[As part of our annual Virginia trip last summer, the boys and I—and AmericanStudier madre—visited Colonial Williamsburg for the first time. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some different histories and elements that are part of that complex and compelling historic site. Add your thoughts, on Williamsburg or other historic sites, in comments!]
On what’s unquestionably absent from a historic film, and what it can still offer.
One of the most interesting choices made by Colonial Williamsburg can be found in the site’s Visitors Center: its continued use of a more than half-century old introductory film, Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot (1957). As that hyperlinked opening illustrates, the film stars none other than future Hawaii Five-0 leading man Jack Lord as its protagonist John Fry, a fictional member of the Virginia House of Burgesses who finds himself and his family torn between the Loyalist and Revolutionary forces and causes in the years leading up to the American Revolution. The presence of a very young Lord (more than a decade before Hawaii made him one of the most famous actors in America) is no doubt part of why Williamsburg has continued to use this film (remastered but otherwise unchanged from that late 1950s version) rather than create a more updated, 21st century equivalent (as, for example, Plimoth Plantation has done to great effect).
The contrast with the new Plimoth film, “Two Peoples: One Story,” is particularly striking, and doesn’t cast the best light on The Story of a Patriot. Plimoth’s film does full justice to its titular subject, portraying both the arriving English Pilgrims and the Wampanoag community with equal time, sensitivity, and nuance; it neither shies away from detailing the destructive effects of that English arrival on the Wampanoags nor fails to engage (as the film’s subtitle suggests) with the complex, evolving interrelationships between the two cultures. The Story of a Patriot, on the other hand, features African American characters only as the Fry’s faithful slaves; as I remember it, those slave characters have only a line or two in the nearly 30-minute film, and then only to happily assent to whatever is asked of them by the Fry’s. There’s certainly no indication that these African American communities were part of 18th century Williamsburg and Virginia in any meaningful way, nor that their presence and voices would themselves become part of the Revolutionary debates in complex and significant ways. I can’t imagine a 21st century Williamsburg film treating slaves and slavery in these reductive and nearly elided ways, and that would be an important change to how the site is framed for visitors.
If Story falls short in that not unexpected (for a 1957 text) but still important way, however, in others it took me by pleasant surprise. Most interesting was the film’s willingness and ability to present the Loyalist as well as the Revolutionary perspective—indeed, by making Fry the son of deeply Loyalist parents (and opening with him taking over his Loyalist late father’s House of Burgesses seat), the film rightfully positions that perspective as the mainstream one in the 1770s; and even as events unfold and the Revolution takes hold (and Fry’s own perspectives changes), the film continues to do nuanced justice to the Loyalists, treating them as thoughtful men and women following their own path through that complex moment. Moreover, by focusing on the story of one individual Virginian (a choice that reflects in part a Great Man style of history that would likely not be the center of a 21st century film), Story allows for personalized portrayals of historical figures (and fellow Virginia legislators) like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, an element that helped my sons connect to those figures and the era’s histories in meaningful ways. We happened to watch Story at the end of our Williamsburg experience, and I would recommend that order—it helped us appreciate these strengths of the film while better recognizing those elements it does not include.
Next Williamsburg post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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