Sunday, February 22, 2015

George Washington: The man and the movies

"Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country."

- George Washington's "Newburgh Address," the speech where he first refused to be king

He is a celebrated American general, who lost more battles than he won. Like America itself, he allied with the British to fight the French, and then allied with the French to fight the British. And he wanted to be a political leader, but turned down the chance to be a king.

George Washington before the Revolution

Life before the War of Independence through the "Jumonville incident"

The man is, of course, George Washington; and he earned the title of "Father of his Country," through remarkable generalship in the war, and a remarkable presidency in the peace. But his life before the war of independence is lesser-known, as he started out his career as a surveyor for the British government; and later, as a soldier in the British army. Acting on orders from higher up, he ambushed the French in a disputed frontier area, and thus fired some of the first shots of the French and Indian War - a war between Britain and France in North America, which would be fought all over those parts of the world known to Europeans. When he was captured by the French in a later battle, he was made to sign a surrender document that included admitting to the assassination of the French leader Jumonville in the earlier battle - an "admission" that was in French, a language that Washington could not read, and which may have been badly translated to him. It seems quite clear today Washington did not order the assassination at all, but his signing of the surrender document was used by the French for propaganda purposes; and probably did no help to Washington's reputation amongst his fellow British colonists.

Jumonville Glen, where the first shots of
the French and Indian War were fired

Fighting as a soldier in the French and Indian War

Washington fought in a number of important battles in that war, and his experiences in this period are dramatized in PBS's documentary about the French and Indian War, entitled "The War That Made America." Washington did not cover himself with glory in that war; but he learned a few important lessons that would help him in the later war with Britain, and he was given much respect for being a veteran. When the Revolutionary War began, Washington served in the Continental Congress, and wore his military uniform to the proceedings - an action often seen, then and now, as campaigning for the post of commander-in-chief of the army. It is a testament to how little experience the American military had at that time, that Washington looked comparatively qualified; and that this inexperienced militia colonel was chosen to lead the army.

Battle of Trenton, 1776

Crossing of the Delaware: The Battle of Trenton (his most famous moment)

Washington's early battles in that war involved countless defeats and retreating. I'm sure it was quite contrary to Washington's nature to retreat, as he was sensitive to the public relations problems it caused; but he was forced to do so by the sheer force of enemy numbers. He won an unlikely victory in a desperate battle with the British (or rather, their hired Hessian mercenaries) at Trenton, which was dramatized in the A&E movie "The Crossing," starring Jeff Daniels as the general himself. (If you're thinking about watching this movie, it has Jeff Daniels in a Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain type of role; but has some intense and graphic violence in its depiction of the battle itself.) Whatever your reaction to this movie, the battle itself is a remarkable one; because even though it had little strategic or tactical significance, it was of vital importance as a propaganda victory, and may have allowed the American cause to go on for that reason alone.

Valley Forge, winter 1777-78

Battle of Monmouth, 1778

Valley Forge through the Siege of Yorktown (and the end of the Revolution)

Washington's career in the American Revolution is the stuff of legend, with his crossing of the Delaware in the Battle of Trenton at the top of the list; but few scenes in the war are more moving than his suffering with the army at Valley Forge. The toll from disease, starvation, and the cold was alarmingly high; and the winter was one of boredom, suffering, and death. It must have been a long one. But after Valley Forge, he was assisted by a European officer named Baron von Steuben; and managed to train his army to fight on the level of the British. They won an important victory over the British in the Battle of Monmouth; and eventually, forced the British to surrender at Yorktown in the last major battle of the war. The war took two more years to finally come to an end; but the end did come, and Washington was the greatest hero of the American people.

British surrender at Yorktown, 1781

Washington resigning his commission, 1783

His refusal to be king, and his resigning his commission

A number of army men wanted to stage a coup and take over the government, and invited Washington to join with them. But Washington turned them down, giving words that were simultaneously cutting and sad, and ended the attempted coup right then and there. He was offered the chance to be king, but turned it down with this act - thus solidifying his reputation as the greatest man in American history, the man who would walk away from power. That war could have ended very differently, with a military dictatorship like many found in Latin America; but ended in a democracy, thanks to this remarkable act by George Washington.

Documentaries about Washington as a military leader

If you're looking for movies about the Revolutionary War period of his life, the History Channel did a documentary called "Washington the Warrior" which is pretty good, and PBS did one called "The Man Who Wouldn't Be King." (A&E did a short biography which is passable, but I won't recommend this one.) This period is also covered extensively in the History Channel's documentary "The Revolution," which covers the entire war in ten hours - much of which involves the military campaigns of George Washington. (Washington isn't covered quite as much in "Liberty! The American Revolution" by PBS, so I won't recommend this one for this purpose.)

Constitutional Convention, 1787

Movie about the Constitutional Convention (which Washington was present for)

As far as the postwar period goes, let me briefly mention one important event in Washington's life, which was the Constitutional Convention. All of the colonies represented there said explicitly that they would only send delegates to a convention if George Washington attended; because Washington's attendance would give it legitimacy; making clear that it was not a power grab, but a legitimate attempt to improve government and provide order. Washington did not participate in debates; but was important in fostering compromises among the delegates, and getting the final document approved and signed. He hadn't wanted to come at all, but he knew the country needed a Constitution, and came out of retirement to help create one. The best movie on this event is "A More Perfect Union," which dramatizes the debates of the Constitutional Convention. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the Constitution.

George Washington in the presidential years

His presidency: Coverage in "Founding Brothers"

And then there's his remarkable presidency. If you're looking for a documentary that dramatizes his presidency period, the best one out there is probably "Founding Brothers," which covers his administration in great detail. From the infighting in his Cabinets, to the economics of Hamilton's national bank program, to the foreign policy crises of the French Revolution and resulting war between Britain and France; the documentary covers all the major aspects of Washington's administration, and covers the administrations of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as well. If you're after something about Washington's presidency, this is the one I recommend for this purpose. It covers his presidency with astonishing thoroughness.

George Washington during the war

There have been many movies about the life of George Washington, and each one of them has something unique to offer.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

French and Indian War miniseries

American Revolution miniseries

Constitutional Convention movie

"Founding Brothers" movie

Alexander Hamilton movie

John Adams movies

Part of a series about
The Founding Fathers

Benjamin Franklin
George Washington
Alexander Hamilton
John Adams
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison

Part of a series about
The Presidents

George Washington 1789-1797
John Adams 1797-1801
Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809
James Madison 1809-1817
John Quincy Adams 1825-1829
Andrew Jackson 1829-1837
Abraham Lincoln 1861-1865
Ulysses S. Grant 1869-1877
Theodore Roosevelt 1901-1909
Woodrow Wilson 1913-1921
Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1933-1945
Harry Truman 1945-1953
Dwight Eisenhower 1953-1961
John F. Kennedy 1961-1963
Lyndon B. Johnson 1963-1969
Richard Nixon 1969-1974
Jimmy Carter 1977-1981
Ronald Reagan 1981-1989
George H. W. Bush 1989-1993
Bill Clinton 1993-2001

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