Top 10 Revolutionary War Movies

Obviously, any attempt to rank films in order is subjective.  My opinions may make others cringe.  It should also be kept in mind that films are made to make money, not to be models of historical accuracy.  However, some films handle the history, and “feel of the times,”  better than others.  I have used no standard criteria for judging the films.  Rather, I have based my listing on my own appreciation of the films.

Please feel free to express your own opinions in the comments below this article.

John Adams1 // John Adams – 2008. Paul Giamatti.

Based on David McCullough’s biography, the film puts great emphasis on getting the feel and the details to a very high level of excellence.  The details include some rather ugly, but accurate, views of American civil violence and dissent.  The scenes of Congress in action are memorable.  Adams, who is not remembered for his style or media appeal, comes through this excellent film as the hard working, dedicated and fearless advocate of the United States and justice.  This film is a must see.

April Morning2 // April Morning – 1988.  Tommy Lee Jones, Chad Lowe.

This film was taken from the Howard Fast novel of the same name.  The action takes place on April 18-19, 1775 in Lexington, Massachusetts; the afternoon before the battle of Lexington through the evening of the day of battle.  The tension builds as the British army marches into view.  The viewer sees a boy become a man as he takes his place among the men on Lexington green and fights throughout the fateful day.  The arguments between the men as to why they should, or should not, stand up to the British army explain well the conflict of principles being discussed in 1775.  Excellent film.

Drums Along the Mohawk3 // Drums Along the Mohawk – 1939. Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert.  Director: John Ford.

Based on the novel by Walter B. Edmonds.  This visually appealing film is set in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York.  There, the frontier settlers are not facing a red-coated enemy but rather the dark and sinister forces of the Tories and Indians bent on destruction of the settlers and their settlements.  The feel for the time and place are outstanding.  It is also great entertainment.  The film is excellent and can be watched time and time again.  And, if you like the film you’ll love the book.

Johnny Tremain4 // Johnny Tremain – 1957.

This is a Disney film taken from the Esther Forbes novel of the same name.  While perhaps considered a film for young adults in 1957 it is far better historically than one would expect.  The action takes place in and around Boston before the war and ends after Lexington-Concord.  Interspersed in the film are various scenes where knowledgeable characters explain what is going on politically so the viewer understands the implications he is witnessing.  In particular one should pay attention to the philosophical explanations made by the James Otis character.  He spells out the repercussions of the revolution for 1775 and the impact of the revolution for future generations.  This is a fine film and the book is even better.

The Crossing5 // The Crossing – 2003. Jeff Daniels.

Based on Howard Fast’s novel of the same name The Crossing tells the story of Washington leading his bedraggled army across the Delaware River to attack the Hessians at Trenton.  The film is compelling and has a good feel.  Washington, an extraordinarily difficult character to portray, is handled well for the most part, by Jeff Daniels.   The desperate nature of the attack is very clear and the very real tension of the event carries over into the film.

allforliberty36 // All For Liberty – 2009.  Clarence Felder, Chris Weatherhead.

This film is independently produced to very high standards.  It is one of the few films to depict the nature of the war in the South being Tory vs. Whig, neighbor against neighbor.  Large battles were rare, small skirmishes and ambushes were very common.  The film is visually very appealing and beautifully filmed.  The conflicts and tough decisions citizens had to make are made clear.  The action scenes are realistic and not obsessively violent.  The feel of the 1770’s is very successfully depicted.  Recommended.

The Devil's Disciple7 // The Devil’s Disciple – 1959.  Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Laurence Olivier.

The action takes place in upstate New York where General Burgoyne is attempting to march his army from Canada to the Hudson.  Along the way he is confronted with Whig militiamen who try to block his way.  The film drifts considerably from the truth but it is entertaining and a pleasure to watch the famous actors at work.  The details of uniforms and equipment are excellent as far as I can determine.  If you can find it, record it as you’ll want to watch it again.

The Patriot8 // The Patriot – 2000.  Mel Gibson.

