Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sweet Liberty – Movie Review

Alan Alda is a highly-regarded entertainer. He has been featured in many performances, including his memorable role in MASH. His audience appeal has never faded.

I don’t find many movies set at the time of the American Revolution.

There is a minor movie, Sweet Liberty, made in 1986 by Alda, in which he acted and also wrote and directed. I heard a loose rule (at UCLA Extension) that in general a triple credit will guarantee the movie will not be outstanding. Different talent needs to be brought in. That’s probably what happened here, because Alda has not pulled the movie off successfully.

But its theme had potential. A college history professor writes a noted book about the American Revolution. His book is serious. Then the author hits the jackpot: a company is going to make a movie out of the book and come to town in South Carolina to film it.

But to the author’s increasing horror, the movie will not resemble his book at all. Instead, it will be a sexy spoof, relying on big box office draws (played by the reliable Michael Caine and Michelle Pfeiffer) to carry the action. Since the hometown has a Revolutionary reenactment, there are plenty of local extras (and their bright uniforms) waiting in the wings. For the production company, things look good. Everyone welcomes its arrival, including the governor. You’d expect this in a small town. It’s a big deal.

The script meanders; characters are introduced who really contribute nothing to the action. Even Caine, who is featured as a hopeless womanizer when off-screen, lacks sparkle. Some of his scenes are somewhat bizarre.

The author’s girlfriend plays it cute but trite. Their scenes together seem irritating. The dotty characterization of the author’s aged mother is superfluous and embarrassing.

I liked the portrayal of the townspeople, naïve and enthusiastic, overcome with the presence of celebrities.

Of all the characters, the director, sharply played by Saul Rubinek, gives the most style to his performance. One can completely decipher his mindset. For him, the author is an unfortunate human being who must be ignored at all costs; the actors are a bunch of temperamental, ignorant children; the townspeople / extras are a temporary affliction whose pesty suggestions are routinely dismissed with “I can’t use it”. The director just wants to be left alone.

Toward the end of the movie, the pace notably quickens. When the author unleashes his planned sabotage during shooting, the director is not defeated at all. He has placed additional cameras all over the set so the show will go on.

The cool, glamorous wife of Caine appears, and the hopeless Don Juan now is the appropriate husband of a wife who is totally in charge. Her small role is a very effective episode in the script.

The author’s girlfriend is glamorous and pregnant at the movie premiere. She has abandoned her feisty, independent personality. Not a highly original touch, but plausible.

As for the townspeople, they have the best time of all. Their fifteen minutes of fame are probably over, but they are not grieving. Their town will never be the same. They have awarded all their personal Oscars to Sweet Liberty. –Renata Breisacher Mulry

1776 – Movie Review from Friendsof1776.com
The Patriot – Movie Review from Friendsof1776.com


Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Declaration of Independence 1776 to 2009

It’s been 233 years since the original was signed. In not too many years, its 250th anniversary will be a major event.

For such a celebration, it’s high time a select committee was formed to plan it. If your city had just been awarded a future Olympics, it would be starting to set the wheels in motion. So the Declaration’s 250th celebration needs similar immediate action.

To fully appreciate the Declaration, I start at the end. Consider what the signers promised:

“We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

They risked everything; they held nothing back. For some it turned out alright; for others it was a great hardship. Every time I see these words, it’s goose bumps.

The origin of the Declaration was taxes, ten years earlier.

Trade is the glue which keeps the world connected. With trade come taxes and tariffs. Free trade is a lot easier said than done. It certainly wasn’t Britain’s policy.

In 1765, the British were desperate for cash after their successful but financially ruinous French and Indian War. So, logically, they looked to their very prosperous colonies for money. Taxes were the established way of obtaining it.

But the colonies viewed it all with great alarm.

So the saga of “no taxation without representation” (in Parliament) began. In subsequent years, the British tried to levy tax after tax, colonial trade restrictions, even sending troops to quell unrest. The situation steadily deteriorated.

At the center was King George III, obstinate, intent on punishing his rebellious colonies.

By the time the Second Continental Congress was convened in 1775, the battle lines were drawn.

In 1776 Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense had taken the colonies by storm. Congress laid out how many actions of George III and his Parliament were a grave threat to the well-established and fundamental liberties of the colonies.

To justify separation from Great Britain, Congress needed a document. A committee selected a talented writer, Thomas Jefferson, to prepare a draft.

After considerable congressional editing, the final version is what we read today.

George III is the central subject. But as historian R.B. Bernstein explains in his introduction to the Barnes and Noble edition 2002, the Declaration has “taken on a life of its own”. Concepts such as life and liberty have cosmic proportions. The words are not just about independence from Great Britain.

