Daniel J. Tortora: Why Hollywood Should Take Notice of the Anglo-Cherokee War

Carolina in Crisis: Cherokees, Colonists, and Slaves in the American Southeast, 1756-1763, by Daniel J. TortoraWe welcome a guest post today from Daniel J. Tortora, author of Carolina in Crisis: Cherokees, Colonists, and Slaves in the American Southeast, 1756-1763. In his engaging book, Daniel J. Tortora explores how the Anglo-Cherokee War reshaped the political and cultural landscape of the colonial South. He chronicles the series of clashes that erupted from 1758 to 1761 between Cherokees, settlers, and British troops. The conflict, no insignificant sideshow to the French and Indian War, eventually led to the regeneration of a British-Cherokee alliance. Tortora reveals how the war destabilized the South Carolina colony and threatened the white coastal elite, arguing that the political and military success of the Cherokees led colonists to a greater fear of slave resistance and revolt and ultimately nurtured South Carolinians’ rising interest in the movement for independence.

In today’s post, Tortora makes the case for bringing the history of the Anglo-Cherokee War to Hollywood.

There’s one question I get every semester as a history professor, most recently at Colby College: “Professor, are we going to watch The Patriot?” I can’t tell if this question is serious or not, but students say my “No” answer and explanation are comical.

History-based films serve as a teaching tool, spark an interest in the past, and provide perspective on issues in modern society. But I have yet to find a gripping, historically accurate film on eighteenth-century southern history.

It is time that Hollywood takes notice of the Anglo-Cherokee War. And here’s why.

Like Carolina in Crisis, a film depiction can:

  1. Promote a more accurate understanding of Indians

A modern film can take viewers into Cherokee town houses and villages, humanizing Indians and revealing the richness of their culture.

A modern film will show Cherokees struggling to preserve and honor their culture and sovereignty, and working for a better future—all familiar themes today.

Include the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Warriors of AniKituwha. Film on location at Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee, North Carolina.

  1. Offer a realistic and nuanced view of race relations in the eighteenth century.

The Patriot (2000), albeit exciting and emotive, whitewashes African American slavery. Let’s see African Americans disembarking from slave ships in Charleston harbor, toiling as laborers on plantations and in British armies. Let’s see them fighting for freedom against the odds—like Abram, the enslaved messenger.

A film can show how British policies pit Indians against each other in the eighteenth century.

A film can also powerfully capture the voices of the white defenders of Cherokee rights and sovereignty and those who challenged the status quo when it was unpopular to do so. And it can expose the legacy of eighteenth-century racism.

  1. Clarify the southeastern origins of the American Revolution.

A film can introduce viewers to the diverse cast of characters who played a role in the proceedings in the Revolutionary Era. Let viewers see mobs jeering British soldiers in Charles Town—nearly a decade before the Boston Massacre. Introduce them to Christopher Gadsden, the conservative firebrand who would later design a flag appropriated by the Tea Party movement.

  1. Garner interest in historical sites and boost tourism.

For seven years I have crisscrossed the Southeast researching and investigating, leading tour groups and giving presentations. A film would attract visitors to my favorite can’t-miss destinations: Fort Loudoun State Historic Area; Cherokee, North Carolina; Historic Charleston; Macon County, North Carolina; and Ninety-Six National Historic Site.

What would such a film look like?
It might take a holistic approach, like Carolina in Crisis; serve as a historically authentic sequel to The Last of the Mohicans or a prequel to The Patriot; revolve around one place, such as Fort Loudoun; or run as a miniseries like HBO’s John Adams (2008). Stephen Spielberg’s Into the West (2005) offers another model. It follows the parallel stories of a white family and an Indian family across several generations.

Whom to cast?
While pondering who might star in this film, I erupted in a fit of laughter—until I saw a few icy stares in the coffee shop, and shrunk sheepishly in my seat.

I’d like to see Eddie Spears as Oconostota and Irene Bedard as Cherokee beloved woman Nancy. Can you imagine Gerard Butler, in a kilt, as Highlander colonel Archibald Montgomery? Forest Whitaker as Abram? Robert Downey Jr. as Christopher Gadsden? Jennifer Lawrence as a resident on the Carolina frontier? For comedic relief, how about Michael Cera as a hapless provincial soldier? The possibilities are endlessly entertaining.

Countering the Skeptics
Professors in particular lament that history-inspired Hollywood films often fall short. “They put too much focus on white actors.” “They over-romanticize.” “They take too much creative license.” This may at times be true. But a steady trend since the 1990s toward more accurate depictions of American Indians in film minimizes those concerns. The potential for accuracy and authenticity is there if Cherokee elders, the living history community, and academics are involved. And I see exciting potential for DVD “extra features.”

The necessary ingredients
Carolina in Crisis tells a story made for Hollywood.

Cultures clash. Alliances are made and broken. Lives are torn apart. Real people face difficult choices.

There’s love. There’s drama. There’s heartache.

Cherokee families mourn the murder of their loved ones in Virginia. Racist government officials make cringeworthy comments. Slaves plot a revolt. A hostage crisis unfolds. Smallpox ravages the Southeast. Cherokee leaders divide. Cherokees launch an offensive, and even capture a British fort. Two devastating British-South Carolina campaigns wreak havoc on Indian country. Chaos results on all fronts.

There’s humor, too. A British officer has a name like a James Bond character: Alexander Monypenny. The postwar tour of Henry Timberlake (no relation to Justin) to the Cherokee Country offers a few laughs.

A Final Word
Like many others, I have enjoyed Dances with Wolves, Glory, Gettysburg, John Adams, Lincoln, and Selma. People want to see history on film. Historical films prove a powerful educational tool. They spark an interest in the past. They make us reevaluate present-day values and understandings. And they promote cultural and historical tourism.

The Anglo-Cherokee War reflected the plight of Indians in colonial America. It set in motion the process of Cherokee dispossession that ultimately led to the Trail of Tears. It reshaped African American lives. And it widened and created social tensions among white colonists and between colonists and Crown that helped lead to Revolution.

Yet few people know much about it.

This is a story that a wider audience needs to see. Listen up, Hollywood. It’s time.

Daniel J. Tortora is assistant professor of history at Colby College. His book Carolina in Crisis: Cherokees, Colonists, and Slaves in the American Southeast, 1756-1763, is now available.