Movie Review – Johnny Tremain (1957)

The 1770s was a turbulent period of history that would transition the American colonies into an independent country from England.

The colonial days are often looked back upon as one of the greatest periods of American history.  It’s a time of patriots who risked death to pursue the causes of liberty and freedom.  It’s also a time where a band of citizen soldiers and farmers managed to defeat the English army, one of the mightiest forces in the world.

The 1957 Walt Disney film Johnny Tremain is one such story that takes place in Boston, Massachusetts between 1773 and 1775.  The story follows a young silversmith apprentice named Johnny Tremain and how he handles the events that take place around him.  He befriends members of the Sons of Liberty and joins their cause at the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s ride, and eventually the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first engagements of the American Revolutionary War.

Johnny Tremain (1957) - movie poster

Johnny Tremain (1957) – movie poster

Directed by Disney veteran Robert Stevenson, Johnny Tremain stars Hal Stalmaster in the title role of Johnny Tremain.  Also in the film are Luana Patten as Priscilla Lapham, Jeff York as James Otis, Sebastian Cabot as Jonathan Lyte, and Walter Sande as Paul Revere.  The Walt Disney film is based on Johnny Tremain, a 1944 novel written by Esther Forbes.

Johnny Tremain begins in Boston, Massachusetts in July of 1773.

Johnny Tremain (1957) - (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Johnny Tremain (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Young Johnny Tremain (Hal Stalmaster) is a silversmith apprentice for Ephraim Lapham (Will Wright), an elder but distinguished silversmith.  One day they’re visited by Jonathan Lyte (Sebastian Cabot), a wealthy merchant originally from England.  Lyte wants Lapham to repair a tea pot in very short time.  Lapham is reluctant to take on the work but Johnny encourages him to do so.  Johnny has been gaining experience and he feels that he can help Lapham make the repair in time.

The pressure mounts when Mr. Lapham is unable to repair the tea pot himself.  His age has apparently bested him.

Johnny Tremain (1957) - (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Johnny Tremain (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

In the silversmith shop, Ephraim’s granddaughter, Priscilla Lapham (Luana Patten), talks to Johnny and learns that his middle name is actually Lyte.  He’s related to Jonathan Lyte although he doesn’t know exactly where he sits in the family tree.  Instead of seeking the family’s wealth, Johnny’s mother wanted for him to learn a trade and work his way up in the world.  Priscilla doesn’t want to believe Johnny’s story until he shows her his mother’s Christening cup, complete with the Lyte family seal on it.

One of Johnny’s friends is Rab Silsbee (Richard Beymer), a young man who works at a printing press for The Boston Observer newspaper.  The newspaper is also a front for a secret organization called the Sons of Liberty.  However, when Rab starts talking politics and tries to get Johnny to join their cause, he seems uninterested.  Some of the Sons of Liberty pass by and Johnny notices that the group includes prominent Boston residents such as Paul Revere (Walter Sande) and Samuel Adams (Rusty Lane).

Johnny Tremain (1957) - (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Johnny Tremain (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Before leaving the printing press, Johnny seeks some silversmith advice from Paul Revere.  Although Johnny is merely an apprentice, he still gives him some tips on how to repair the tea pot.  Johnny then returns to the silversmith shop and continues working, even on the Sabbath.  Ephraim tries to get Johnny to stop working on the holy day, but he refuses.  It’s more important to finish the work on the Sabbath rather than not completing it and being forced to seek the help of another silversmith.

Priscilla keeps watch as her mother helps Johnny finish his work.  Suddenly she spots the town’s constable.  There’s a scramble to hide their work and some silver is spilled onto the floor.  Johnny slips and his hand lands in the boiling hot silver, badly injuring him.

Johnny Tremain (1957) - (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Johnny Tremain (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Without the use of his right hand (the fingers have burned together), Johnny is unable to continue working as a silversmith apprentice.  He’s forced to leave the shop and seek work elsewhere.  The problem is that everywhere that Johnny goes, all of the employers need him to be able to use both hands.

Johnny’s wandering takes him into the path of Jonathan Lyte once again.  This time Johnny shows him the Christening cup and claims to be one of his relatives.  Lyte is hesitant to believe his story, but he requests that Johnny stops by his house later that evening.  When Johnny does so Lyte takes the cup and tells the constable that it was recently been reported as stolen.  He has Johnny arrested on burglary charges and taken to jail.

Inside the jail, Johnny is visited by Paul Revere and Rab.  The jailer happened to inform the Sons of Liberty that Johnny was arrested.  The Sons of Liberty also include Josiah Quincy (Whit Bissell), a lawyer who promises to defend Johnny in court, free of charge.  They explain that it’s their job to fight against both large tyrannys and small ones, so Quincy is Johnny’s lawyer.

Johnny Tremain (1957) - (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Johnny Tremain (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

The trial against Johnny commences and Josiah Quincy defends him in court.  He later calls Priscilla to the stand and she tells about how Johnny showed her the Christening cup several months before Lyte reported that it was allegedly stolen.  This seals the case and the judge dismisses the charges against Johnny.

