The makers of Liberty!, which airs Nov. 23-25 on PBS stations, are trying nothing less than to renovate the dusty reputation of the country’s founding fathers and their revolution.
“People sort of consider it inherently boring — long-ago, far-away people in funny wigs, saying profound things you don’t quite understand,” says Ronald Blumer, writer and co-producer of Liberty!
Not so! The producers summon up Ben Franklin to look viewers in the eye, and dozens of his contemporaries to admit they don’t know what will happen next in this Revolutionary War.
This is exhilarating, even though we know how the story will turn out. As these witnesses to history tell it, there is no certainty — not even a reasonable bet — that the Americans will declare independence, win the war, establish a single nation or make it a democracy.
“It was not inevitable in about 18 different ways,” says Michael Zuckert, a political scientist who was senior consultant to the producers.
So, as we watch this web of drastic circumstances tighten around the American rebels, the things we hold dear about our country seem all the more valuable.
The retelling will be virtually new to many Americans, who remember only the pious cardboard great men of fifth-grade history. And it will certainly be novel to many new Americans.
Eye to eye
Producer/directors Muffie Meyer and Ellen Hovde, whose Middlemarch Films did the series for KTCA in Twin Cities, make it vivid by having skilled actors deliver the actual words of participants in the events of 1763-91.
The technique also helps solve the project’s big visual problem. In other documentaries, we look at pictures of historic figures while actors read their words in voice-overs, but most of the surviving paintings or etchings of the Revolutionary War period are stilted and offputtingly heroic. Images of common men and women were hardly available at all.
Hovde and Meyer tested scenes with actors speaking to each other, but settled on single actors speaking directly to the camera — “almost as a transparent medium to connect you with what people were thinking and feeling,” says Blumer. Historians and other present-day observers were also filmed that way.
“We tried to avoid … visual cues that distance you from the people, that make them seem quaint and cliched,” says Catherine Allan, executive producer for the series at KTCA. Consequently, very few actors are fitted with wigs or three-cornered hats. “People look silly in three-cornered hats,” Allan says, “no matter how hard they try.”
The actors were often costumed only down to the waist; they performed their soliloquies in close-up on a Manhattan soundstage. Hovde and Meyer scheduled the shoots in batches as suitable actors passed through Broadway. For the British roles, the bonanza was the Royal Shakespeare Co., which had a run in town.
The actors, as well as scenic settings, were shot on 16mm film, creating a subtle visual contrast that was meant to put the historians in the present day, Meyer explains.
Theater-goers and close viewers of public TV dramas will recognize Thomas Paine (Roger Rees of Nicholas Nickelby), Abigail Adams (Donna Murphy of The King and I), Thomas Jefferson (movie actor Campbell Scott), and a British sergeant (Marcus D’Amico, the male ingenue of Tales of the City).
Viewers probably won’t recognize George Washington, however, because the actor (Stephen Lang) speaks only in voice-overs and is never shown. The GW we know from dollar bills is so memorable (let’s admit it, he had an extrordinarily long nose) that they couldn’t find anyone whose face came close.
For a while, the producers planned not to show Ben Franklin or the other famous faces, either, says Meyer, but it turned out to be easier to find accomplished actors who fit those parts — like Philip Bosco as Franklin.
Reenacted battles are another major visual ingredient that blows cobwebs off the founders’ marble busts. The producers spent 30 days filming volunteer reenactment groups, primarily the Brigade of the American Revolution, in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Each group dedicates itself to reproducing actual regiments of Americans or British or Hessian mercenaries. Meyer was delighted to give directions to the reenactment leaders and see them carried out by their chain of command.
Though the reenactment volunteers are sticklers for authenticity, the producers obscured any remaining telltale 20th century details by slowing down and stuttering the action sequences.
For some of the largest scenes, the producers bought reenactment footage from feature films, particularly, says Hovde, the “painterly” Al Pacino movie Revolution, which few people saw anyway.
