Since the novel this movie is based on won a Newbery Medal, I have to assume that it’s the God’s honest truth and that the colonists were such great guys that after they stormed the ships in Boston Harbor and dumped all the tea overboard, that they then took time to swab the decks and generally cleaned up the boat when they finished with their consumer protest.
Johnny Tremain was made by Walt Disney in 1957, which means that the acting by the youngsters on the cast (mostly Hal Stalmaster as Johnny and Laura Patten as Priscilla) come across as Mouseketeers playing dress up and being more interested in maintaining these beaming smiles and spewing out their lines with glee than they were with showing anything remotely resembling an emotion that someone who lived in those turbulent times would have experienced.
The result is a revolutionary war movie that has the vague feel of a theme park, with everyone in their bright new costumes and Boston looking like a super clean part of Disneyland. You half expect to go into Paul Revere’s shop and be able to get a funnel cake and/or stuffed Mickey Mouse.
Johnny is an apprentice silversmith who is one of those self-absorbed cocky guys who doesn’t have any time for politics and these Sons of Liberty who are printing up their anti-British propaganda. We all know though that Johnny is basically a good kid at heart because his ego and pride show up in such positive ways as wanting to work really hard and make something of himself. Shoot, the kid’s biggest sin is working on the Sabbath!
Johnny, like all great superheroes, has a secret origin story that would lay the groundwork for his newly awakened civic-mindedness. It seems that one Sabbath while he was working when he wasn’t supposed to, Johnny’s hand has a run in with some super hot liquid silver!
What follows are Johnny’s darkest days. He’s given the boot from the silversmithing job he so slavishly devoted himself to. (He would often go to Paul Revere to get tips on how to do it since his boss was old and senile.)
He tries to sign up for every job in town and it’s always the same story: just when they’re about to give Johnny a job, they stick their hand out to shake on it and Johnny is forced to reveal his crispy-fried hand. Even though Johnny probably has a claim under the Revolutionaries With Disabilities Act, you can’t help but giggle as he dejectedly puts his mutant hand in his pocket and sits on the curb all beaten down.
Johnny seeks assistance from a rich guy, but ends up framed for a crime he didn’t commit. The Sons of Liberty come to his aid, thus showing Johnny that this revolution stuff might just be kind of awesome after all!
The movie then concentrates on the Boston Tea Party. It comes off more as a fraternity prank than as act of defiance against an evil empire. (Everyone was in fine spirits, dressed as Indians, and really polite to the crew of the ship all while some British admiral looked on chuckling.)
I suppose Disney was trying to amp up the educational quotient of the movie when they had that crazy old coot James Otis going on and on about freedom and the price it costs. A little of that goes a long way and I was wishing that Otis had been hit by lighting about ten years earlier than it did in real life.
They run through the expected beginnings of the war with the “one if by land, two if by sea” gag and then they finish the movie with a variety of battle scenes between the colonists and the redcoats. These scenes lack any drama or power as they consist of guys standing around firing their muskets and either falling down or running away.
You don’t get real involved because that punk Johnny, whom we’re supposed to care about, doesn’t do diddly and half the time we don’t even focus on him. I certainly hope the book was a bit deeper in its characterization of Johnny and of his conversion from self-absorbed boob to crippled up do-gooder because this movie was all about Johnny smiling and just going with the flow for no good reason other than he got acquitted at trial.
It’s a good idea to try and get kids involved with history by interweaving a young person into these events so that they can become familiar with guys like Paul Revere and Sam Adams (well, familiar beyond his beer that is), Disney though just did a prettified whitewash of things and put these inept kids through a script that was so simplistic they couldn’t screw it up too badly.
Disney’s obsession with lowest common denominator family entertainment renders Johnny Tremain pretty much into just another cookie cutter live action effort the company used to crank out with uninspired regularity in the 1950s and 1960s.
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