On Screen: George Washington: The Forging of a Nation

Written and produced by Richard Fielder

Directed by William A. Graham

A CBS Miniseries

The same misty painting of George Washington looked down on us all from above the blackboard, next to his closest friend, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was kind and patient and we looked to him for sympathy. Washington looked as if he had a headache. His mouth was set in a prim, pained expression of disapproval. Maybe people made fun of him for his long, frizzy hair, which resembled our teacher’s, Mrs. Meiers, and that had soured his disposition.

— Garrison Keillor,

Lake Wobegon Days

. . . Washington has become not merely a mythological figure, but a myth of suffocating dullness, the victim of civic elephantiasis.

— Marcus Cunliffe, George Washington: Man and Monument

The seconds tick away and the question oppresses: will I be able to finish this review of George Washington: the Forging of a Nation before the television miniseries utterly fades from my memory? Folks, it’s going to be a race.

To prove how bad the dialogue was, I would like to cite some choice howlers, but I’m afraid I can’t. Embarrassingly silly writing sticks in the mind and may be preserved in the annals of camp. But solemn, flavorless speech soon fades into stone silence. This script had all the weight and texture of an old Classics Illustrated comic book. Perhaps the dialogue would have looked uncommonly literate enclosed within balloons floating over the heads of cartoon characters. Hearing it spoken by actors, you’d think that Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton had never, among the three of them, uttered, or even heard a single pungent phrase in their entire lives.

But I do remember, with a shudder, the uninflected color photography which made the various settings — some of them the actual sites in Philadelphia and Mount Vernon — look like odd corners of a rather cheesy theme park. In fact, this film had the look of one of those short promotional movies that are shown on motel TV sets in Williamsburg, Virginia, designed to rev up the tourists for all the colonial sightseeing they’re going to do in the morning. There was the same detachment of actor from setting (no room looked lived in, no utensils seemed used), and actor from costume (the tails of those dress coats being hammily whisked back every time an actor seated himself). Let me add that the actual townspeople of Williamsburg who work as costumed guides behave with more aplomb in their eighteenth century setting than did most of the actors in this series. But then, the Williamsburg locals have had more practice. Movies about colonial or Revolutionary War America are few and far between.

Why is that? And why are the few so bad, and bad in such an insipid and bovine way? It’s not as if moviemakers have been uninspired by all eras of American history. There are many competent popular movies about the Civil War: Gone With The Wind, Birth of a Nation, Of Human Hearts, Raintree County, The General, The Red Badge of Courage, not to mention all the Lincoln film biographies. But the only Revolutionary War films of note that I can recall are: America, a competent silent film by the first great director, D.W. Griffith, filled with bustle but lacking the obsessiveness and hallucinatory power that charged Griffith’s Civil War film Birth of a Nation; The Howards of Virginia, a slick entertainment but not slick enough to keep Cary Grant from looking silly in a tricorn hat; Johnny Tremain, a Walt Disney botch of Esther Forbes’s admirable novel for children; and Revolution, directed by Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire), that showed apolitical woodsman Al Pacino cleaving to the American cause only after his son is almost raped by a leering homosexual British officer — certainly an easier grievance to visualize than “no taxation without representation.”

Of course, that is a basic problem: the way of life that the South fought to preserve can be shown (the feudal household, the mansion, slaves in the field, etc.), but the colonists’ feeling of separation from the mother country, which contributed to the Revolution, is much harder to visualize.

Also, the Civil War was peopled by heroes and villains who are prototypically, mythically American, possessors of a romantic, nineteenth-century ethos. The film protagonists — Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes, Montgomery Clift’s poetic searcher in Raintree County, and, perhaps most of all, the various incarnations of Lincoln — are emotional, violent, doom-laden, self-destructive in love, and intensely Byronic. We, their audience, are the cultural slaves of romanticism. We respond to visions of Lincoln prone on the grave of his Ann Rutledge, wrestling with frontiersmen, or suffering premonitions of his own corpse lying in state. Washington married an ideal housewife; Lincoln married a mad-woman. Civil War protagonists ride off into a horizon that is streaked with smoke, whereas the Founding Fathers gather in stuffy little rooms with elegant wainscotting, fluff out their lace cuffs, and score debating points. No wonder the camera shuns one era and seeks out the other.

