Book 'em, Fry-O
How to Make the Guinness Book of World Records Without Really Trying
Immediate impressions of this 12-year-old's first viewing of Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot , many years ago:
Hey, it's McGarrett!
Aw-man, no battle scenes!
This thing is corny!
Viewed in context, however, Patriot brought Hollywood east to the Virginia Tidewater for a worthwhile purpose: to make the newly restored colonial capitol of Williamsburg come alive for 20th century Americans. Fifty years after its production, it moved from telling history to making it, and now holds a place as an enduring cinematic masterpiece.
The idea was born in the early 1950s, as American tourism boomed. The war was over, the economy was thriving, new roads rolled out across the landscape at an astounding rate, and Americans were hitting those roads as never before in solidly built and affordable automobiles. Where were they going? Many were heading for Virginia, and the leadership at Colonial Williamsburg knew that the introductory slide show then greeting the throngs wouldn't make the grade. Postwar audiences now had the option to be entertained in their own homes by something called television. But movie studios weren't giving up easily. To lure audiences back into theaters, Hollywood was now offering more sex, more violence, darker stories, and something grand: “widescreen” motion pictures in processes like VistaVision and CinemaScope. This was the field of play for Williamsburg and its film coordinator, John Goodbody. They had a great site that needed to be interpreted for a discerning audience of all ages who wouldn't settle for anything less than grand entertainment—an ever-more-mobile audience that was growing by the year.
In 1955, Goodbody set the bar high. He hired James Agee to outline a story for a Williamsburg site film and then develop a treatment. Agee was a screenwriter whose words had helped to earn Humphrey Bogart a Best Actor Academy Award for The African Queen (1951). Agee was currently involved in a very dark production starring Robert Mitchum called Night of the Hunter. Unfortunately for Agee and for Goodbody, as it would turn out, the screenwriter was also a troubled alcoholic.
Agee (seen at left) decided to tell the story of America 's patriots through the eyes of an ambivalent—and fictitious—Virginia planter who begins the film as a loyal British subject and ends it as a loyal American. Agee sought to keep the story at ground level and avoid the minefield of trying to interpret men like Patrick Henry and George Washington. However, before the writer could complete his treatment, he dropped dead of a heart attack in New York City at the tender age of 45. The story goes that John Goodbody hurried from Agee's funeral to his apartment to claim the treatment, and that Agee's last written words stared up at Goodbody on a sheet of paper still in the typewriter.
To replace the late James Agee, Goodbody kept his aim high and hired the president of the Screen Writers Guild, Emmet Lavery. Lavery was flying high after his successful screenplay for Gary Cooper's The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955). Emmet Lavery brought to Agee's concept a perfunctory and somewhat plodding expositive style. He also added to the Agee recipe a sprinkling of real-life historical characters, the likes of Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Peyton Randolph, and George Washington. The Williamsburg story now had words and heroes and awaited a cast and crew.
In a relative sense, considering that this was to be an interpretive film for a historical site and not a motion picture for general release, John Goodbody and Williamsburg used the money of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to go all-out on production, in association with Paramount Pictures (home studio of Cecil B. DeMille). They would shoot in widescreen VistaVision, employing Hollywood veteran and Academy Award-winner George Seaton to direct. Seaton had started out in his mid-20s as a contributing writer on two classic Marx Brothers comedies for MGM, A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937). Seaton then moved to 20th Century-Fox, where he spent the 1940s cutting his teeth on musicals for Betty Grable and John Payne. His last writing credit at Fox was the cinematic adaptation of a charming, character-centric story that humanized no less than Santa Claus. Considering that Miracle on 34th Street (1947) became one of the most enduring classics of all time, one can only speculate on the potential power of a Story of a Patriot script that had been conceived exclusively for the screen by George Seaton, and not by Emmet Lavery.
Hollywood came east in the spring of 1956, and Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot followed a six-week location schedule, with 17 days of principal photography, in and around Williamsburg. It's a remarkably short production cycle considering the number of set-ups and exterior locations (where weather is always a factor, especially on the coast)—not to mention the challenge of moving lights, generators, and enormous VistaVision cameras from one place to another. Cost of the production: roughly a half-million dollars. It starred as John Fry, the ambivalent Virginia planter, a tall and brooding 36-year-old Jack Lord, who had studied acting with Marilyn Monroe. Screenwriter Emmet Lavery had known Lord from production of The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (seen at right, Lord with Elizabeth Montgomery and Gary Cooper). As John's wife Anne, Seaton chose television and stage actress Leora Dana. Others on the playbill were economically cast—veterans but not big names. Most recognizable is 17th-billed John McGiver in the role of “First Planter.” McGiver (left) would go on to become one of the busiest character actors of the 1960s and remains a familiar face through roles on Bewitched, Gilligan's Island, and other television shows, motion pictures, and commercials.
Perhaps the most famous and endearing tale from the filming of Patriot showed the limitations of Hollywood filmmaking on faraway locations. At one point Seaton and crew simply ran out of actors and couldn't fill scenes depicting the House of Burgesses in session. So they sent out an emergency call to the nearby Eastern State Hospital, which sent over 30 mental patients to be suited up as sober and thoughtful burgesses. (Patriot would hold a special premiere at the hospital in return.)
Williamsburg: the Story of a Patriot began showing on March 31, 1957, in new, specially designed twin theaters at the visitor's center featuring wide screens curved on the ends—like the shape of the human eye. Taken in context, the 38-minute piece is a charming Hollywood antiquity that still resonates with dramatic power, thanks to the skills of Seaton and his team. Today's younger audiences, weaned on action blockbusters and gimmicky episodic television, have a hard time adjusting to the pacing and theatrics. But before long even they can get caught up in the inner conflict of John Fry, because Patriot nicely gets at the dilemma that haunted George Washington and his fellow colonials: England saw America as a separate and distinct subordinate of empire; Americans saw themselves as equals. It couldn't help but make for a good story in 1776, and in 1956, and in 2006.
It's clear that Colonial Williamsburg knew how and where to invest its filmmaking dollars. The producers hired one of Hollywood 's most famous cinematic composers, Bernard Herrmann, to score the film. Herrmann had gotten his start working with Orson Welles on radio productions; the first motion picture that “Benny” Herrmann scored was Citizen Kane. Proving wrong the notion that when you start out at the top, there's nowhere to go but down, Herrmann invented musical scoring to match the cinematic moment, which a few years later would result in the shrieking violins that accompanied Janet Leigh's last shower in Psycho . Herrmann's technique became accepted practice still used today—every day—in all motion pictures, psychological musical accompaniment for unsettled characters and edgy audiences. For Patriot, he took a more traditional and bombastic course, using full orchestra and Handel-like phrasing presented in six-channel, Todd-A O Hollywood stereo sound that continues to this day to practically blow audiences out of Williamsburg's theaters.
For a film that was originally specced to last five years, Patriot has had what you might call a fair amount of success. It has been seen by more than 40 million visitors and holds the world record as the longest continuously running motion picture in the history of Hollywood— and for that matter, the history of the world. Thanks to a 1994 restoration, and a complete digital remastering completed in 2004, it will continue its run. The preserved film can be seen daily at Colonial Williamsburg, and the DVD version (right) is also available from the site.
George Seaton moved on to other projects, most notably the 1970 blockbuster Airport (1970). Jack Lord made other movies and then a little police drama set in Hawaii. But thanks to the wisdom of Colonial Williamsburg in 1956 to make Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot, and at the turn of the Millennium to preserve it, Lord and Seaton will always be on hand to introduce new generations of impatient and demanding American audiences to our own rich history.