This film has some good action scenes and some incredibly poor scenes as well.  I am irritated by the British soldiers who inappropriately turn their heads and wince when firing their muskets.  The church burning and the strange concept that all of Mel Gibson’s black workers are employees, not slaves, are pretty hard to take.  While not accurate some of the battle scenes are quite exciting to watch.  I don’t watch this film very often.

The Scarlet Coat9 // The Scarlet Coat – 1955. Cornel Wilde.

This film involves the American traitor General Benedict Arnold and British Major John Andre.  An American officer, pretends to defect to the British, becomes a counterspy to discover the identity of an American traitor.  The film did not leave me with the feel of the times.  Too much effort was taken up with honor – yet, the film deals with deceit.

america10 // America – 1924. Lionel Barrymore. Director: D.W. Griffith. Silent.

Being a silent film the viewer must pay close attention to follow the action.  And, at times, it gets somewhat complicated.  This film is made is the grand style with a huge cast, evil bad guys, and really good good-guys.  This is an epic that includes Paul Revere, the Declaration of Independence, Washington and the war in upstate New York.  While it may not portray history well the film by its very nature is history itself and worthy of watching, if only once.

These are my favorites.  Let me hear what you have to say about your own favorites in the comments below.

UPDATE: Following this article, the author found and ordered a copy of Mary Silliman’s War, which he said deserves a spot in the top half of this list. Click here to read the full review. So, if The Patriot is that bothersome to you, now you can add Mary Silliman’s War, move The Patriot to “honorable mention,” and have a Top 10 Revolutionary War Movies list with absolutely no sign of Mel Gibson.

Hugh T. Harrington

Hugh T. Harrington, editor of Journal of the American Revolution (allthingsliberty.com), is an independent researcher and author whose books include Remembering Milledgeville (History Press, 2005), More Milledgeville Memories (History Press, 2006), Civil War Milledgeville (History Press, 2005), and biography of 1890s magician Annie Abbott, “The Little Georgia Magnet” (Createspace, 2010). His articles have appeared in the Journal of Military History, Georgia Historical Quarterly, America’s Civil War, Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, American Revolution, Muzzle Blasts, and others. He has written extensively on Sherlock Holmes and is a member of the Baker Street Irregulars. He lives in Milledgeville, Georgia.

43 Comments

  • Reply January 25, 2013

    Twistification

    Excellent summary. I’ll need to check these out. I’ve only seen John Adams and the Patriot. I’ll check out April Morning.

    Have you thought of putting together a list similar to this for documentaries/bios? I’ve got a number of Rev war PBS, History Channel and BBC disks on the topic but haven’t had a chance to watch them all.

    • Reply January 25, 2013

      Larry Dexter

      In my opinion, the PBS Liberty! is still one of the best documentaries on the Revolution.

      • Reply January 27, 2013

        Twistification

        It is a good one (although I found the actor portrayals hit or miss). I am about half way through ‘The Revolution’ by the History Channel. Unfortunately, I share the dvd player with my kids, so its slow going.

  • Reply January 25, 2013

    Michael D. Hattem

    By far, John Adams and The Crossing are my favorites. I think there is a lot of value in Daniels’ very human portrayal of Washington as opposed to what I think we all assume is the more historically accurate portrayal of him as human statue in John Adams. Just like John Adams really brought to life the debates and contingency of the 2nd Continental Congress, The Crossing did the same for the attack on Trenton. And I know there is a paucity of 18th-century films but The Patriot wouldn’t even belong on a Top 100 list.

  • Reply January 25, 2013

    Larry Dexter

    I teach U.S. history at the high school level working with alternative teens, who face many learning challenges. I like to use several of these films, In particular, April Morning, The Crossing, and John Adams. Of course, I always make sure that my students realize the difference between movies for entertainment versus a documentary that tends to be instructional or informational. However, sections of a movie may generate student enthusiasm for a topic that will then encourage them to read the numerous primary sources that I use as instructional materials for my lessons. Those movie segments may be the spark that will motivate my students to seek out more information and knowledge. Typically I only use segments of 10-15 minutes to help set the tone for a lesson. With the increasing demands in classroom curriculum being squeezed for every minute, no good teacher has the time to show any film in its entirety. So what we use needs to be carefully scrutinized for it learning value.

