Wednesday, January 28, 2009

American Animation's "Patrick Henry: Quest for Freedom": a core speech in the development of liberty

I’ve looked through Netflix and imdb for a feature film on the story of Patrick Henry, remembered for his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech at St. John’s Church in Richmond VA (on E Broad, about a mile east of I-95 downtown). I don’t’ find a major film (I thought I would), but there is a great school instructional film DVD from American Animation Studios called “Patrick Henry: Quest for Freedom”, directed by John Derrick. A descriptive link is on “Dr. Toy’s” here (available from Amazon). Curiously, “American Animation” loads a blank page. The voice of Henry is played by Doug Zanger.

The film uses a cartoonish eagle named “Boomer” to prompt the (often middle school) audience (“here it comes”) – a character who reminds me of H. Ross Perot’s “Eagles don’t flock”. But the human characters in 3D animation look quite real.

Early in his life, Patrick’s father tells him he can fight back with words as well as fists. Ten years later, he is married, and objecting to having to quarter the King’s troops (the Third Amendment in the Bill of Rights addresses that, and no one remembers this issue now). The film even calls King George’s demands a “Bailout” (a curious word for a film dated 2007).

He meets young Thomas Jefferson, who tells Patrick that he is headed to William and Mary to study law. (William and Mary is crucial for me for reasons explained elsewhere on these blogs.) Patrick Henry, so far, has been interested mainly in fishing and playing the violin – he’s good, but 18th Century music doesn’t make a living. He home schools himself in law and goes before a board of judges, two of whom have to sign off on his appointment. The law then has four parts: the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the laws of King George, the laws of God, and “natural law”. We know where the latter two will lead a couple centuries later. But Henry gets his license.

He wins a major case involving the Two Penny Act and clergy salaries. In those days, tobacco was colonial currency (the fortunes of the tobacco crop controlled the “money supply”), but there were colonial coins, and British currency, and complicated rules converting them and governing how people could be paid. Henry invites an argument that if the King got his way, he would be proven unfit to rule. The plaintiffs wind up getting a penny. This segment of the film often refers to the Hanover Tavern, about 15 miles north of Richmond.

The film moves on to his famous speech in 1775, as war was approaching and peace or appeasement was looking impossible. Just before, Jefferson says something like, the highest form of treason comes when a man goes against his own mind. The word “honor” comes up, and I’m reminded of the famous sentence “personal honor is an absolute” in Joseph Steffan’s 1992 book “Honor Bound.” Henry then says that “a man can be measured by his convictions”, an idea that might have motivated Clay Aiken’s song “Measure of a man”.

The seven words (and Boomer makes sure that we realize that the conjunction is “or” and not “and”) do raise an existential question. If human life is always paramount, then one could be obliged to accept subjugation to the motives of others in order to live. Death can mean that a person’s life has no more value when it is saved by prostitution – by the loss of honor to his convictions. Is this bullheadedness? Some people often think it is. A religious person could say that this attitude leads to condemnation, or at least starting over, at the bottom, in the next life. That’s what brings on collectivism. Or perhaps we have theories that people have to earn the right to follow their own ends. That gets into a lot of our cultural wars today.

The end credits has a stirring song “Give me liberty to be all I can be” by Marty Panzer and David Ganzer. If this short were in the Oscars, the song could get a nomination for best song. It is that stirring.

The DVD contains an additional featurette that introduces American Animation Studios, many of its personnel (most of whom are young) along with founded Bob Mercer. The short explains the value of their films in the classroom for history teachers, and also demonstrates the technical steps in building storyboards, and characters in 2D and then 3D and the use of solid and projective geometry (and hedron solids) to make the characters, a mathematics exercise. There is a lot of work that goes into animated film.

Let me make a suggestion. The independent film business (investors already working with “Hollywood” ought to make a real “live action” dramatic film about Patrick Henry’s life and the meaning of the speech. It ought to be fully costumed, and filmed on location around Richmond, Hanover/Ashland, and Williamsburg. It should look big (2.35:1 – the DVD is 1.85:1). Call it “Give Me Liberty”.

As some of you know, I have the “doaskdotell” site (it’s the title of two of my books, starting in 1997, and I’ve used the domain name since 1999), and I would suggest that “do ask do tell” would be an appropriate name for a production company or distributor (branded with a trademark) of such a film, along with other follow on films about major social issues (including “don’t ask don’t tell”). It could be associated with a present studio or mix of studios, but I would need to be involved with the film. There is no reason why existing film companies can’t add new brand names for distribution if they make business sense.

I think that the screenplay of such a feature would need to present some of the material from the tour of the old Capitol in Williamsburg, as to how colonial government worked and how it maps to our branches today. I took that tour in 1994. I presume it is still offered.

I also think that Colonial Williamsburg ought to film some of it’s outdoor “Revolutionary City” drama as a DVD and distribute it as a theatrical release, probably for the independent film theater market. I’m surprised that it hasn’t.

Obviously making such a film would require a lot of legal legwork to get all the (copyright) licenses (including use of the title song from this DVD) and bring all the right resources together, but it ought to be done. There are production companies around that can do the job.

I know that Hollywood has it’s “third party rule” which in the Internet age doesn’t make much sense for material that’s obviously novel or started by one person. If someone wants to take me up on this idea, contact me. The info is in my Profile.

PBS has a posting about the Henry speech here.

Top picture above: St. Johns Episocpal Church in Richmond, winter 2005, from Wikipedia, reproduced under GNU Free Documentation License, CopyLeft.

Picture above: from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Puppet Theater.

Picture below: St. John's Church near the White House in Washington.

Here is a scene in Ashland, VA (near Hanover), site of the 2000 film "Store Wars" about Wal-Mart.

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