This past weekend I finished watching the History Channel’s Sons of Liberty. While watching it I had the same feeling I had while watching The Patriot with Mel Gibson: queasy. The docudrama was not billed as a documentary so I expected some artistic license, but it turned out to be more drama than “docu.” I suppose it was entertaining in a B movie sort of way! The story, for the most part, was an idealized patriotic version without the profound and revolutionary thought behind it. A young and handsome (unlike the real one) Samuel Adams (played by Ben Barnes) was the protagonist, who almost singlehandedly drug his fellow revolutionaries to independence. In reality Samuel did play a major role in driving the Revolution, but he was not the only major player. And the beer-drinking man of action portrayed in the series leaves out Samuel’s major contribution as a polemical writer. I was not surprised to see the British portrayed as uniformly brutal and cruel. This is the standard view of the British when it comes to the Revolution even though this is not supported by the evidence. Complex and complicated characters were almost non-existent on either side. It was a battle of good vs. evil. The History Channel (HC) has decided that we can’t handle the truth.
But what really bothered me was the artificial and simplistic scenes that portrayed romanticized versions of the Revolution. They were clearly trying to appeal to those who want only the patriotic version of history. For example, every time George Washington stepped into the room the delegates stopped as if he was a demigod (keep in mind this is before Washington became a national hero). They might as well have put a halo on his head and had angels sing as he entered! It felt very contrived, which it was of course. The most compelling part of the series was the love story between Joseph Warren and the wife of General Gage, Margaret. There is no evidence for this romance, but it was exciting!
Clearly I wasn’t the target audience for the series so I thought I would see what non-historians were saying. Here’s what I found:
- One blogger wrote: “While I’ve known the story of the American colonial patriots whose daring led to the overthrow of our occupation by the British way back when, seeing this story fleshed out was a revelation.”
- Another Another blogger blogger also recommended the series, although he did note that there were some inadequacies. But he concluded: “Thank you History Channel for really highlighting that, whether you meant to do so or not, because without those privately held arms, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Joseph Warren, and the others would be only footnotes in history as traitors to the Crown and the troubles in Boston would have been quashed by the full might of the British Empire before they became full blown rebellion.”
- Breitbart.com didn’t give an in-depth review but the title of this article speaks for itself: “The History Channel may need some help with its marketing division, but the network understands what audiences hunger for in the Age of Obama.”
It looks like the HC knows their audience! Therefore they have decided to sacrifice historical accuracy for profit. Of course, this docudrama is only the most recent evidence of this (think UFOs, monsters, and other docudramas like the Sons of Liberty). I shouldn’t be surprised. Telling people what they want to hear has always been more popular than reality.
Mary McNamara’s review of the docudrama was one of the few I found. I think she does a good job of pointing out some of the problems with this piece of historical fiction (with emphasis on fiction!).