  • Reply May 20, 2013

    steven paul mark

    At the risk of being laughed off this website, I add to the very fine list, the film ‘Revolution’ directed ironically by Brit, Hugh Hudson, and starring Al (‘Here come da British’) Pacino. If you take the Godfather out the film isn’t half bad. It portrays colonial NYC, the Battle of Brooklyn, camp life (both sides) and other historical details fairly well and at least as good as ‘The Patriot.’ In the late 50′s early 60′s Disney did a pretty good series about Francis Marion, The Swamp Fox.

    • Reply May 20, 2013

      Hugh Harrington

      I’m not laughing, Steven. I haven’t seen “Revolution” and can hardly imagine Al Pacino….but, I’ll keep an eye out for it. There is another, “Mary Silliman’s War” which I saw perhaps 20 years ago but haven’t seen it since. At the time I thought it was excellent but as I hadn’t seen it in so long – and can’t find a copy, I didn’t include it in the list.

      • Reply May 20, 2013

        steven paul mark

        I forgot to mention ‘Sweet Liberty’ which is not exactly a film that deals with the Revolution. Unless, you want to count what happens to a small New England town when Hollywood comes to shoot a movie based upon a local historian’s (Alan Alda) best-selling book about a colonial woman (Michelle Pfeifer) inbolbed with a British officer (Michael Caine). Light comedy, very light history but worth the performance of the film within a film director, Bob Hoskins.

    • Reply May 21, 2013

      Alan Smiley

      “Revolution” certainly had more of a gritty historical feel to it than did “The Patriot”. I still believe that “The Patriot” could be edited into an excellent 15 minute film. “Revolution”, on the other hand, only needs to have its soundtrack reworked.

  • Reply May 25, 2013

    Scott Hiser

    Many of the battle seens in the Patriot were off base. Soldiors were too close together, and like you said about the slaves. However, the British turning their head when firing was a trained move. The explosion in the pan caused tiny shards of flint to scatter in all directions.Many a soldier got a scratched cornea from this. Some soldiers were blinded in one eye because of this. We re-enactors nowadays have a flash guard on the pan to prevent this. Its required at Battle events.

    • Reply May 25, 2013

      Hugh Harrington

      Scott -
      The Patriot leaves a lot to be desired in many areas. Can you provide a primary source indicating that British soldiers (or any soldiers) were trained to turn their heads? I’ve never seen it and it’s not in the period manuals. Also a primary source for the scratched cornea and blindings. I’ll have to look again but if I remember correctly the muskets in The Patriot did have historically incorrect modern flash shields. These shields would not protect the shooter but rather the man standing to the right of the shooter – he in line with the touchhole. I shoot a lot of flint – including a Brown Bess….and I always wear shooting glasses. I have been told by reenactors who were involved with the battle scenes in the movie that the muskets had an electrical gadget that set off magnesium in the pan rather than black powder….apparently to give more of a flash for the camera. These people also said that they would turn their heads – not from the flash, or because someone thought it was historically correct but because they wanted to express their disgust with the film. But, I don’t know that is fact. Please let me know about any primary sources you have for the turning heads and eye injuries.

  • [...] January I made a list of the 10 best, in my opinion, Revolutionary War films.  I neglected to include a film that deserves to be in the top half of that list; Mary [...]

  • Reply June 21, 2013

    Lindsay

    My biggest problem with the Patriot is that the story isn’t real. There are plenty of “real” stories of Americans that would make an excellent movie. Why not do one of those? Why change it? A movie on Joseph Plumb Martin would be excellent. It would have plenty of action, show what an average soldier went through, and it would be humorous at times. We need to get Americans interested in our history. What better way than to introduce them to real people?

  • Reply June 21, 2013

    Hugh Harrington

    Lindsay, I couldn’t agree with you more…on all points. Maybe someday the movies will get better. Until then – take a look at Mary Silliman’s War. It’s a winner.

