It was 1963 when I saw it for the first time. I was 13 years old and it had just turned six.
I was on my first trip to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia with my parents. I remember walking into the theater at the Visitor’s Center and sitting down in one of the plush folding seats. A blue hue enveloped the dimly lit room and a little wall stood between me and the enormous screen. I remember wondering, am I going to be able to see the film with this wall in my way?
But then the blue faded, and the theater was wrapped in darkness. A colonial air filled my ears and up came the title.
Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot
Produced in 1957 by Paramount Pictures for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, it was to become the longest running motion picture in history. For over 50 years, it welcomed visitors to the restored colonial capital of Virginia.
Unlike the boring maps, arrows, timelines, and overdramatic narration of the typical orientation film, this genre-breaking motion picture featured an illustrative story of the life of fictional Virginia planter and newly elected delegate to the House of Burgesses John Fry. The star of the tale was portrayed by Jack Lord who would gain fame in his later acting career as Steve McGarrett on the long-running TV series, Hawaii Five-0.
Through the experiences of John Fry we are introduced to Colonial Williamsburg, the pre-revolutionary issues of the day, and all of the players including Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Royal Governor Botetourt.
In addition to a new style of site introduction, new technical ground was also being broken. Some old Colonial Williamsburg archives tell us:
Whereas the usual 35mm flat-screen 1.33:1 ratio cinematography would have been considered extravagant for an orientation film, Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot was filmed and exhibited in VistaVision, a high definition widescreen film process with approximately the same negative size as 35mm still (SLR 135) photography, also oriented (and traveling) horizontally through the camera. It was a unique VistaVision film in that it was shown with six-channel stereo sound, whereas most films in that process were either shown in mono or in Perspecta sound.
I can attest to the effect on the viewer. I had never experienced anything like this before and it was love at first sight. I loved the story and the revolutionary (pun fully intended) technique.
The period music that accompanied the story was a perfect fit, and I only recently learned that it had been tailored by Bernard Herrmann, widely regarded as one of the greatest film composers of all time. His film score credits include Hitchcock’s Vertigo, North by Northwest, and The Birds; Orson Well’s Citizen Kane; and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. His television credits feature the theme music for Have Gun Will Travel, and The Twilight Zone.
Jack Lord was joined by other actors of some renown.
Character actor Francis Compton was born in 1885 in Malvern, England and cut his teeth as a West End actor on the London stage. He was 72 years old in 1957 and played a very believable George Wythe in the film. His principle scene is in the garden with John Fry’s wife Anne (Leora Dana), and son Robert (Richard Striker) and his most memorable line, “Yes madam, guests and iris never stay long enough.”
Bob Carroll, who plays Patrick Henry (“are we so meek and pusillanimous…?”) was better known for his singing than his acting. He toured with the Jimmy Dorsey and Glenn Miller orchestra’s before becoming a soap opera actor in New York.
Richard Striker portrays John Fry’s progeny (his one and only film credit) and offers the dramatic tension in the plot. As a student at the College of William and Mary he decides to join the militia in opposition to his father’s loyalist stand. I’ve thought over the years of the parallel tension that the Vietnam War created in my years at the College.
In the closing letter to his wife that we hear as a voiceover to end the film, John Fry intones, “We all must choose. Robert made his choice today. May God always help us to make the right choice. Your loving husband, John.”
You will note that in several places in this blog, I have quoted the film. Those were words that I did not have to research. You see, sixty years after sitting in that theater with my parents and watching the film the first time, I know all 35 minutes of the film by heart.
Again, according to Colonial Williamsburg archives, on September 20, 2002, The Story of a Patriot was seen by the 30 millionth viewer. I doubt that they have anyway of counting UNIQUE visitors, because I saw it at least 25 times. Yes, 25 times.
When you go to college in a place like Colonial Williamsburg, you get a stream of visitors. My Maryland family, friends, friends of friends, and friends of the family made a steady march down the highway to visit. I would always recommend that they start their visit with a trip to the Visitor’s Center where the film was still free as was my bus ride from the campus. “I’ll meet you there” was my promise.
I would join each guest in watching the motion picture and then serve as their tour guide. As a lifelong history buff, I was happy to show folks around. Most of the buildings could be entered free of charge, so my walking tour would hit the highlights and allow my visitors to get a “combination ticket” and do the rest on their own. If I was lucky I’d get a colonial tavern dinner out of the deal which was way better than college dining hall faire.
After watching the film a number of times, I began to pick up on editing glitches and unintended intrusions in the show. The 20th century bus passing by at the end of the colonial street; seeing Fry dismount his horse in a long shot followed by a close-up view of the same action seconds later; and, the comical scene where an extra exhorts his neighbors to action with “they’re stealing the powder” in a most undramatic tone with wooden gestures to match.
Those mistakes were reason enough to invite friends on a trip to watch the film, and both my view count and legend began to grow.
After a couple years of these guests and friends visits, someone at my fraternity house asked me one night how many times I had seen the film. I laughed and responded, “A lot.”
Then the challenge. “I’ll bet you know the whole thing by heart.”
I still remember leaning up against the bar in the basement of the house and starting the first few lines. They just kept coming and coming and I changed my voice to imitate each character. I hummed the music and acted out certain parts.
At some point I got tired and hopped up to sit on the bar but kept going. Folks were coming in from the other room and some brothers were summoned from upstairs. As 15 minutes became 20, the words kept coming to me and I kept spitting them out. Laughter and back-slapping was filling the room and the Honey Baked side of my personality was fully stimulated.
When I flawlessly made my way to the final line (“Your loving husband, John”) I jumped off my bar perch and performed a dramatic bow. It was like sticking the landing on a triple-salchow or a snowboard 1080 spin. The most surprised guy on the ice or the half pipe is often the person who has pulled off the move and made a successful return to earth.
Well, my comrades and their dates were very impressed and responded with prolonged applause.
Thus, a long party trick was born.
By popular demand, I repeated some sections of the show that night and did the whole enchilada at least once more that week.
In the months that followed, the legend grew and I would occasionally be summoned by guys from other fraternities to perform the feat. I even remember one short riff for laughing classmates during a political science class.
By the time you reach the age of 18 and graduate from high school, one version of you is already mixed, baked, and out of the oven. Everyone in your graduating class knows who you are, and either consciously or unconsciously you play that role.
But then you find yourself in college and your hometown achievements don’t mean much anymore. They got you there but you quickly learn you are in a new league. Student body president? We’ve got a hundred of those. Class valedictorian? Rooms full. High school basketballer? If you are not here on scholarship we don’t want to hear about that night when…
So, you have a blank slate upon which to reinvent yourself. You can try French instead of Spanish (beeeg mistake); Geology rather than Chemistry (good call that). You can hang with the studs and get into their fraternity in hopes of reaching the new cool kids table of life. Gradually, while you are the same person, other features of your personality begin to re-define you. In my case, it was my sense of humor that began to work. It was the connector, the ice breaker, the special sauce. On my freshman hall, in the fraternity, and at work in the radio station and the food service, I remember laughing a lot.
So, as I graduated from the College of William and Mary in Virginia and went to work for The National Archives, I carried a little of John Fry with me. I never forgot that a sense of humor can connect you with the world and lubricate many of the tight squeezes of life. I never lost my reverence for the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
And I never forgot that if we want to keep this republic, we must learn to choose, and prayerfully always strive for the right choice.
“Your loving blogger, John”