July 4 is the accepted date for celebrating. Some historical purists claim July 2, when Congress voted for independence; others even argue for August 2, when delegates officially signed. Oh dear, I hope there are no more changes!

Don’t worry, I’m going to stick with July 4. Please read the Declaration on that day. Thank you. –Renata Breisacher Mulry

Saturday, June 20, 2009

David McCullough’s 1776 – Book Review

Need a Father’s Day gift? 1776 is absolutely worthy of your consideration. McCullough wrote his esteemed biography of John Adams in 2001. In 2005, he followed with 1776 as a companion volume. The two books are very different in scope. John Adams is a political history; 1776 is a very detailed military history of that year, concentrating on Washington and his campaigns, particularly in New York.

This book is not a quick read. There is extensive detail on military maneuvers and results. The bibliographic sources and book notes are enormous.

Certain themes are stressed constantly. George Washington was not an experienced or even that skillful a general. But he had incredible charisma with his troops. He also knew how to pick his closest advisors. Three of them, Greene, Knox and Reed, probably could fill books with their own accomplishments.

The many accomplished British generals are given plenty of mention. Of course, their efforts for George III were inevitably doomed, because for how long could Great Britain maintain and supply its army three thousand miles away? I think the most experienced generals knew this. They needed quick, pivotal victories against the colonies, and end this conflict.

Many times they got them. Throughout this whole book, the Continental Army, such as it was, was in a dreadful state. Lack of the most basic necessities, compounded by fierce winter weather, and lack of training, made this army a ragged force often unrecognizable as soldiers. The British had contempt for them. It’s what makes their courage and spirit the more amazing. I liked the many direct quotes from soldiers of all ranks.

I am convinced that to really read and enjoy this book, accompanying maps or battlefield diagrams that are clear and uncomplicated are absolutely necessary. Even with many familiar place names, and I enjoyed that, the chronology of events can be very confusing without maps, which are not included. Probably other military histories need these. Think of Civil War books.

One fact really struck me. By 1776, the colonies had the highest living standard in the world. That’s what the British didn’t understand; why throw that away?

Another thing always amazes me. 1776 was the beginning of the long, bitter Revolutionary War. How the colonies won is amazing. Foreign loans, the entry of the French on our side, and British exhaustion contributed heavily to our victory.

We were a truly divided country. The loyalists understood nothing of why their fellow citizens wanted to lose their good fortune of being part of Great Britain’s empire. The patriots regarded loyalists as nothing less than traitors. How they dealt with these traitors is as dark a chapter as any in American history.

The title “1776” is sparse. “Washington in 1776” describes the contents more completely. He is the focus.

There is a special extensively illustrated version of 1776 available. McCullough has won two Pulitzers, for Truman and John Adams. He is considered a leading historian.

So, all those gift givers, your choice is outstanding. And Dads, you have a topnotch gift. Other recipients, you will enjoy this book. With all due respect to the paperback industry, hardcover editions do add a certain pizzazz. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

Note: If McCullough is interested, I would really welcome a biography of President Eisenhower. Comments, please.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

College History Requirement

Last week the trustees of Palomar College (San Diego County) voted 4 to 1 to drop an American History requirement for some nursing students.

They will participate in a new, shorter nursing program. The program was mandated by the accreditation agency, New York based National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission.

All other degree-seeking students at this college have to take American History.

Obviously, it is considered a basic educational subject, a core part of the curriculum. I completely concur.

We’ve all heard that there is a nursing shortage.

Periodically other occupations also experience shortages. None are present indefinitely.

Medicine, at every level, becomes more complicated all the time. Shortcuts are not the answer.

From what I read, the general attitude was, what’s the big deal?

Let me pose some basic questions: why should any student be required to take American History? Has it any importance, more than let’s say computer science or communications? American History has been heavily criticized for treatment of minorities and critical social issues, and even ignoring their existence. Did this factor play any role in the trustees’ decision?

In the future, will other subjects be removed from a program?

Should labor shortages be solved by lower standards?

If nursing students need more technology, why are they not offered as pre-requisites, as other subjects? Vocational and technical schools provide these requirements.

And finally, how does the decision ensure I will get top-notch nursing?

Comments, please.

Source of information on the trustee’s decision is North County Times, print edition June 11, 2009. –Renata Breisacher Mulry

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Causes of the American Revolution: Part 5 – Boston

For Great Britain, even before the Revolution began, Boston was always trouble.

Whatever the incident, the British overreacted. The Bostonians were itching for a fight, so any situation quickly became volatile. With revolutionary voices such as the Boston Gazette and zealots such as Sam Adams and organizations to whip up seething hatred, Boston was not a calm city.

Boston was ready for revolution.