  • Reply July 4, 2013

    Shelley Hamilton

    You may laugh but, though it isn’t an action movie that shows battles, etc. my family watches 1776 every year for July 4th. There are historical inaccuracies however you get a great overview of the creation of the Declaration of Independence – and who doesn’t love our founding fathers singing and dancing? :)

    • Reply July 16, 2013

      Hugh Harrington

      Shelly -
      I watched 1776 a few weeks ago. I liked it….but, if it were my production I’d have left out the singing and dancing. I guess I’m just no fun at all :)

  • Reply July 4, 2013

    Paul Ring

    Interesting list, but I’m surprised “1776″ wasn’t mentioned. Sure it’s a musical, but it’s got a solid foundation in the letters and other writings of the participants. Plus, I really enjoy the portrayals of Franklin, Jefferson and Adams. It’s the one movie I watch every year around July 4.

    • Reply August 3, 2013

      Joe Kinkade

      I agree with you Paul. I watch “1776″ on or around the July 4th and from what I have read about the founding fathers is, the film gets the portrayals close. Plus pretty neat All Star cast too. In the middle of the film I was not well informed on the whole rum controversies. Until I pick up a book called “The American Revolution and the West Indies” edited by Charles W. Toth, now the whole scene makes sense.

  • Reply July 5, 2013

    Jo Ann Garza

    The church burning with the people inside in The Patriot is an incident that did happen and is not a fictional addition.

    • Reply July 5, 2013

      solarrman

      I have always been led to believe that the church burning in The Patriot was fictional (the Nazis did this in France in 1944). What evidence is there it happened as portrayed? Whilst Mel Gibson said “lighten up it’s just a movie” there seem to be lots of people who think that the movie was based on fact rather than a healthy does of fiction.

      • Reply December 31, 2013

        George Quintal Jr.

        Terrible atrocities did occur in the Southern campaign, the most horrific of which were perpetrated by the Cherokee Indians. Perhaps the church scene was a stand-in for the entire mass of tragic realities on the frontier.

        In my opinion, the single most powerful scene in any of the films listed is the one in “The Patriot” in which the young woman stands up in church and makes the case for the Revolution. Why would a man leave family, home, work, everything dear, to risk all in the cause of liberty? She encapsulated the answer to that question with incredibly stirring eloquence.

  • Reply July 5, 2013

    Jo Ann Garza

    The main character in The Patriot and some of the incidents surrounding him are in part based on a real character from that time…His name was John Beckham Sr. He was a noted scout and spy for George Washington during the Revolution. He was,also, my ancestral grandfather from South Carolina.

  • Reply July 5, 2013

    Jo Ann Garza

    By the way: John Adams is my favorite among this group….too.

  • Reply July 26, 2013

    Tim Creed

    About the Patriot….the soldiers turning their heads away from the muzzle flashes is entirely historically accurate. The flash was so large, that it would actually burn the face if too close. This is the reason for the head turning. And the church scene never did happen, but it was based on other events of similar nature. Anyway, fantastic list! I’m actually ordering John Adams at this moment because of you!

  • Reply August 4, 2013

    Jean Carlton

    All For Liberty is an excellent inclusion in the top ten. It is well done with outstanding history. What a wonderful addition in preservation of our Revolutionary War history!!!!!

  • Reply October 30, 2013

    Warren Jones

    I have a collection of films on The Revolutionary War. Making my collection didn’t take too long, since there don’t seem to be many films on the subject. For this reason. when I saw the title of this page, I thought, “It could just as easily be named ‘ALL the films about the American Revolution?.” However, you did mention a few that were unknown to me. and I’ll be looking into them.

    Perhaps you have some knowledge of a film I have been looking for without success. “MediaOutlet.com” has a set of films about the Revolution. Most of them are said to be taken from Martin Gable’s film on the subject. Obviously,this implies a film of much greater length, but I have not been able to find any mention of this film anywhere else. Are you familiar with it?

  • Reply October 30, 2013

    Hugh Harrington

    Warren, I’m not at all familiar with those films but will look into it.