Otherwise the series shares sounds and sights familiar from other PBS histories: spinning carriage wheels, gleaming teapots, burning candles and plaintive fiddle tunes that nearly turn into “Ashokan Farewell” from The Civil War.
Any lapses in the visual accompaniment may not matter much, however, because what really affects the viewer is the words. The story is passionately alive, not only in the writings of actual participants — common soldiers and their families as well as famous men — but also in the comments of present-day experts. Holly Gill, the director of research, screened historians to find expressive talkers, says Meyer. “She would tape telephone conversations with them and we would listen and see how lively they were.”
In the drumbeat retelling of the battles, for instance, much of the emotional urgency, sense of peril and pride of triumph comes from the color commentary of George Neumann, a retired Massachusetts businessman and weapons expert who helped start a large reenactment group, the Brigade of the American Revolution, more than 30 years ago.
“When he talks about the loss of Ft. Ticonderoga,” Blumer says, “he is not narrating that, he is feeling it.”
The producers shot hours with the historians, British as well as Americans, using videotape to keep costs down. Meyer estimates the team shot 20 hours of tape for every hour on the air.
Blumer and other researchers mined the actors’ lines from diaries, letters and other writings.
“There was an enormous thrill, sitting in the New York Public Library. … You get this rush of excitement, the you-are-there feeling,” Blumer recalled. “I read it with my mouth open, saying ‘holy shit’ over and over again.”
Blumer could look at the story with a fresh eye, says Meyer, because he grew up in Canada, a nation with loyalist roots, where he heard little about the American Revolution except tales about heroic escapes from the madness in the lower colonies.
A dose of tonic
“It wasn’t a war that motivated this series,” recalls Allan. “It was a battle of ideas more so than a shooting battle.”
Gerry Richman, v.p. of national production at KTCA, assigned the project to Allan after the sorry voter turnout of the 1990 election. He “came bursting into the office one day,” having read that The Federalist Papers were being read widely in the former Soviet Bloc, while Americans were snubbing their chance to vote. Perhaps they didn’t understand what the founders had given them.
KTCA had never done a big history series, and Allan discovered that, despite the bicentennial hoopla a few years ago, no one had tried to capture the whole sweep of the nation’s origin. The station got an R&D grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1992, which was later supplemented by R&D grants from CPB and the CPB/PBS Challenge Fund.
To help write funding proposals, Allan brought in Michael Zuckert, a professor of political science at Carleton College, who had written much of American Public Radio’s Mr. Adams and Mr. Jefferson in the 1980s. “He came up with most of the themes we pursued in the series,” says Allan. “He put us in contact with most of the scholars.”
It was time for a TV history of the Revolutionary War period, Zuckert believed. Scholars had been delving into unfamiliar topics, like the relationship between slavery and the revolution, and Ken Burns had shown that history can draw a popular audience.
In 1992, KTCA hired Hovde and Meyer’s Middlemarch Films to make the series, and Ronald Blumer as writer. Allan knew Hovde and Meyer’s work in Behind the Scenes, a children’s series on artistic creativity, and learned that they had already made, a decade ago, a one-hour documentary about New York State’s debate over ratification of the U.S. Constitution. (“An Empire of Reason,” commissioned by the New York Bar Foundation, was made in a style similar to CBS’s old You Are There programs, with MacNeil and Lehrer, Ed Koch and Phil Donahue playing themselves.) Before Liberty! took shape, the producers had been trying unsuccessfully to raise funds for a film on Tom Paine, one of the most radical revolutionaries in the story.
Meyer and Hovde had been working together for some two decades, since editing the intriguingly odd Maysles Brothers documentary Grey Gardens about an aged aunt and a cousin of Jackie Kennedy. Meyer’s first job had been helping to edit Woodstock; Hovde had worked on Gimme Shelter. Between classier projects they earned a living making corporate films.
Blumer, the writer, was a frequent collaborator with the producers as well as Meyer’s husband. He divided the saga into episodes, trying to give each one a narrative shape.
His script was not one that a professional historian would have written, Blumer acknowledges. “A lot of things I would find exciting, they would consider old hat. They would roll their eyes: ‘You’re not going to use the Abigail-and-John Adams letters again?!’
