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inventing george washington
16 march 2011
Among the many piquant facts in Edward Lengel's Inventing George Washington is this: there has been only one feature film with the first President as its hero. It was called When the Redskins Rode, it was released in 1951, it starred James Seay as Washington, and no, you can't put it on your Netflix queue.
Which is a shame, because the one review on IMDb, by John Seal, notes some of the film's intriguing features, like "appalling" miscasting and "the worst day-for-night cinematography you'll ever see." This sounds so bad it's good, especially since much of it, purporting to be backwoods Pennsylvania during the French and Indian war, was apparently shot in the California desert.
Lengel has a lot of fun with When the Redskins Rode, and indeed a lot of fun with almost every bizarre pop-culture manifestation of George Washington that he discusses, not excluding a short film shown at Mount Vernon, on which Lengel himself served in vain as technical advisor. Just about everything that can be done to Washington has been done, including linking him to space aliens, summoning up his ghost via medium, and providing him with an imaginary mulatto child to balance Thomas Jefferson's real ones.
The things that everyone knows about Washington, but turn out to be complete nonsense, are almost as legion as the wrong things we know about Abraham Lincoln. Washington dropped to his knees in prayer whenever people weren't looking, enabling them to come across him dramatically and overhear his fervent prayer life. Wrong. Washington was offered the crown of the United States, but refused after much soul-searching. Wrong; he just kind of ended his hitch as commanding general without much comment. But the myth of the man who wouldn't be king is so pervasive that Ancestry.com scrounged up a many-times great nephew of Washington's and asked provocatively whether he might have been King Paul I today.
And of course the cherry tree was never chopped down and the silver dollar never thrown across the Potomac. But such things are rather obvious legends. More insidious is the myth of the praying Washington, or the proto-NRA Washington, or any number of other Washingtons conveyed by misquotation and sometimes utter fabrication over talk radio and the wilder right-wing reaches of the Internet. The proliferation of text just clicks away seems to have licensed orators to just make stuff up: if it's on a webpage somewhere, it must be real, right? Wrong. Of course the Web makes facts easier to check; but the moral of the story is that there is a lot of wrong information out there.
And there seems to be wronger information about George Washington than about a lot of figures. Ironically, the President himself was fanatical about preserving a documentary legacy, so that historians could chart his every step. The legacy was literally cut to ribbons by 19th-century "biographers" and autograph dealers, who have made it very difficult even to determine what the prosaic historical record consists of. And where prose leaves off, banana oil begins.
And oddly for someone who has generated so much banana oil, Washington, as mentioned, has almost no Hollywood presence. Yes, he was eventually played in a miniseries by Barry Bostwick, a performance slightly less wooden than Washington's teeth. But he's represented in feature films only by an unobtainable 60-year-old potboiler that would seem to be unwatchable even if it were obtainable. Compare all the Lincolns of Hollywood fame, including Raymond Massey and Henry Fonda; think of all the Nixons, from Anthony Hopkins through Dan Hedaya to Frank Langella. Why no Washingtons at all?
To put Washington on screen perhaps seemed blasphemous to early-20th-century audiences. Washington spent so much time as the subject of hagiography (interrupted, as Lengel shows, by episodes of debunking) that no authentically entertaining dramatic tradition ever developed around his image. He almost has no image; he's just a picture on money. Strangely enough, Washington became a target of low tack and high camp without ever having a serious pop image. He's somebody we associate with mattresses – either in the form of the thousands he is said to have slept on, or the millions sold every February to mark a birthday that's become a moveable feast, a holiday not even wholly his anymore.
George Washington deserves better. To your laptops, screenwriters of the world! I see the next role for Colin Firth.
Lengel, Edward G. Inventing George Washington: America's founder, in myth and memory. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.