  • Reply November 23, 2013

    Lindsay

    I’ve come across another film that I love that I didn’t see on the list and that is 1776. While it is a musical and can become corny at times and some of the content is not true, it is an excellent film that I believe portrays the personalities of some of the founders very well. The movie really revolves around John Adams and his persistence in trying to get the votes needed for independence. At the same time it touches on the slavery issue and shows why they had to keep the issue away from the independence issue. It also shows the interaction of the founders. The movie shows how hard the founders had to work to get people to agree to the idea of independence and that everyone didn’t just show up one day and decide on independence. It is an old movie, made it 1972, but I believe it is one that should be given a second look.

  • Reply January 3, 2014

    Hershel Parker

    I appreciate this list and am particularly glad to see THE PATRIOT potentially bumped from it. The church burning was just too much to bear. Now, I had never heard about ALL FOR LIBERTY and may have to shell out $20-some dollars for it. First I am trying to find out if there really was an ARTICLES OF SEPARATION in South Carolina under Governor Rutledge and if Henry Felder actually wrote such a document. Normally I can find on Google even the documents whose authenticity is challenged, such as the Mecklenburg Declaration. What am I doing wrong in looking for a text of the “Articles of Separation” that Felder supposedly wrote? I tried to watch THE PATRIOT and ought to have been thrilled by it because I had a double handful of German and Scots-Irish men at King’s Mountain, some from just south of the border in SC but most from NC, and would have loved having a handsome old actor playing my grandparents and uncles. However, a handsome old anti-Semitic actor is impossible for me to watch without inner checks, (I won’t even be able to watch TIM any more)and anyhow Gibson’s playing fast and loose with history kept me from finishing the movie. I would like to watch ALL FOR LIBERTY but I don’t want to be lied to about ARTICLES OF SEPARATION. Please, is there such a document?

  • Reply January 8, 2014

    Irené Colthurst (@irenecolth)

    What about “The Howards of Virginia” from 1940, starring Cary Grant? I would recommend it solely based on its starting point and solid grounding in the Stamp Act crisis as well as its portrayal of deliberations in the Virginia colonial legislature.

  • Reply February 13, 2014

    Historical Ken

    Mr. Harrington,
    What are your thoughts on the 12 hour mini-series about George Washington from 1984?
    I recently watched it for the first time and found myself entirely enthralled. The battle scenes were pretty spectacular (for 1984) and the dramatic scenes seemed to be spot on.
    I was just wondering what you thought of it?
    Thank you for your time.
    By the way, I agree with you about John Adams. That is my all-time favorite move.

  • Reply February 14, 2014

    Hugh T. Harrington

    Historical Ken -
    When I started compiling this listing I thought (being a historical kinda guy) in terms of “movies” – the kind that appeared in movie theaters. Then, it became apparent that there were quality made for TV productions that ought to be included. Perhaps, this listing ought to be expanded to the top 20 as so many really good Revolutionary War productions that narrowing it down to 10 becomes impossible.
    As for the 1984 GW mini-series…..I must admit to having forgotten about it. And, I haven’t seen it in a long time. I’ll track down a copy and give it a look.
    Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  • Reply February 17, 2014

    Steve MC

    John Adams was excellent. So many scenes, like after the White House is stripped bare, in that field of mud, stay with you.

    April Morning I liked for much the same reason. Especially when Tommy Lee Jones tells his boy to load more powder in his rifle because he’s aiming to kill a man. It put a real weight on the moment, on what he was planning to do.

    Just saw Drums Along the Mohawk last month on TCM. Thought the best scene was Fonda, shell-shocked, recalling the battle, which turned out to be him improvising.

    Loved Johnny Tremain as a kid, and it’s still great entertainment, but the last time I saw it, I felt the best part was just as you said – James Otis, laying down what would come.

    The Crossing was very good and showed the cold reality of the battle. Liked how they had Washington sit unceremoniously in his boat, even if they couldn’t bring in a blizzard for full authenticity.

