be one of the more accurate components of the film. As Richard M. Ketchum notes in his book, Saratoga, Burgoyne "suggested that the enforcement of discipline by flogging could be minimized if officers treated enlisted men as 'thinking beings' rather than spaniels 'trained by the stick.'" Accordingly, this attitude earned him the fond nickname of "Gentleman Johnny." 
As Cotton Seiler writes in Peter C. Rollins's film companion, "The Devil's Disciple plays fast and loose with the facts of Burgoyne's campaign, which menaced Continental forces up until the British surrender at Saratoga." Additionally, "the film ends with Burgoyne remarking that Britain will certainly give up its American colonies."  The real Burgoyne would have never advocated such a proposal. In the eyes of the cinematic Burgoyne, however, British atrocity had its consequences. "[George Bernard] Shaw's irreverent play and Hamilton's film are more interested in human folly than historical truth," Seiler concludes. Near the movie's end a lieutenant asks Burgoyne, "But what will history say?" Burgoyne responds, "History, as usual, will tell lies."  Much of the same could be said for Hollywood.
THE PATRIOT (2000)
Most films about the American Revolution often have one common theme: revenge. Such is the case with the 2000 film entitled The Patriot. Mel Gibson plays a wise and affectionate father by the name of Benjamin Martin, who is hesitant to choose sides in Revolutionary America. He ultimately fears for himself and his family. However, eventually his peaceful, South Carolina farm is ravaged by war and he is forced to give aid to both sides. In the aftermath, a British colonel named William Tavington approaches Martin, demanding the soldier who had been carrying Continental dispatches. Once Tavington figures out it was Martin's son, Gabriel, he orders his Dragoons to hang him. 
Benjamin's other son, Thomas, tries to set Gabriel free, but without hesitation Tavington raises his pistol and fires. Thomas dies from a chest wound, the family's property is either burnt or stolen, and Tavington orders that all Continental wounded be killed. Ultimately, all of this enrages Martin and he makes it his mission to hunt down Tavington for the sake of revenge. Martin is later put in command of a militia unit. The two men continue to play cat and mouse by skirmishing and ambushing each other until almost war's end. Finally, the two meet face-to-face, resulting in a fierce and bloody duel of swords and tomahawks. Eventually, Tavington loses his life and his general, Lord Charles Cornwallis loses the battle. 
Both of these warriors are fictionalized by Hollywood, but based partially on historical figures. Benjamin Martin is loosely inspired by the South Carolina militiaman Francis Marion or better known as "The Swamp Fox." This guerilla fighter haunted the swamps of South Carolina, ambushing and disturbing British deployments of supplies and troops.  This same character was also played by Leslie Nielsen in the television show, The Swamp Fox, produced by Disney from 1959-1961. However, The Patriot brings additional elements to the character.
"Although Francis Marion led surprise attacks against the British, and was known for his cunning and resourcefulness, Mel Gibson played The Patriot's Marion-inspired protagonist as an action hero. 'One of the silliest things the movie did,' says Sean Busick, a professor of American history at Athens State University in Alabama, 'was to make Marion into an 18th century Rambo.'" 
On the other hand, the character of Colonel William Tavington was based on the real British cavalryman, Banastre Tarleton. He was born in Liverpool, England on August 21, 1754, and studied law at Oxford. Eventually, he ran out of money and joined the First Regiment of Dragoon Guards in 1775. He became a talented soldier and a strong opponent of the Continental Army, including Marion's militia. 
"His use of light infantry in combination with his cavalry made a powerful combat team. He set a strong pace for his men to follow, and, in effect, led by example. Militia were said to panic at the sight of his green-jacketed dragoons. He was so effective that [Charles] Cornwallis wrote: 'I wish you would get three legions, and divide yourself into three parts: We can do no good without you.'" 
Banastre Tarleton would soon make a bad name for himself though. At the Battle of Waxhaws, the Continental forces were at a breaking point. Tarleton formed his men and charged, allowing the Patriot troops to only shoot one volley before the Dragoons stormed their defenses. As they surrendered, Tarleton's horse was shot and he collapsed. There are several different variations of what happened next. 
"Believing their commander to have been attacked under a flag of truce, the Loyalists renewed their attack, slaughtering the remaining Americans, including wounded." Witnesses say that the "hostilities [were] encouraged by Tarleton." However, in his own report, Tarleton "stated that his men, believing him struck down, continued the fight with 'a vindictive asperity not easily restrained.'"  Which side is true? Historians may never know. Either way, the man would be vilified as a result of the massacre, being called "Bloody Ban" and "The Butcher."  This gruesome image of the man is continually reflected in The Patriot.
Tarleton surely raided farms and terrorized communities, but it highly unlikely that he shot a child or burned a church full of townspeople. Mark Glancy, a film history professor at the University of London said, "[The film is] horrendously inaccurate and attributes crimes committed by the Nazis in the 1940s to the British in the 1770s."  In short, it is a story of retribution, not the true ideal of the revolution.