Johnny Tremain (1957) - (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Johnny Tremain (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

The act of charity impresses Johnny and he decides to help them by joining the Sons of Liberty.  He works at The Boston Observer along with Rab, and on the side he helps spread messages to the Sons of Liberty.  They also pass along all information that they can find about the British army.

At the next Sons of Liberty meeting, Samuel Adams gives Johnny a task to carry out.  When Samuel Adams gives a speech after hearing the answer from the governor, Johnny is supposed to whistle if he hears Adams mention a code word.  The whistle will tell the other members of the Sons of Liberty to carry out their mission.

Johnny Tremain (1957) - (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Johnny Tremain (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Sure enough, the state’s governor gives an unfavorable response, and Samuel Adams gives his speech along with the coded message.  Johnny hears the code and uses his whistle to signal the Sons of Liberty.  Dressed as Indians, the Sons of Liberty march to Boston Harbor, board the merchant ships, and dump the English tea into the harbor.  It’s the Boston Tea Party.  Afterwards the men march to the Liberty Tree (while singing the song “Liberty Tree”) and hang lanterns from its branches.

Johnny Tremain (1957) - (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Johnny Tremain (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

As we remember from American history, the Boston Tea Party took place on December 16, 1773.

During the Boston Tea Party Johnny remarks to Dr. Joseph Warren (Walter Coy) about how he wished that he had two good hands that night.  Dr. Warren tells him that he can perform a quick surgery and free his fingers, fixing his hand.  It’s implied that Johnny takes his offer and has his hand repaired at some point after the Boston Tea Party.

The film then transitions to the spring of 1775.

Now there’s a much stronger presence of British troops throughout Boston, Massachusetts.  Tensions between the Americans and British are reaching their breaking point.  It’s just a matter of time before war breaks out in the colonies.

Johnny Tremain (1957) - (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Johnny Tremain (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Dr. Warren is summoned to General Gage‘s (Ralph Clanton) office. General Gage warns Dr. Warren that he will be forced to close Boston Harbor until all of the tea that was dumped into the harbor is repaid, down to the last cent. The general knows that Dr. Warren is one of the most influential members of the Sons of Liberty, and he hopes that he can talk some sense into them to prevent further actions.

In addition to paying for the lost tea, the militias must also stop their training. The stores of munitions must also be immediately surrendered.

Dr. Warren tells the general that he and his companions will not honor such demands. They will never surrender their means of defending their liberties.

At the next meeting of the Sons of Liberty, Rab assembles the younger members and tells them that General Gage is likely to make a move soon with his troops. They need to know where the troops are going to be moving to and when it’s going to occur. As far as Rab, he states that himself and the older members will be carrying rifles and using them if need be. The Minutemen are already forming near Lexington.

Johnny wants to join Rab and the Minutemen, but Rab refuses. He claims that Johnny’s skills are more important there in Boston.

Johnny Tremain (1957) - (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Johnny Tremain (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

His skills come to use right away. At the silversmith shop Johnny learns from a British officer that the British navy will be sailing to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He runs back and tells this information to Paul Revere and Samuel Adams. This seems like a strange maneuver until it’s pointed out that Portsmouth stores munitions, and the British fort there is poorly manned. Apparently General Gage believes that the fort can be taken by the Colonials.

Knowing this information, Paul Revere leaves Boston and races on horseback to Portsmouth. It’s later learned that he was successful in securing the munitions for the Colonials. The British know that such munitions in the hands of the rebellion is a dangerous threat to the British army. Since no blood has been shed, General Gage is reluctant to use any military force against the Colonials.

Colonel Smith (Gavin Gordon) volunteers to lead a small band of soldiers to retake the arms and munitions from the Colonials, disarming them. He believes that these are merely farmers and mechanics and not professional soldiers. They’ll flee when faced by British infantry. Colonel Smith wants to move under the cover of darkness, complete his mission, and be back in Boston before anybody is aware of what happened.

When it’s learned that General Gage has released some of his grenadiers and light infantry for a short mission, Paul Revere and Samuel Adams call for one last meeting of the Sons of Liberty. They fear that it’ll be their last meeting for a while.

Johnny Tremain (1957) - (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Johnny Tremain (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

At the last meeting of the Sons of Liberty, James Otis (Jeff York) warns that they must be prepared to go to war with England. He reminds the men that they are fighting for their rights not only in this country, but as a representation of all people around the world. It’s a fight against tyranny. It’s a battle for freedom.

Not long after the meeting it’s time for the British troops to move out of Boston. Although they have the ships to move them across the harbor, they could just as easily march along a stretch of land.

Paul Revere will be waiting across the harbor in Charlestown, Massachusetts, ready to ride and alert the militias of the approaching British troops. In case no riders can make it out of Boston to tell him which route the British are taking, he’ll still be able to see the spires of the Christ Church (a.k.a. Old North Church). They are to hang one lantern in the church if the British are approaching by land, and two lanterns if they’re approaching by sea. One if by land, two if by sea.

