THe first half of the film portrays the struggle of the under-armed, under-manned colonists against the British Redcoats at Lexington, Bunker Hill and Valley Forge. Other landmarks of the American Revolution shown include the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere's midnight ride and Patrick Henry's (played by Frank McGlyyn Jr. and not played by his father Frank McGlynn Sr) inflammatory speeches to the VIrginia House of Burgesses. The second half dwells on the bloody Indian War of Mohawk Valley. THe parts are tied together by the troubled romance between a young patriot, Nathan Holden (Neal Hamilton (I)' )and Nancy Montague (Carol Dempster), the daughter of a Tory Judge. Written by
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"America" (United Artists, 1924), subtitled "Love and Sacrifice," became director D.W. Griffith's second contribution to American history on the silent screen. Done in grand scale as his Civil War epic, "The Birth of a Nation" (Epoch, 1915), "America," as indicated in it's opening title, "The story of the sacrifice made for freedom in the American Revolution in that of a Civil War between two groups of English people, one group, the Americans, being merely Englishmen while settling on the American continent ..." What "Birth of a Nation" and "America" have in common are its well staged battle scenes, cast of thousands, authentic costumes, fine scenery, and stories told in two parts (before and aftermath) with run times past the standard two hour mark. What "America" lacks is the controversy "Birth of a Nation" contains during its final hour. In retrospect, "America" didn't need controversy to achieve any box office appeal, only a simple love story highlighted by a re-enactment of events leading to America's freedom from British rule.
Set in the village of Lexington in Massachusetts prior to the Revolutionary War, Nathan Holden (Neil Hamilton), a poor farmer and express rider, loves Nancy Montague (Carol Dempster), a Southern bells from Virginia living on the mountain estate on the James River. Her stern father (Erville Alderson) and dandy brother, Philip Edward (Charles Emmett Mack) each disapprove of her relationship with a commoner. Captain Walter Butler (Lionel Barrymore), a deputy for the king's superintendent, takes an interest in Nancy, much to the delight of her father, especially after believing Nathan to have shot and wounded him during their confrontation. Butler proves not to be her ideal choice for Nancy as he gets the Indians to side with the king against the Americans in the war along with plotting to betray the king in order to acquire the new world for himself.
Combining fictional characters with historical figures, quite commonly found in many motion pictures then and now, "America" consists those of John Hancock (played by John Dunton); Thomas Jefferson (Frank Wals); Patrick Henry (Frank McGlynn); John Parker, Captain of the Minute Men (Henry Van Boussen); and Samuel Adams (Lee Beggs). Benjamin Franklin, who was part of that era, is noticeably missing. One person not to miss is veteran character actress Lucille LaVerne appearing briefly as a refugee mother.
While "America" fails to compare with Griffith's finest works, the film itself is noteworthy as being one of the very few motion pictures depicting the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) compared to many about the Civil War (1861-1865). Highlights include Paul Revere's (Harry O'Neil) historic horseback ride warning the colonists, "To Arms, To Arms, the Regulars /British are coming"; the Battle of Bunker Hill; the signing of the Declaration of Independence; and George Washington (Arthur Dewey) leading and his troops at Valley Forge and he being sworn in as first president of the United States (1789-1797).
Had "America" been produced in the wake of "The Birth of a Nation," chances are principal actors would have been basically the same, with Lillian Gish or Mae Marsh, Robert Harron and Henry B. Walthall in the roles enacted by Dempster, Hamilton and Barrymore. Would the results have been better or not is uncertain. Hamilton and Dempster as its leading players fail to leave a lasting impression as the star quality performances of Lillian Gish or Richard Barthelmess. In fact, their roles are overshadowed by the major support of Lionel Barrymore as the villainous redcoat, and the late entrance of Louis Wolheim as "Captain Hare, a Tory - an American renegade who uses the excuse of war for his own personal passions of savagery."
With silent films commonly shown on public television during the 1960s and 70s, in such weekly series as "The Toy That Grew Up" or "The Silent Years," "America" made its rare TV broadcast in the New York City area on WNET, Channel 13, appropriately during 4th of July weekend in 1972. The print shown was the commonly circulated abridged 93 minute version from the Killiam Film Collection with music score and narration, the same print used on Republic Home Video in the 1990s. While this may have been the start of an annual Independence Day tradition, especially for the upcoming Bicentennial year (1976), after several broadcasts, (Premiere: July 1, with two shows a day July 2 through 4), "America" was never shown again. It wasn't until 1996 when a fully restored 140 minute/ color tinted version turned up on VHS and later DVD from Kino Video accompanied by newly composed score by the Mammaroneck Theater Orchestra.
Overlooking cliché plot and lackluster performances by Hamilton and Dempster, "America" is redeemed by its fine visuals, authentic background, and Griffith's attention to detail, including soldiers marching in bitter cold with shoes so worn out that their feet are seen touching the snow. "America" should have been among Griffith's greatest work, but it isn't. Granted, portions of the story are dull, others are not. In spite of its fine restoration, one of its main drawbacks is its occasional dull orchestration (except for the action scenes) that accompanies it. With all that said, "America" is something to consider, if not for American history, then for history by the American father of film himself, D.W. Griffith. Let Freedom Ring. (***)
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