Johnny Tremain (1957)
Approved. It's a Disney historical fiction, so it is going to pretty tame. I mean, I never realized how uncomfortable the Boston Tea Party was until I saw a video of a bunch of white guys donning what they deem Native Americans wore. Also, Johnny hurts his hand quite badly, as an element of the story. It's supposed to be gross, but it really is just the actor holding his hand in a cup shape, implying that he can't use it. It's mostly pretty fine.
DIRECTOR: Robert Stevenson
"Mr. H, you've clearly read this book, being an English teacher and all." Um...you would be mistaken. At least, I think you'd be mistaken. There's a bunch of books from grade school that I just don't remember, so there's a chance that I read this. But my wife who is homeschooling our children taught this book to them as part of the supplemental material for their unit on the American Revolution. She seemed pretty mortified that I hadn't read this book (or, again, maybe not have read this book). As many literary classics as English teachers read, there are always going to be more things that I should have read as well.
So I'm almost going to be writing this from the perspective of my family, who had read it. My point of view on the movie sees this movie as weird. It's real weird and I got a totally different message than my kids got. Apparently, the moral of the story in the book is that Johnny is prideful and that's the only thing that is stopping him from finding self-worth / making a difference. I saw the story as the world being unfair and once someone accepts that, they find their value. I'm centering this around the wrathful God who decided to punish Johnny for working on the sabbath. I will admit that there isn't a one-to-one correlation between Johnny's tragic maiming and a wrathful God, but the movie, in its attempt to Sparknotes the story, makes it kind of come across like that. Johnny's mentor, Mr. Lapham I think, seems to really have a give-up attitude. A customer comes in for a repair on a watch that Lapham designed and sets a date that seems challenging. Lapham is automatically in the mindset that he can't do it. He thinks that Paul Revere must have made such an impressive piece, but then realizes that he himself made the watch. Johnny, while being perhaps too optimistic, claims that he can fix the piece. After all, the dramatic irony of the situation is that he wants to impress his secret relative with his craftsmanship, which seems like a reasonable motivation.
But Lapham is completely ready to watch Johnny fail. The character is meant to be the representation of modesty and prudence, but he just comes across as this quitter who is afraid of a challenge and hard work. When Johnny does the legwork and goes to Revere for advice, humbling himself in front of a competitor, he's supposed be seen as brash and fool hearted. His mentor told him not to pursue fixing this piece, but his mentor kind of sucks? Like, he doesn't seem like this pinnacle of wisdom. He just comes across as this huge lame who is disrespectful to his customers. We're not supposed to know that Johnathan Lyte is terrible. There's never a line that Lapham says along the lines of, "Mr. Lyte is an unreasonable man. If I had time, I could fix it and do the job correctly." That's all you really need. But instead, Lapham is really weird and dodgy about not fixing the piece, leaving Johnny in this precarious position of trying to impress a relative and maintaining a business that isn't even his own.
So Johnny burns his hand almost immediately after disobeying Lapham. He's almost done with the piece when Lapham comes in and tells him that is time for prayers. Johnny asks for a reasonable amount of time. The others in Lapham's home sympathize with Johnny, who has put considerable effort in fulfilling the contract on the piece and advocate for his reasonable request. Lapham, again, kind of seems out of touch with Johnny. While he's supposed to be the wise, logical patriarch, he again comes across as almost an Ebenezer Scrooge. (Only with religion instead of money.) Unflinching to his own particular wishes, Lapham causes a bit of a hullaballoo and Johnny burns his hand, leaving him maimed and unable to continue his apprenticeship as a metalworker. It really does seems like, "Johnny didn't pray to God on time; God took Johnny's hand in retribution." That's such a weird turn that I don't know how to feel about. Like, God doesn't really do that. I don't know if we're that on board with karma from a Christian perspective. And it wasn't like Johnny wasn't going to pray. He just needed a mo to put his stuff away and be a proper apprentice. If Lapham had helped him earlier, they wouldn't really be in this predicament. But Lapham's giving-up attitude caused Johnny to lose his hand. That should have been Johnny's motivation for the rest of the story.
Again, a lot of my interpretation came from the rush job that the movie did. I hear that the book did it a lot better. But the rest of Johnny's motivations come across as stilted too. Johnny doesn't pick any jobs that a one handed man could do. That's the central idea behind the job search in the book. If Johnny Tremain's central vice is pride, that is really not well sold in the movie. Johnny's choices of potential replacement jobs makes him seem kind of stupid. He keeps doing all these gigs that would instantly get him fired. Like, there's the scene with the boat captain. He's about to get this sweet gig, but he couldn't take the job because he couldn't shake the captain's hand? How far did he think he was going to get when everyone noticed that he wasn't able to hold his weight? He couldn't shake the captain's hand! Come on. That's a bit much. But this is kind of the problem with the direct adaptation. I know that there are a lot of changes in the film, but the speed run of everything makes Johnny come across as dumb as opposed to dealing with complex morality. It's odd that Johnny wants to be related to Lyte because nothing builds up that relationship to begin with. Because he's a Disney villain, we only get characterization in terms of black-and-white.
It's so weird that the first half hour of the movie reads very differently from the rest of the film. My kid was super bored by this point and wasn't paying attention at all. I didn't quite get the insight into the rest of the novel as I did from the first half hour. It is something that happens. But while the first half hour of the movie comes across as an origin tale for Johnny Tremain, the rest of the movie seems to be a museum tour of history. Johnny Tremain seemed to be on the fringes of the major moments of the American Revolution from that point out. I watched the whole thing, probably more intently than anyone else in the room, but I didn't really get much from the rest of the film. I wish I was more patriotic. I feel if I was, this movie would be a tearjerker for me. It's just that I never really got the concrete connection between Johnny, the character who flash fried his hand, and the events of the American Revolution. They seem to be disparate. Like, I don't need Johnny there at all. It's just an excuse to have a protagonist for an event that wasn't centered around one person.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.