Johnny Tremain (1957) - (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Johnny Tremain (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Soon Johnny and Priscilla learn that Colonel Smith is preparing to ride out with his troops. They learn from the colonel’s stable boy that he’s only planning on riding seventeen miles that night. When Johnny takes this news to Dr. Joseph Warren, Warren determines that the British are heading to Concord, Massachusetts. If the British use their ships to reach Cambridge, then Concord is only seventeen miles away.

That’s it.

The British are crossing by sea so they can reach the munitions stored at Concord, Massachusetts.

Johnny eludes British troops and makes it to the church. He finds Mr. Robert Newman and tells him to place two lanterns in the church’s spire.

Johnny Tremain (1957) - (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Johnny Tremain (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Across the water, Paul Revere sees the two lanterns shining in the church’s spire. The British are going by sea. Revere takes off on horseback and alerts militia in every town from there to Concord.

The Redcoats are coming!

Johnny Tremain (1957) - (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Johnny Tremain (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

It’s now April 19, 1775, and Johnny Tremain has joined his friend Rab and the other Minutemen at Lexington, Massachusetts. The people are calm until the British are sighted down the road. The Patriot Commander forms the Minutemen into ranks and they wait for the approaching army. When the British enter the town, Colonel Smith has them form their battle lines. Both commanders warn their infantry not to fire unless given the command.

Colonel Smith orders for the militia to lay down their arms and disperse, but they refuse to do so. Out of nowhere there’s a gunshot. It’s the shot heard ’round the world. Suddenly the British troops open fire and the militia turns and runs. They retreat out of Lexington and head west towards Concord.

The Battle of Lexington is a short engagement that killed several of the Colonial militia.

Johnny Tremain (1957) - (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Johnny Tremain (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

News of the engagement spreads and more people quickly join the growing ranks of the militia. The militia forces British troops off a bridge, and then give harassing fire as the British continue their march to Concord. The militia use Indian tactics to wait in ambush, hide behind trees and fences, shoot, and then flee before the British could return any fire. It’s almost an unfair tactic against the British troops.

This battle tactic continues as the British march all the way back to Boston at the end of the day. The British return to Boston, but the city is surrounded by a tremendous number of militia and Colonial troops. General Gape remarks about how the English have been defeated by an idea of freedom and a belief in human rights.

Johnny Tremain (1957) - (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Johnny Tremain (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Johnny Tremain ends in one of the camps as Priscilla is overjoyed when she discovers that Johnny is still alive and well. She thinks that the battle is over, but James Otis informs them that this is only the beginning. It’s the kindling of a flame. It’s the spark of liberty.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So is Johnny Tremain a good film?

Absolutely!

This is a fantastic film that is also a must-see for anybody interested in politics and American history.  Although the issues in this film primarily deal with the American Revolution, the talking points still very much fit in with today’s politics.  The talk of freedom and liberty and tyranny in this film is more important than ever today.

While no major stars are found in Johnny Tremain, this is still a very well made film that moves swiftly from start to finish.  You’ll see familiar faces from the history books as well as some of the key events during the early stages of the American Revolution, from the Boston Tea Party to Paul Revere’s Ride to the Battle of Lexington.  Not only is Johnny Tremain very entertaining and full of American patriotism, but this film is a great piece of Americana from the colonial time period.

Sadly, Johnny Tremain is an under-rated and almost forgotten film today.

Johnny Tremain was a book that we read as a class back in fifth grade.  After finishing the book we also watched the film.  Although the book was written as a children’s book, I doubt that most of my classmates (myself included) actually understood what was happening throughout the story.  While school kids today need to know this story, it’s not just a lesson that needs to be taught in elementary school.  These are issues that need to be analyzed throughout middle and high school as well.

If anything, the worst part of Johnny Tremain is its short running time.  At only 80 minutes, it feels like so much more material could have been added to this movie.  Then again, one must remember that Johnny Tremain was originally made for television, and it was later into the production that it was decided to release it to the movie theaters.  That’s also why the film has a 1.37 : 1 aspect ratio.

The legacy of Johnny Tremain continues at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.  Legend has it that the film inspired Walt Disney to build a colonial section in Disneyland, but they didn’t have a place for it in the park.  Instead, the Imagineers made it a point to add Liberty Square to the Magic Kingdom theme park in Florida.

In Liberty Square you’ll not only find a highly themed area with colonial architecture, but you’ll also see a replica of the Liberty Bell as well as the Liberty Tree.  Liberty Square also has The Hall of Presidents Audio-Animatronic show as well as the Liberty Square Riverboat and the Haunted Mansion.

Johnny Tremain (1957) – “Liberty Tree” song – (c) Disney

Fans of American history will feel right at home with Johnny Tremain.  The same goes true for people who enjoy Walt Disney films as well as family-friendly movies.

4 stars

Ship Captain – [During the Tea Party] “Isn’t it odd? These Indians seem to prefer principles to profits.”

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Paul Revere – [riding through a town at night] “Turn out! Turn out your militia!”
Villager – [opens window] “What’s all the noise down there?”
Paul Revere – “The Redcoats are coming!”

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Patriot Commander at Lexington – “We’ll stand by our orders, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

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