    The Patriot showed the connection to the French and Indian War, and how we’d fought with the British then. And what we owe to the French in aiding us.

    The rest I haven’t seen, but will be on the lookout for. Thanks!

    • Reply February 17, 2014

      Hershel Parker

      I am still hoping someone will tell me if the Articles of Separation (ALL FOR LIBERTY) were real and if they can now be seen on the Internet. I can’t find them and want to read them.

  • Reply February 17, 2014

    Gregory J. W. Urwin

    This is an interesting list, to be sure, but it presents a mixture of feature films, made-for-TV movies, and mini-series. I would argue that these are distinct media and deserve to be judged by different standards. A list for each of these categories would provide space to consider the excellent CBS _George Washington_ mini-series from the 1980s, which starred Barry Bostwick and Patty Duke; the _Adams Chronicles_ that PBS produced for the American Revolution Bicentennial; and CBS mini-series on Benjamin Franklin that starred Lloyd Bridges and at least one of his sons. Then there is _The Bastard_, the televised treatment of John Jakes’ pot-boiler novel. This would create more room in the feature film category to consider Al Pacino’s _Revolution_, Robert Stack’s _John Paul Jones_, and Cary Grant’s _The Howards of Virginia_. A number of made-for-TV movies could also be discussed — such as A&E’s _Benedict Arnold_. There were also Revolutionary War television series, such as Disney’s _The Swamp Fox_, NBC’s _Daniel Boone_, ABC’s _The Young Rebels_, and the animated _Liberty’s Kids_ from PBS.

  • Reply February 17, 2014

    Hugh T. Harrington

    These are an excellent suggestions and are something that is being discussed and considered.

  • Reply March 2, 2014

    Jeff

    The one thing The Patriot did do was to show how bloody the American Revolution was…no other movie show this kind of realism.

    I think the A&E documentary “The American Revolution” was one of the best. That cover a lot and made it very interesting, plus the soundtrack is great.

  • Reply July 20, 2014

    Tara Hall

    Appreciate the list! We are just getting into John Adams, I do have to correct some bugs in it that bug the stew out of me. Just in the first episode, the portrayal between Sam Adams and John is all wrong. John was actually part of the Resistance well before these scenes came about, and his praise for Sam is well documented. The portrayal of the ‘Rebels’ as thugs in the court scenes was inaccurate. Not all redcoats were found innocent, actually 2 or 3 were found guilty…I know they’re trying to make John Adams the highlight, but at the risk of modifying historical references makes me wrinkle my nose. I like the Patriot, more from a family bonding perspective than historical movie, but each to their own. I think what this nation needs now is a historically accurate portrayal of this wonderful nation’s birth…too many history books are eliminating or diminishing the role of important key figures such as: Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and even George Washington…our family is taking a trip to DC next month and want to give them the whole story…I’d also love for you to give a top 10 list of books! :) We love Abigail Adams’ biography! :)

  • Reply July 20, 2014

    Hugh T. Harrington

    Tara – Movies aren’t always historically accurate but they, if they are good, will at the very least give a good “feel” for the period. You mentioned “The Patriot.” I heard today that the young actress who portrayed Mel Gibson’s youngest daughter in the film died today.
    As for your request for a list of books, look at the top of the page – put your cursor on “Features” a list will appear on the left. One of the items listed is book reviews. Click on that and you’ll find our book reviews….and, see that there are 3 articles on the “Essential” books, Beginning books and 20 top novels. That’s pretty close to your request for a top 10.
    Hope you find some books that appeal to you and that you enjoy your trip to DC.

    • Reply July 22, 2014

      Gary Shattuck

      For an interesting take on the interplay of the goals of filmmakers and historians, Nancy L. Rhoden’s essay “Patriots, Villains and the Quest for Liberty: How American Film has Depicted the American Revolution” considers twelve films on the subject and raises some interesting points: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/crv/summary/v037/37.2rhoden.html

      With regard to the accuracy of AMC’s Turn (which has been the subject of some posts on this site in the past and Don Troioni opines as “very bad”) this blog is also of interest: http://spycurious.wordpress.com/

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