One of D.W. Griffith's most ambitious films, AMERICA is a stirring survey of the key events of the American Revolution, overlaid with and compromised by an outdated melodrama of villainy amok.
Nathan Holden (Neil Hamilton)--Minute Man, express rider, and humble farmer--is in love with Nancy Montague (Carol Dempster), an aristocratic Virginian far above his station. Nancy's father (Erville Alderson), a Tory, opposes the message of support sent by the Virginia House of Burgesses to the
Boston insurrectionists led by Samuel Adams (Lee Beggs) and John Hancock (John Dunston), who are about to flee to Lexington to avoid arrest.
The war begins when the redcoats meet the rebels at Lexington and Concord. After fighting in both battles Nathan furtively woos Nancy, who is stopping with her family in Lexington, midway in a trip north. Their tryst is interrupted by Nancy's brother Charles (Charles Emmett Mack), who challenges
Nathan to a duel, but the duel is forestalled by the sudden appearance of Paul Revere (Harry O'Neill), who has come to alert the countryside that "the British are coming!"
Charles shifts allegiances and joins the colonial forces at Bunker Hill, where he is mortally wounded. Meanwhile, his father is seriously injured by a bullet he and Nancy mistakenly believe was fired by Nathan. As her father lies at the brink of death, Nancy comforts him by bringing Charles's body
to his bedside. Montague is not told that his son died fighting for the rebels.
Montague recovers and he and Nancy travel to the Mohawk Valley to visit Montague's brother (Sidney Deane). The area is the site of a series of massacres perpetrated by the followers of Captain Walter Butler (Lionel Barrymore), an ostensible Royalist who is in truth a megalomaniac secretly seeking
to establish his own private empire on American soil.
Nathan, who has been sent north to spy on Butler, overhears him planning to attack Fort Esperance and kill all the colonials there, including the women and the children. Nathan is forced to choose between riding forth to warn the inhabitants of the fort and saving Nancy from being raped by Butler.
He chooses to answer his country's call, but Nancy is saved from Butler's lust when the captain is called away to battle.
During the attack on Fort Esperance, Butler is killed and Nancy and her father are rescued from death by Nathan and Morgan's Raiders. Shortly thereafter, Britain surrenders and George Washington (Arthur Dewey) is inaugurated first president of the new republic. Cheering him on are Nathan, Nancy,
and Montague, who now heartily approves of both his new country, the United States of America, and his future son-in-law, Nathan.
A decade after his monumental Civil War film THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), Griffith was motivated to make a Revolutionary War epic by a suggestion made in a letter the Daughters of the American Revolution sent to Will Hays, the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. It
turned out to be one of the costliest pictures he ever created but far from the most popular: its failure to turn a profit essentially ended Griffith's tenure as a major independent filmmaker.
Critical reaction was mixed. Although Variety, felt that the film "ranks with the best that this director has given to the screen" and Theatre Magazine said, "In sheer pictorial beauty, AMERICA has no equal among the moving pictures of the past," the consensus was that the inspiring historical
material had been seriously undercut by the climactic melodramatics. Particularly unimpressed was Griffith's leading lady and acolyte Lillian Gish, who wrote in her autobiography: "Apart from a few scenes, the film was a heartbreaking disappointment."L Although the picture has survived as a more
striking achievement than Gish and posterity have allowed, the critics were right about its split personality. Watching AMERICA is like watching a double bill made up of a good movie of some 90 minutes in length followed by a mediocre co-feature of some 60 minutes in length.
Part one of AMERICA is an involving survey of the events that launched the Revolutionary War. Most of the major milestones and talismans (such as the Liberty Bell) are invoked and the locations and colonial buildings on display are highly evocative. Framed by the immortal lines "One if by land,
two if by sea" and "To arms-the British are coming!", the sequence that retells the story of the midnight ride of Paul Revere provided the American silent cinema with one of its high points. The fictional thread that Griffith and writer Robert Chambers introduced to humanize the historical drama
is generally unobtrusive and, indeed, the romance between Nathan and Nancy is by and large quite charming.
The action shifts from Massachusetts to the Mohawk Valley and stock Victorian melodrama sets in, as The Shot Heard 'Round the World gives way to The Fate Worse Than Death. What had begun as a stirring saga about a group of ordinary people caught up in the sweep of history degenerates into a
potboiler in which history is reduced to local color. Un-Americanism is personified and trivialized in the figure of Walter Butler, who, as Griffith expert Edward Wagenknecht noted "may have been as bad in life as he is in the film but can hardly have been quite so important; in the second half of
AMERICA, the colonials almost seem to be fighting not England but Captain Butler."
The most complete and widely viewed extant print of AMERICA is the one that was prepared for release in England under the title LOVE AND SACRIFICE. Somewhat of an anglophile, Griffith probably suffered little discomfort in revising his film to placate the British. Viewers of this print will find
it easy to identify the adjustments, as the most ingratiating intertitles are rendered in smaller letter than the others. (Violence.)
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