TURN: WASHINGTON'S SPIES (2014-2017)
The most recent cinematic depiction of the Revolutionary War is the American Movie Classic's television production entitled Turn: Washington's Spies. According to AMC, "Turn takes viewers into the stirring and treacherous world of the Revolutionary War and introduces Abraham Woodhull who, after aligning with a group of childhood friends, forms the Culper Ring—America's first spy ring."  The smartly-scripted show has many merits, including its filming locations in Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia—a rich resource that accurately captures the flavor of the era. Based on Alexander Rose's book, Washington's Spies, the program nonetheless uses fabrication to create an evil portrait of certain British characters.
Much of the show is based around the small seaside village of Setauket, New York, where a scuffle between Patriot and Loyalist forces ensue. The drama of Turn, however, rarely takes place on the traditional battlefield. It is a story of deceit, intrigue, and espionage that link to the highest circles of the revolution. The show's protagonist is a lowly cabbage farmer named Abraham Woodhull. In real life, a contributing factor to his allegiance to America was the death of his cousin, Brigadier General Nathaniel Woodhull, who was mortally wounded while serving with the New York Militia in 1776. However, in Turn, Woodhull's aggravation is rooted in his harassment by a British officer named John Graves Simcoe, eventual leader of the esteemed Queen's Rangers. 
Indeed, Simcoe was not the most pleasant of characters, as Rose writes:
"Colonel Simcoe of the Queen's Rangers was another one for wanton brutality. It was he who beat up Abraham Woodhull's father. In 1778, Simcoe fell out with the Reverend Ebenezer Prime of Huntington when he commandeered his house. To teach the old man a lesson in humility, Simcoe allowed his men to break the furniture and burn the library. For good measure, they also ransacked the church. The minister never returned to his home and died soon after." 
In November of that year, Simcoe took over Oyster Bay, New York and prepared to settle in for the winter. To keep him and his men warm, he stripped the boards of the houses and churches for firewood. Orchards were chopped down. The Quaker meeting house was "sacrilegiously" transformed into a commissary and arsenal for the occupying troops. On top of that, Simcoe imposed a strict nightly curfew. One resident was tied to a locust tree and severely whipped for defying a curfew patrol. The punished man's defense was that he could not understand the German orders of the Hessian who held him. 
Alexander Rose editorializes, "Simcoe exemplified the worst aspects of the British army, and the British army in Long Island represented everything the Patriots were struggling against. By 1783, even the most hardened Tories were repulsed by their 'liberators.'" The cruelty of British presence subsequently brought about an exodus of Loyalists upon the war's conclusion—and for good reason. The bridge that once connected neighbors had been burned by the British military. One ashamed British officer recalled, "We planted an irrevocable hatred wherever we went, which neither time nor measures will be able to eradicate." 
Turn escalates that hatred to a whole other level from a cinematic standpoint. Much like the heroes highlighted in The Devil's Disciple and The Patriot, Woodhull's motivation for entering the war results from a quest for vengeance. From a plot perspective, this is completely understandable when viewers take into account the full measure of Simcoe's psychotic actions. There are more.
Simcoe poisons his commanding officer's horse in order to turn his leader against the pro-Patriot citizens of Setauket. He executes an elderly resident of the village in front of the town church and its parishioners, subsequently screaming at the stunned townspeople as blood is splattered across his face. Simcoe murders British soldiers to advance his own standing as well as his plot against his nemesis Woodhull. In one amazingly sensational episode, the colonel cuts out the tongue of a captive and spikes it to a warning note with a letter opener.  Surely, the show should be granted some creative license. Not so, argues T. Cole Jones, who wrote:
"Artistic license, however, is no excuse for the series' portrayal of British Captain John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin). In the show's pilot episode, viewers are introduced to a tall, foppish, effeminate, but unmistakably sinister Englishman destined to be a thorn in the side of the would-be hero Abe. It is no surprise that the producers of Turn, aiming primarily at an American audience, wanted a British antagonist….Turn's Simcoe is a predator. He sexually menaces Anna, brutally beats Abe, stabs an American spy in the throat at a dinner party, hangs an innocent man, and murders a Loyalist soldier in order to bolster his reputation among his men. These are but a few of his more egregious acts. But Simcoe is no mere brute. His is a calculating and clever embodiment of evil, born of hatred." 
Jones also argues that Rose's accusations against Simcoe are unfounded or stretched. The claims about foraging and living off civilian populations were a common practice among both armies. Jones goes on about John Simcoe, arguing:
"A man as deeply committed to his God as his King, Simcoe strongly disapproved of harming the helpless. When he discovered that some of his soldiers were disinclined to take prisoners in battle because Simcoe had forbidden them to confiscate their captives' watches, Simcoe reversed his policy. Human life was more important than private property. This is hardly the portrait of a sociopath." 
Additionally, when Simcoe became the first lieutenant governor of Canada, he abolished slavery. Surprisingly, hints of this attitude are revealed in Turn as Simcoe warms up to African American troops under his command. In regards to Simcoe and other British characters, history, like art, is in the eye of the beholder.
