Posted by: David Offutt | February 6, 2009

Films for Historic April

Interestingly, April has been a peculiar month in which several major historical events have occurred which have affected the lives of millions of people either directly or indirectly. Both the American Revolution and the American Civil War began in the month of April. Also, two of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, died in April while still in office.

I am recommending six films that honor this distinguished month. Two are major productions: Apollo 13 and Titanic. Two are good little movies from Walt Disney that may not meet today’s sophisticated standards but are worth seeing. One is a TV documentary from the days when the major networks did that sort of thing. Another is an absolute gem that reminds us that war is not all heroics and glory but has human consequences.

1. Apollo 13 (1995) with Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinese, Ed Harris, and Kathleen Quinlan: I consider this to be director Ron Howard’s masterpiece, and it’s a cliffhanger no matter how many times you see it or whether you already know from the historical record how it ends. On April 11, 1970, astronauts Jim Lovell (Hanks), John Swigert (Bacon), and Fred Haise (Paxton) launched on a mission for two of them – Lovell and Haise – to land on the moon. En route an electrical malfunction caused an explosion that sent their oxygen supply leaking into space. Lovell’s response has now become something that we all say whenever something goes wrong: “Houston, we have a problem!” Actually, what he really said was, “Houston, we have had a problem.” I suppose director Ron Howard can be allowed some dramatic liberties.

Bill Paxton, Tom Hanks, and Kevin Bacon

Bill Paxton, Tom Hanks, and Kevin Bacon

What ensued has become known as the most successful failure in history. This film brilliantly dramatizes the creative thinking of all those at mission control who worked together to bring our three astronauts home. One of my favorite segments is the one in which several guys have to find a way to fit a round object into a square hole: the astronauts were surviving in the LEM, the lunar landing module, which was intended to provide oxygen for only two people; the carbon dioxide level was getting too high, and the air filter had to be modified using only the materials that happened to be on board the spacecraft! The tension and the adventure ended on April 17 when Lovell announced the capsule had been secured in the ocean and “This is Apollo 13 signing off.”

Ron Howard used actual news coverage of the event to add authenticity to his film, so get ready to see Walter Cronkite and many others from television news’ better days.

2. Johnny Tremain (1957) with Hal Stalmaster, Richard Beymer, Luana Patton, Jeff York, and Sebastian Cabot: Based on the popular novel by Esther Forbes, director Robert Stevenson faithfully recreates colonial Boston, the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s ride (April 18, 1775), and the Battles of Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775) as seen by a fictional young silversmith apprentice.


This was a feature film by Walt Disney that could be divided into 40-minute segments suitable for showing as episodes on ABC’s Walt Disney Presents and NBC’s Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. Hence, it is also perfect for classroom viewing in history classes: Part one climaxes with the Boston Tea Party, and part two highlights the first battles of the Revolutionary War. Even though historical accuracy is emphasized, the film is greatly sanitized. My high school American history students wondered why they never saw any blood shed while so many soldiers and minutemen were being shot and killed. And even though my students enjoyed singing-along with “We are the sons, yes we are the sons, the Sons of Li-ber-ty,” they knew no one really sang that song after dumping all that tea into Boston Harbor.

Young Hal Stalmaster is extremely likeable as the title character. Luana Patton plays his love interest, and she had quite grown up since playing the little girl in Song of the South. Richard Beymer portrays the young man who recruits Johnny into the Sons of Liberty – he went on to star as Nick Adams in Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man and in The Longest Day and West Side Story. Sebastian Cabot plays the wealthy gentleman who has the innocent Johnny jailed for theft – he is best remembered for playing the butler on TV’s Family Affair.

3. April Morning (1988) with Chad Lowe, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Urich, Susan Blakely, Meredith Salenger, and Rip Torn: For those who demand more bloody realism in their art, here is the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of novelist Howard Fast’s version of the April 19, 1775, Battle of Lexington.

Mr. Fast logically surmised that it was a patriotic and radical colonial who fired that mysterious shot on that April morning on the village green that began the war that led to our independence from England. Mr. Fast invented the character of Solomon Chandler, superbly played by veteran character actor Rip Torn, to represent that unknown shooter.