A more practical problem: how did colonials sound? Actors in Civil War dramas can use familiar western or southern speech, but should eighteenth century Americans sound British? The American actors in George Washington spoke in the fairly genteel eastern seaboard accent that is usually used in American productions of Shakespeare. It’s an adequate compromise, but there are few American actors who can use such speech to vivid effect. Even more damaging, many American actors, lacking the years of experience in playing classical roles that their British colleagues enjoy, feel and look ridiculous in cocked hats, breeches, and jabots, and therefore overcompensate with phoney grandness and stiff posturing. (For reasons having more to do with social conditioning than theatrical experience, American actresses always seem more relaxed in “period” garb than do men.)

But George Washington had further problems. The subject was not Washington’s generalship but his presidency, and the focus of the first half was on the struggle between the agrarian Jefferson and the federalist Hamilton to sway the great man toward one cause or the other. Between these two powerful protagonists, Washington could only be a mediator and a judge. Whatever drama could arise out of this mediation depended on how concretely and powerfully the two conflicting visions were presented, so that their collision could cause Washington, sympathetic to both men, believable anguish.

How were these visions portrayed? Nebulously. A little muttering from Jefferson about states’ rights and a little jabbering from Hamilton about commerce and defense. Because of insufficient writing, the conflict between two giants seemed like the squabbling of party hacks. (This in a period when parties were embryonic.)

In lieu of vivid language, could more vivid visualization have helped? Perhaps, if the cinematography had given us some sweeping vision of Jeffersonian arcadia or Hamiltonian empire. But for this some stylization would have been necessary, an intriguing juxtaposition of image with word, or even the use of animation. But here instead is what the filmmakers came up with: Washington, trying to console Hamilton, told him that the country, thanks to his policies, was teeming with successful manufacture and trade, then took him to a window to show him an example. The camera looked over Washington’s shoulder, and we saw . . . some ladies selling flowers on a street corner! How would the director have illustrated the Jeffersonian vision? Some squarefoot gardening outside the kitchen?

One of the best young American actors, Jeffery Jones, played Jefferson. Jones, a man with a slightly vulpine face and a singularly clear but colorless voice, is the custodian of a rare talent; he can not only elucidate several traits in a character but can show how these traits contradict, without cancelling out, each other. His emperor in Amadeus was both dull and Machiavellian, but the dullness was not a mask for the cunning; the two qualities simply existed in equipoise, and Jones made the balance both amusing and subtly disturbing. But in George Washington Jones was like a virtuoso musician who loves to modulate sneakily from one key to another, but who suddenly finds himself directed to play some silly tune that a barrel organ could grind out. Jones played clearly, crisply, and monotonously; Jefferson emerged as a cipher.

But as Hamilton, Richard Bekins was a minus. In no way adapting himself either to the style of the period or to the intricacies of the character, Bekins slouched around like an unusually recessive adolescent, showing not a spark of the magnetism or brilliance that must have galvanized everyone who came into contact with the brilliant but neurotic Secretary of the Treasury.

After the resignations of these antagonists from the cabinet, the scriptwriter simply marched his story ahead, pushing Washington through all the well-known crises that plagues his second term: the Edmund Randolph affair, the friction with France, the unpopular Jay treaty, the Whiskey Rebellion. Plenty of incidents with no idea behind them, no unifying concept. Barry Bostwick, the actor cast as Washington, can’t take much of the blame for this. He did, at least, bring a wryness and dignity to his task. On the other hand, he did nothing to relieve the impression of monotony that is inherent in the role itself once Washington’s generalship is at an end and he can no longer be the Man on the Horse, the St. George figure of our mythology.

As president, Washington sat and listened, deliberated and decided, and then sought to mitigate the frictions that his decisions caused. There is nothing photogenic about Washington’s presidency. Even the Whiskey Rebellion was a sad, anti-climactic affair. What was truly dramatic in this piece of American history lay within the minds of brilliant statesmen and the schemes that emerged from those minds. Unless dramatists penetrate those minds and clarify those schemes for the viewer, there isn’t any drama. The makers of George Washington: The Forging of a Nation didn’t. And there wasn’t.

I stop typing. I slouch in my chair and squint in puzzlement at what I have just set down. Something about a show about the first president. Strange that I missed such an important miniseries. Now where was I the nights of September 21 and 22?


  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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