SONS OF LIBERTY (2015)
One of the more outlandish portrayals of Revolutionary America can be seen in the History Channel's 2015 three-part miniseries entitled Sons of Liberty. Focused on Boston in the years leading to and including the war, the series embraces blood and action while neglecting politics and diplomacy. The plump forty-something Samuel Adams is portrayed by a young and agile actor who jumps from rooftop to rooftop as if it were the popular video game Assassin's Creed. Once again, British crimes against humanity play a central part in the production's plot. Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times wrote a humorously scathing critique of Sons of Liberty, which included this analysis of Samuel Adams's character:
"Instead of history's Sam Adams—a widowed then remarried father of two, Harvard-educated, deeply religious and philosophical, so devoted to politics his family often lived in poverty—'Prince Caspian's' Ben Barnes plays Adams as a black-sheep charm boy, his heart broken by the death of his young wife and the horrors of British tyranny, which no one else seems to understand. (...He is able to maintain the carefully groomed beard scruff that is now cinematic shorthand for 'rebel.')" 
Historian Thomas Verenna noted an abundance of inaccuracies and anachronisms in his in-depth article featured in Journal of the American Revolution. His summation includes a listing of no less than three dozen major historical mistakes of the first two episodes. As he states in the article, he could not bring himself to view episode three. Many of these flaws deal with British atrocities and deeds that actually did not happen: military law, shutting down newspapers, breaking up peaceful political demonstrations, and the killing of wounded colonists. 
Among the most ludicrous of depictions in the series is that of General Thomas Gage (sinisterly played by actor Marton Czokas). In the film, Gage is a vindictive, violent sociopath with a bloodlust and has a deep disdain for the colonials. In real life, Gage was a considerate military leader who had a deep concern for the well-being of America and its residents—so much so that Lord Percy wrote of his commanding general, "The general's great lenity and moderation serve only to make them [the Patriots] more daring and insolent." 
The major point of contention for Gage in the film is that his wife Margaret is having an affair with Boston doctor and Patriot leader Joseph Warren. In reality, Mrs. Gage did possibly have contacts with the Sons of Liberty, but not in a romantic sense. In the series, however, this love interest spurs Gage's animosity of the rebels and propels him on a personal vendetta against Dr. Warren. This penned-up hatred culminates at the Battle of Bunker Hill with the death of Warren.
At the actual engagement at Breed's Hill, Warren was indeed killed in a horrific manner. Shot through the head, possibly by a British officer, Warren's body was subsequently stripped and bayoneted before being unceremoniously thrown into a hole with other rebels. While the series completely overlooks the role of William Howe in the battle, that general lamented at the passing of Warren, who he considered a noble political thinker. "This victim was worth five hundred of their men," Howe commented.  Still, Sons of Liberty presents it different.
At the Battle of Bunker Hill, an enraged Gage personally murders Warren by shooting him in the head.  This incident stands in stark contrast with the historical personality of Gage, who, as described by author Nathaniel Philbrick, was "by nature a kind and forgiving man. For a military officer, he had an unusual abhorrence for confrontation."  Naturally, this action and location of one associated with the British gentry would have been completely unacceptable and unrealistic. In addition, Gage's wife was from New Jersey and he had been in America for over a decade. While he did enact martial law in Boston and attempt to restrain the Sons of Liberty, he was far from a vengeful murderer. His depiction serves as yet another exaggeration to fuel audience's loathing of enemy soldiers.
While some historians cautiously hoped the highly flawed series would help generate interest in the true story, it was more so openly mocked by scholars as historical fantasy. As Thomas Verenna commented, "On History's website, they make it clear that this program 'is a dramatic interpretation of events that sparked a revolution. It is historical fiction, not a documentary.' It goes on to state that one of the goals is to 'focus on real events that have shaped our past.' Whatever you do, don't take that statement too literally."  Indeed!
History is often twisted when mixed with Hollywood. A great example of this comes from the 1986 comedy film, Sweet Liberty. Alan Alda plays the knowledgeable college professor, Michael Burgess, who wrote a historical fiction novel that is being transformed into a Hollywood motion picture. At first, everything seems to be alright, but as time goes on his novel gets torn apart and the history is manipulated. At the end of the movie, Michael and fellow revolution reenactors take over the set and film the conclusion the right way. However, the director, Bo Hodges (played by Saul Rubinek), concludes with this comical sketch:
"This may sound silly to you, but kids go completely ape if you do three things in a picture: defy authority, destroy property, and take people's clothes off…Michael, think about it for a second. Why do kids defy authority? Because they're in rebellion. The American Revolution…was the ultimate rebellion." 
Lastly, we can learn a lot from historical movies, even from the ones that are flawed. "The best historical films are not necessarily those that 'get it right,' but those that 'offer a new relationship to the world of the past.' The most compelling historical films do more than render in visual terms the familiar names and events in history; they also hazard a vision of an alternate past and, with it, an alternate future."