JOHNNY TREMAIN (1957)
Forrest Gump-ing his way through the Revolutionary War, it’s that asshole we all collectively read about in middle school, Johnny Tremain! In the first of many films Robert Stevenson would direct for Disney, Esther Forbes’s tale of a lovably maimed silversmith’s apprentice was brought to the big screen.
Johnny Tremain (Hal Stalmaster) begins as the braggart apprentice of a doddering old silversmith (Will Wright). The old man’s family, rounded out by his wife (Virginia Christine) and daughter Priscilla (Luana Patten), are in dire financial straights, so when offered a difficult commission by their landlord Jonathan Lyte (Sebastian Cabot), the silversmith has little choice but to say yes. Unfortunately, the old man isn’t up to the task, so it falls on Johnny. With time running out, Johnny makes the dangerous decision to break Boston law and work on Sunday. In his haste to avoid detection, poor Johnny scalds himself on some piping hot silver, completely fucking up his hand.
In colonial America, the Sabbath breaks you!
Now Johnny has a problem. No one wants to hire a one-handed kid. Johnny looks for assistance from rich Mr. Lyte (who, by the way, he thinks may be a long lost relative, because his dead mom gave him a fancy cup) and lands in jail as a result. Enter Paul Revere (Walter Sande) and the Sons of Liberty!
They pay his legal fees, get him a job, and teach him about truth, justice, and the American way, before the American way was really even a thing. Under their wings, he participates in the Boston Tea Party, assists with Paul Revere’s midnight ride, and even joins in the fight at Lexington and Concord. In fact, once Johnny starts hanging around with the revolutionaries, he almost becomes a supporting character in his own movie. The new main character is the war itself.
Then the movie just kind of ends without any real resolution for Johnny. Does he get his hand fixed? We don’t know! If he doesn’t, what will he do with his life with only one hand? We don’t care! America is growing, and that’s what’s really important here. Not that guy the movie is named after.
What should form the basis of a young man’s identity? That is the question lurking behind the scenes of Johnny Tremain.
Initially, Johnny’s sense of self-worth is tied entirely to his trade. He is proud of his abilities, and is perfectly happy to live his own life. “You can keep your politics, I’ll stick to my own trade and mind my own business,” he tells Rab (Richard Beymer), his young revolutionary friend. But after his accident, his identity as a craftsman is stripped away from him. The movie makes sure to rub this in his face. “What’s happened to the master smith who was going to stand on his own two feet, and let others stand on their own? The one who thought free men’s rights and people working together was just a lot of things that got argued about by politicians?” Rab taunts. Johnny replies, rather dumbly, “I guess I have learned a bit about that, haven’t I?”
Honestly, he’s talking like he’s in a PSA.
Johnny also holds out hope that his rich relative Mr. Lyte will provide him with some sort of better life, but the film quickly has Lyte betray him. He is saved by, who else, the Sons of Liberty. Where familial bonds have failed him, a patriotic quasi-militant organization has stepped in to save the day. They give Johnny jobs that make him feel special, and more importantly, they make him feel like he’s a part of something special. An organization that provides a real sense of togetherness.
They may be marching through the streets in ridiculous outfits, but they’re doing it together.
Soon, the organization moves from mild vandalism to out and out war, and Johnny is on the front lines, fighting for… something? There is a lot of talk about rights of Englishmen, but you get the impression that Johnny is just happy to be along for the ride. The battle itself is shown to be be fairly easy and lighthearted on the American side. And at the end, Johnny, exhausted from a day of great fun, has never looked so happy.
A happy wartime frolic!
So, what can we take away from all this? If you’ve been having trouble finding yourself, you really might want to consider the Army! It’s easy, fun, and makes you lots of friends, while spreading all that’s good about America to places that aren’t so cool.
WHY DON’T PEOPLE LIKE IT?:
When Johnny Tremain isn’t being boring, it’s being preachy, and that’s no way to make an enduring classic. Even the battle scenes are beyond dull. There’s nothing like watching a line of people standing in place, until you hear a bang and several of them fall over.
“Hey, you ever think we should… not just stand here and get shot at?”
Oh, I also think the movie might suffer a bit from relying on a shrimpy, shrill, constantly bemused-looking main character who (as the poster is kind enough to remind us) spends most of his time just running around like a jackass.
If Johnny’s facial expresssions can be believed, running away from British soldiers is much more fun than watching Johnny Tremain!
- It’s kind of hard to tell what the movie is trying to get at with the hand-burning scene, but that’s okay, I guess. If you believe breaking the Sabbath is super not cool, you can read this scene as God punishing Johnny by deep-frying his hand. If you think breaking the Sabbath is the tits, you can blame uber-religious society for the hand-burning, since that was what forced Johnny to work in secret. Everybody wins. Yippy skippy.
- Jeff York is downright terrifying as James Otis. This is particularly unfortunate, since I’m pretty sure his big speech is supposed to be the emotional and thematic centerpiece of the film. But when a crazed, hulking man starts raving, everything that comes out of his mouth will have to fight an uphill battle not to sound pants-shittingly disconcerting.
“Even as we shoot down British soldiers, we will be winning rights their children shall enjoy forever!”
Someone get him away from me!
MOST REGRETTABLE MOMENT:
I’m three movies in to my watch through the 52 worst live action Disney movies, and this kid is the first African American actor I’ve seen. And oh, hey, he’s playing a loud, stereotypically sycophantic slave.
“Oh, massa Tremain!”
I distinctly remember disliking the film as a 12-year-old who had just read the book. Now that I’m a decade and a half older, do I more fully appreciate it? Ha ha, nope.
The Shaggy Dog (1959)