"Classic Tale of a Life, and a Nation, Transformed"
What You Need To Know:
This family-friendly movie features extremely positive role models who promote good principles and values. The movie’s Christian theme of transformation is driven home through Bible verses and references. JOHNNY TREMAIN is appropriate for all ages, especially those seeking to learn early American history in an entertaining way. There are some battle scenes and historical issues. So, the very youngest viewers may need some guidance to fully appreciate JOHNNY TREMAINE, one of the best movies ever made about the American War for Independance.
JOHNNY TREMAIN is a classic Walt Disney historical drama about how the title character changes from an overconfident, selfish silversmith’s apprentice to a patriotic man ready to lay down his life for his country during the Revolutionary War. Along the way he rubs elbows with such historical characters as Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, James Otis, Henry Knox, and the Sons of Liberty. This family-friendly movie features a rousing musical number and talented actors promoting good principles, sometimes at length, like helping your fellow man and upholding inalienable human rights. The Christian theme of transformation through love is driven home by quoting Bible verses, prayers, and allusions.
The movie begins as Johnny Tremain (Hal Stalmaster) accepts a seemingly impossible job from his master’s landlord, Jonathan Lyte (Sebastian Cabot). Tremain boasts he can do anything he sets his mind to do, but he must ask Paul Revere for technical advice about his craft. In the process, he meets real-life Revolutionary leaders Samuel Adams and Dr. Joseph Warren, but he says he wants no part of politics. He just wants to look out for himself.
While rushing to complete the job, he breaks colonial Boston’s Sabbath laws and burns his hand on molten silver. Unable to pursue his trade, he reveals to his love interest Priscilla (Luana Patten) that he’s a long-lost relative of the Lyte family, showing her his mother’s Christening cup with the family seal on it.
After Lyte falsely accuses Johnny of stealing the cup, the Sons of Liberty arrange for him to be represented in court by the best lawyer in Boston, Josiah Quincy (a real historical character and a distant relative of future president John Quincy Adams). Their kindness exemplifies giving to others, and it transforms Johnny’s heart…and maybe the course of American history.
Johnny now wholeheartedly believes in liberty and even states to Mr. Lyte in a later scene that he would hang for his principles. He takes part in the Boston Tea Party, has a role in the midnight ride of Paul Revere, meets the neglected Founding Father James Otis and fights in the Battle of Lexington and Concord.
The worldview of JOHNNY TREMAIN is what you would associate with 1950s Walt Disney Americana. It’s extremely patriotic, Biblical and Christian. Released not long before Sputnik orbited the earth, the script talks about American independence. It also talks about the flame of human rights lighting the earth, one day freeing “Russian serfs.” JOHNNY TREMAIN stands as an example of how American filmmakers during the Cold War believed that freedom and American ideals could liberate the world.
Another leitmotif in the movie is Johnny’s transformation by love. Early in the story, his mentor quotes Proverbs 16:18, and the brash young Johnny is shown nearly being forced to take part in a home Vespers (evening prayer) service. After Johnny experiences kindness while in prison and hears many other positive Biblical allusions, he learns to put people and ideals first. He even says he will die for his principles.
All the performances here are excellent, especially Jeff York as James Otis and Sebastian Cabot as the devious, money-hungry antagonist. Most of the characters are able to give long speeches on abstract ideals that could sound preachy if not so perfectly acted. Stalmaster is likable enough for audiences to root for him, and Patten is perfect as the Disney version of a smitten acquaintance.
The sets and costumes look realistic, although JOHNNY TREMAIN was not shot on location. The song “Sons of Liberty” is an effective, if forgotten, piece of Disney musical lore. There are no special effects for the battles, so characters just fall over dead, and Johnny’s ruined hand doesn’t look too realistic. Those factors make the movie suitable for younger audiences.
The movie features lawbreaking in the form of the Sabbath laws (for which Johnny’s injury is presented as Divine punishment). Young viewers may need help understanding the difference between riots against lawful authority and rebellion against tyranny. This movie is suitable for all ages, and a joyful way to teach young people history, although the youngest viewers may need guidance on some of the plot’s nuances.
JOHNNY TREMAIN is an excellent historical drama for families that’s appropriate for all ages, especially those seeking to learn early American history in an entertaining way. Due to mild, action-related battle scenes (where many people are shown dying but without a drop of blood), a burn scene, and a scene involving lawbreaking (which is punished), JOHNNY TREMAIN may require some explanation for the youngest viewers.