However, this story is primarily that of 15-year-old Adam Cooper, who defies his stern father and signs up with the militia to confront the Redcoats. Unlike Johnny Tremain who had fun chasing Redcoats the rest of the day, young Adam saw his father slain in the first volley at Lexington and found himself in one near disaster after another as the day got longer and longer. He finally realized if he continued in action he would surely die and concluded, “I just want to go home.”

The fine actor Chad Lowe gives one of his best performances as the young man who had to grow up too soon, and Tommy Lee Jones is nearly perfect as his father. This is a good one.

4. The Great Locomotive Chase (1956) with Fess Parker, Jeffrey Hunter, Jeff York, Kenneth Tobey, and John Lupton: Amazingly accurate, this Walt Disney production reenacts a Civil War event that occurred on April 12, 1862. Union spy James J. Andrews led 22 Union soldiers in civilian uniforms 200 miles into Georgia, stole a train, and used it to destroy railroad tracks and telegraph lines and effectively wreaked havoc between Chattanooga and Atlanta. The result was that for the remainder of the war, the South had to deploy a disproportionate number of badly needed field troops to protect the Confederacy’s communications and supply lines.

great-loco-chaseThe film is based on the memoir by William Pittenger, who was one of the survivors of Andrews’ Raiders. I read his account when I was a history major at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The film’s only conspicuous error is the weather: the beautiful blue sky in the movie should have been overcast and accompanied with drizzle and rain, but admittedly that would have produced a depressing film. Pittenger is portrayed by John Lupton, whose narration introduces and concludes the movie. The Andrews Raiders were the first recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor; but since Andrews himself was a civilian, he was not qualified.

Mr. Andrews is played by Fess Parker, who had recently gained fame as Davy Crockett. Jeffrey Hunter and Kenneth Tobey play the two Southerners whose hot pursuit of their stolen train, the General, led to the capture of the raiders. Once when I described in class how the train Texas ran in reverse while chasing the General one of my students said, “This would have made a good movie.” It did.

5. They’ve Killed President Lincoln (1971) narrated by Richard Basehart and produced by David L.Wolper: Using historic photos and live actors, the events leading to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on Friday, April 14, 1865, are superbly reproduced. Along with Jim Bishop’s book The Day Lincoln Was Shot, this remains one of the best documentations of that tragic murder. It can be found on DVD: Abraham Lincoln – Trial by Fire by Mill Creek Entertainment..

I personally adhere to its premise that, based on the evidence, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was involved in the conspiracy to assassinate the President. This documentary never goes into what would have happened had Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward been killed as planned on that fateful night: the Radical Republican Lafayette S. Foster, as President Pro Temp of the Senate, would have become President, and the War Department would have had complete control over Reconstruction. It concentrates instead on Stanton, who is connected to virtually all the other events. It’s fascinating stuff, and leaves you believing that John Wilkes Booth and his fellow assassins could not have acted alone.

6. Titanic (1997) with Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Bill Paxton, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, David Warner, and Gloria Stuart: On a Sunday night, April 14, 1912, the “unsinkable” Titanic hit an iceberg and two hours and forty minutes later it sank on Monday morning, April 15. This film by James Cameron not only brilliantly recreates the lavish ship itself but depicts its destruction with excruciating detail. This mega-hit probably deserved every one of it eleven Academy Awards.

Titanic-NudeGloria Stuart, who surprisingly did not win a supporting actress Oscar, plays the elderly Rose, who had survived the deadly night in her younger days and tells the tale to Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) whose crew is investigating the ruins of the Titanic. Mr. Lovett is looking for a necklace, the Heart of the Ocean, which was believed to be on the Titanic when it sank, and only Rose knows where it really is. Ms. Stuart steals every scene she’s in.

The story of the young Rose (Kate Winslet) and her love of Jack is told in flashback format. Leonardo DiCaprio, in an underappreciated performance, had to play Jack in such a way that you could not help but like him. Otherwise, the movie would never have worked regardless of its technical achievements. If you don’t already know about this movie, you probably don’t watch movies anyway.

by David Offutt, April 2007

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