NEH liked the groundwork and put more money into the project, allowing Hovde and Meyer to shoot pilots in 1994 that became episodes 3 and 4. The final piece of funding came just last year from Norwest, a nationwide banking and financial services company based in Twin Cities. That brought the total to about $5 million. In comparison, Ken Burns had $7.8 million for Baseball and is planning on $10 million for the eight-episode Jazz. To fit their wherewithal, Hovde and Meyer cut their plans from eight to six episodes, paring out whole chunks of history.
One familiar name that might not have made the series anyway was Betsy Ross. Blumer and the historical advisers had doubts about her story and her significance.
“There were many more important things about what women did in the war than that they might have sewed a flag,” says Carol Berkin, an adviser to the series who teaches at the City University of New York. For instance, it was more valuable to include Abigail Adams writing to her husband John: “I desire you to remember the ladies and be more generous to them than your ancestors have been. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.”
Thomas Jefferson, too, gets little screen time, compared to Franklin and Washington, who repeatedly return at pivotal moments, both disastrous and victorious.
Washington, in particular, is presented as a vital ingredient in the history — widely revered, the tallest guy around, definitely human (he was privately interested in fashionable clothes), prodigious in self-restraint (some say he could have been king of the new country), and stalwart beyond belief.
“You always knew Washington was heroic,” says Hovde. “But to think, he was standing there by himself, holding the army together, and if he didn’t do that, there really was nothing to the country.”
Hovde recalls that when one of the advising historians was asked who most resembles George Washington today, he said without hesitation, “Nelson Mandela.”
With limited air time, the producers concentrated on the confluence of these key personalities, the fortuitous infiltration of Enlightenment ideas, and a harrowing roller-coaster-ride of events that gave the colonists a startlingly new kind of nation.
There were: the Brits’ minor but ill-considered Stamp Act of 1765, the confrontation at Lexington that became a massacre, the bold declaration, the rebels’ repeated, devastating losses, the British attempts to play slaves and Indians against the Anglo rebels, the brutal class conflicts in the South, Franklin’s diplomatic maneuvers in Europe, the late but crucial arrival of the French, and the big win at Yorktown.
In every respect, the story seemed destined to turn out differently. Before the war, says Meyer, “The colonists were thrilled to be British. They spoke of England as their home. It was their mother country. The fact that they would be declaring war 13 years later is something they absolutely did not suspect.”
“Most of the founding fathers were white and very wealthy,” Meyer adds. “All were gentlemen, as opposed to commoners. The fact that in a few years they would be saying things like, ‘All men are created equal’ … is astonishing.”
But one amazing thing happened, and then another. To win a losing war, common people were brought into the political debate and have never left.
It was such a different world then. “This is the hardest thing for me to do in writing this script,” says Blumer. “Everything has to be explained because it was a world much closer to the Middle Ages than to our world.”
The armaments were archaic, but politically it seemed a modern war, because the rebels were guerrillas, like the North Vietnamese — underequipped but highly motivated and well organized.
“They were fighting on their own ground, for their own families,” says Neumann. “It’s very hard to beat people like that. The British couldn’t understand it.”
Up until then, kings had sent professional armies to war, says Blumer. “The army is like an expensive machine. You’ll only use it in fair weather. You wouldn’t want to break it.” The professionals typically would stop fighting for the winter; they were truly surprised by Washington’s Christmastime attack at Trenton.
“The British didn’t know what they were up against — a nation in arms, animated by a political ideal,” says Blumer. “The whole idea of countries, and fighting for a country, and fighting for a political ideal … was pioneered by the American Revolution.”
The biggest idea that Zuckert brought to the series, Allan says, was that Americans were not defined by their ethnicity, religion or language — as other nations were — but by a set of ideas.
“Right now, you look at America, and despite what the politicians say, everybody’s a minority,” says Neumann. “The thing that holds us together is the fact that we’re all Americans.” Liberty! begins to explain what that is.