America’s First Wars in 10 Movies

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that fractious republics were little good when a “nation must defend itself against other nations.” Still, he thought America would get along fine since in the new world, man “has no enemies other than himself. To be happy and free he has only to wish it.”

Boy, did Tocqueville miss the boat on that point! Even on a continent protected by two oceans, Americans have always found it necessary to fight for our freedom.

Most Americans give scant thought to the sacrifices made by the fighters who forged our nation. Filmmakers aren’t much different. But when it saw the chance to make a buck, even Hollywood couldn’t resist cranking out a few film gems that remind us of the heroism of the early republic.

10. The Shot Heard Round the World

Few Americans can name even one serious revolutionary war movie other than The Patriot (2000) with Mel Gibson. But four decades earlier, Hollywood produced a doozy: The Devil’s Disciple (1959). During the Saratoga Campaign, “Gentleman” Johnny Burgoyne (Laurence Olivier), the British general, takes time out from battling the Continental Army to root out revolutionaries in Websterbridge, New Hampshire. A brooding, black-sheep colonial (Kirk Douglas) finds his courage, risks his life, defies the British and puts the American cause above his own.

9. To the Shores of Tripoli

It took less than a decade of independence to show that two oceans were not enough to protect America’s liberty. The young republic was a trading nation, so losing the freedom of the seas to the Barbary pirates was not an option. In Tripoli (1950), President Thomas Jefferson sends in the Marines. The real campaign was very tough and very dangerous. Here, Hollywood throws in an improbable romance between a Marine lieutenant and the beautiful but larcenous Countess D’Arneau (Maureen O’Hara), who just kind of shows up in the desert.

8. Undaunted Courage

America’s army wasn’t all about wars. In 1803, President Jefferson dispatched the Corps of Discovery to survey the western lands. The Far Horizons (1955) is Hollywood’s version of the famous expedition led by Meriwether Lewis (Fred MacMurray) and William Clark (Charlton Heston). In the film, Clark has a fling with Sacagawea (Donna Reed). On the real expedition, that would have been really awkward, since Sacagawea’s husband was part of the corps, and she gave birth to their son during the historic journey. 

7. The War No One Remembers

The War of 1812 might be America’s most obscure conflict, but if the British had come out on top the great American experiment in democracy would have come to an abrupt end. Somehow, the young republic marshalled a large enough force to hold it together. The Buccaneer (1958) tells one of the war’s most improbable stories. With only 1,200 men under his command, Andrew Jackson (Charlton Heston) is dispatched to hold the strategic port of New Orleans against a British invasion of 60 ships and 16,000 troops. Turns out Jackson has an ace up his sleeve: the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner), who pitches in to save the day.

6. The Forgotten Frontier

In the early republic, the Wild West wasn’t all that far west. In The Fighting Kentuckian (1949), making their way home after the Battle of New Orleans, John Breen (John Wayne) and his merry militia band help defend French refugees against a ruthless band of land robbers. The story is very loosely based on a diaspora of French military and political exiles who settled in Alabama after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

5. Remember the Alamo!

General Antonio López de Santa Anna didn’t much cotton to Texas’ declaration of independence from Mexico. And in 1836, the only thing that stood between Santa Anna’s army and the vastly outnumbered Texan troops under the command of Sam Houston was a tiny mission in San Antonio. In The Alamo (1960) Davy Crockett (John Wayne) leads a band of American volunteers to aid the Texan cause. The depiction of the famous last stand may be historically challenged, but the rousing adventure film with a sweeping musical score did a huge box office.

4. All Hail the Citizen Soldier

John Wayne wasn’t the first to portray America’s most famous frontiersman on the big screen. To make Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955), Disney edited together three episodes from its wildly popular TV series. In addition to the fight at the Alamo, the film featured Crockett (Fess Parker) volunteering to fight under Andrew Jackson in the Creek Indian Wars.

3. War in the New World

While Tocqueville didn’t think Americans had to worry about threats from overseas, he did predict than when “the Union comes into contact with the empire of Mexico….great wars will probably come from that quarter.” How right he was. But, while the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) featured some of America’s most memorable military figures—including Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor—Hollywood has shown little interest. The best (and possibly only) American film on the conflict could be One Man’s Hero (1999). Jon Riley (Tom Berenger) leads the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, a group of Irish Catholic immigrants,who desert the U.S. Army and fight for Mexico. The real-life history of the “San Patricios” didn’t end well. Most of them were captured and hung.

2. The Indian Wars

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) is the fictionalized account of “Liver-Eating” Johnson, America’s most famous mountain man. A disgruntled Mexican-American War veteran, Johnson (Robert Redford) heads to the Rockies to live the life of a solitary fur trapper. Pressed into service by the U.S. cavalry he becomes ensnared in a bitter war with the Crow tribe. A box office hit, Jeremiah Johnson was the first American Western ever accepted for a screening at the Cannes Film Festival.

1. Wars and Rumors of War

John Brown and his small band of fanatic abolitionists plan to spark a slave rebellion by raiding the government arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Riding to the rescue, according to  Santa Fe Trail (1940), are an intrepid band of West Point classmates led by future confederate cavalry General James “Jeb” Stuart (Errol Flynn) and George Armstrong Custer (Ronald Reagan). In addition to saving the republic, Jeb and George compete for the hand of Kit Holliday (Olivia de Havilland). This may be the most historically inaccurate movie Hollywood ever made—and has virtually nothing to do with the Santa Fe Trail. Who cares? Audiences didn’t back then. It was one of the top-grossing movies of the year.

At the close of the Constitutional Convention, a bystander hailed Benjamin Franklin with the question, “Well, doctor, what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin replied. From Bunker Hill to the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, Americans fought often to keep their republic, despite Tocqueville’s prediction that democracies couldn’t and really didn’t need to defend themselves.