Sunday, October 20, 2013

Paul Revere's "Boston Massacre" Engraving in "John Adams: Join or Die" (2008)

I'm in the midst of watching the critically acclaimed John Adams miniseries. Not only am I feeling overly patriotic and bound by my civic duties, I'm so impressed with HBO's treatment of John Adams. I read the source material, the excellent Pulitzer-winning biography by David McCollough a few years ago, and enjoyed it tremendously. As a quick aside from film, McCollough is one of my favorite historians because his work is full of such vibrant details that make history and historical figures come to life. Needless to say, after I read the biography, I was a very vocal John Adams supporter and I've been looking for a time to watch the adapted miniseries for a while. "By a while" means years but I did get around to it eventually and now I'm here to write about it.
"The Bloody Massacre" by Paul Revere
as appears in John Adams (2008)

John Adams is based on historical facts and (obviously) covers John Adam's interactions during the Revolutionary War and beyond, during the founding of the nation. John Adams was a man of many accomplishments: a brilliant lawyer, a devoted family man, a distinguished statesman, and a fairly good president. But, he was clearly no great artist. That being said, period pieces often give one opportunity to experience the arts and culture of the covered era. That means, devoted readers, that you're in luck.
Giamatti and Linney received critical acclaim for their moving portrayal of the
original American power couple, John and Abigail Adams. 
We're delving into the dual world of the biopic: history and plot. For now, they're one and the same. In 1770, a group of British soldiers who were being viciously taunted and somewhat attacked by a Bostonian mob, fired upon the crowd. Five people died and many more were injured. The aspiring "Sons of Liberty" seized upon this tragedy, labeling it "the Boston Massacre" adding drama and magnanimity to a tragic, but essentially chaotic event. The Massacre did, in fact, turn many Americans against the British and often serves as the first of many incidents leading America down the path of liberty. John Adams, who was practicing law in Boston at the time, took pity on the soldiers and saw an opportunity to both prove the justice that existed in the colonies and to make a name for himself. He took the British soldiers' case and won, earning respect for his honorable duty.
John and Abigail examining Revere's engraving, given to them by
John's cousin, the firebrand, Sam Adams. 
John Adams defending the British soldiers after the Massacre
In the show, John and Abigail Adams (Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, respectively) sit outside their home, watching a protest for the massacre. At one point, Sam Adams (Danny Huston) confronts John for his assistance of the British. He presents him with a pamphlet showing "the Bloody Massacre." John shakes his head, knowing the gross exaggeration of the image, and realizing the difficulties that lie ahead. It's this image that caught my eye, and I'll explain why shortly.

Still from John Adams: "The Bloody Massacre"
Paul Revere
by John Singleton Copley
A contemporary portrait of Paul Revere: Silversmith and Son of Liberty
As most people vaguely familiar with American history know, the image that appears is a real artifact from the time. After the massacre, Paul Revere, another leading member of the Sons of Liberty, engraved, printed, and distributed the picture to the people of Boston to stir them against the Brits. While the Bostonians should have been outraged, Revere's image is, by all historical accounts, vastly misleading. His picture shows the British soldiers, in an orderly line, being ordered by their commander, Edward Braddock, to fire upon the peaceable crowd. To say Revere took artistic liberties is an understatement. To support this, historians point to the fact that Revere even renamed a local coffeehouse "Butcher's Hall" to add some more subliminal messaging to the already blatant piece. Needless to say, despite being slightly misleading, it was an incredibly effective piece of propaganda.
A colored version of Revere's famous engraving

While I thought it was highly creative and appropriate that the filmmakers managed to get that important primary document into the miniseries, I also began reflecting on the very nature of the piece. Specifically, I considered the moment that Revere caught in his engraving. Irrelevant to the truth, Revere captures a single, defining, action-packed moment. To me, it almost seems like a film still- an attempt to capture moments of movement and action in a single shot, photograph, or in this case, engraving.
Still from John Adams: "The Bloody Massacre"
Revere's engraving was misleading: it failed to suggest the violence of the
colonial protesters or the fear and chaos of the soldiers.
Regardless it was hugely effective in convincing Americans of the injustice
of the British and its importance cannot be understated. 

Does Revere's engraving serve as a precursor to the historical-action films of the present: adapting facts, adding in more juicy action, and using violence to prove a point? Is the audience of Revere's piece any different from the American audience of today? Don't we seek the same things, thirst for the same adventures, find outrage in such injustices? Call me crazy, but I decided to view this engraving as proof that Americans have always had the essence of films in their blood: the same desire to attempt to capture motion in a single picture. The technology didn't allow it, but can you imagine what Revere could have done with an iPhone camera?
John Adams (2008)
John Adams: Defender of Justice
To bring my post back to its original point, the filmmakers masterfully brought the engraving into the show. I think its obvious that the filmmakers of any period piece are using the art and first-hand accounts of the events to create an accurate and realistic atmosphere. This is especially true in John Adams. Slipping the engraving in, in a realistic context, is just a subtle homage to the art and images that shaped the making of the show. I offer a great "Huzzah" for those at the Home Box Office!

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