How did this happen?

A significant factor was that by the middle of the 18th century, the urban poor were becoming a permanent population in American cities.

Many immigrants were very poor. They were also landless, so there was nothing to inherit. Some moved on to the frontier, fought against Native Americans, and tried to speculate in land. They joined an already lawless society there.

In Boston, most of the wealth and power was held by just a few people. The poor were looking for anything to improve their situation. Working for wages sometimes was an option. But improving the immigrants’ financial plight was very difficult. The urban poor were a restless underclass. They were ready to riot.

In 1768, smuggling brought British troops into Boston streets. The population, rowdy, anti-British (also anti-Catholic and anti-French at later times) viewed the occupation as tyranny.

After all, as we already know, smuggling was quite illegal and therefore very profitable. It was well-established in the economy. All kinds of goods were smuggled, including luxuries. Smugglers became very rich. You might say, smugglers improved the standard of living, if you could pay!

The British believed that troops would control dissent. Instead it just encouraged rebellion. If one was a loyalist British supporter, your situation was very precarious.

The Boston Massacre (1770) turned an incident, which was basically a lack of crowd control, into a major military snafu.

The Boston Tea party is the most notorious Revolutionary War episode, apart from the start of the shooting war nearby. The British wanted to punish Boston for ruining all that tea. So they essentially put the valuable harbor out of commission till someone paid for the damages.

Who did pay for the damages, anyway?

The rest of New England supported Boston’s revolt.

Boston was Britain’s thorn. Credibility was at stake here.

The British finally gave up on Boston, as the war moved to the southern colonies, and took on new directions with the entry of other countries.

But ten years before, Boston was a formidable adversary. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

More Books and the American Revolution

A post from 4/28/09 listed some books about the American Revolution for the Friends of 1776 library which I’m compiling. Here are some additional titles, with comments about each one.

A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. Carol Berkin. 2002. Harcourt, 310 pp.

This is the latest addition to the library. It contains some particularly agreeable features, such as profiles of delegates to the Constitutional Convention and text of the Articles of Confederation. The book is quite short and very readable. I do take exception though to the word “inventing” in the title. “Creating” would be more suitable, because that’s what happened.

Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence. John Ferling. 2007. Oxford, 679 pp.

A solid, detailed military history of the Revolutionary War; valuable. The military campaigns in the long war were so numerous and scattered over such a large area, a reference book is necessary. Extensive notes and bibliography.

Samuel Adams, Father of the American Revolution. Mark Puls. 2006. MacMillan, 273 pp.

There couldn’t be a better subject for biography than Samuel Adams. Whether he is the father of the Revolution can be debated, but he certainly can be considered.

The Making of the Prefident, 1789. Marvin Kitman. 1989. Grove. 358 pp.

A man as important as George Washington has of course many books written about every aspect of his life. Kitman does one better. He’s taken the first Presidential campaign and give us his witty, sparkling account. Has he written history, or just spoofed it? In any case, people will enjoy it. Kitman gives his book a marked Woody Allen flavor. Many laughs.

American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. Pauline Maier. 1998. Vintage Books, 304 pp.

This critique of 1776 is scholarly, highly regarded. Somewhat difficult to read. It is good research to take Jefferson’s role in the writing of the Declaration and examine what else and who else contributed to its validity.

A History of the American People. Paul Johnson. 1997. Harper. 1088 pp.

A well-known, popular, extensive encyclopedia of American history. Because of the book’s scope, the material on the American Revolution is very condensed.

Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism. Eric Burns. 2006. Public Affairs. 467 pp.

It certainly wasn’t always journalism, but that’s what makes this book so appealing. Today the Press is often berated by different groups, but maybe not a whole lot has changed.

The Quotable Founding Fathers. Buckner F. Melton Jr., editor. 2004. Fall River Press, 411 pp.

Described as a “Treasury of 2,500 Wise and Witty Quotations from the Men and Women who created America”.

Easy to use, the compilation is pleasant just on its own, without the need to know a lot of history.

Some general comments:

America’s national holiday, July 4th, is just a few weeks away. Please join me in reading the Declaration on that day.

Publishing about the American Revolution continues at a healthy clip. Very encouraging.

The recently published biography of John and Abigail Adams will be enjoyed by many readers.

I wish some of the splendid texts of 20 – 30 years ago on the Revolution would be reprinted.

Do any Friends of 1776 know of a biography of John Hancock?

With so many “boomers” reaching their “reading years” (i.e., retirement), I see a bright future for publishing. And for book clubs.

Dear Friends, please do submit recent good titles as a comment to a post, especially since the number of bookstores (for browsing) is always shrinking. – Renata Breisacher Mulry