JWR Articles: Television - Shay's Rebellion: America's First Civil War (Director/Producer: R.J. Cutler) - April 9, 2006 id="543337086">

Shay's Rebellion: America's First Civil War

2 2
46 min.

Part of 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America
Shallow victory

The second longest war by the United States of America (so far, only Vietnam is longer), succeeded in sending the British packing. Fearing the replacement of one tyrant with another, the victorious Republic was structured around largely impotent Articles of Confederation. Taxation and military power were the domain of the states. Thousands of soldiers, like their commander in chief, George Washington, retired to a much quieter life of tending the land rather than killing for it.

For many farmers and simple merchants, their reward for years of sacrifice was payment in near-worthless British pounds and a post-war economy whose engine collapsed as soon as the evil foreigners had been purged. For the privileged few, the plunders of conflict and shift of power laid seeds for unrest that finally blossomed into internal conflict, pitting former comrades-in-arms against each other.

To bring Shay’s Rebellion: America’s First Civil War to Life, producer/director R.J. Cutler chose the highly stylized animation of Bill Plympton, interspersed with commentaries from distinguished authors and historians. Unfortunately, the result is as shaky as the action sequences and seems more made up than historical fact.

Nonetheless, the back-story of the rural West being ignored by the more populous and power-centric East of Daniel Shays’ Massachusetts, resonates hugely, and to this day, with Canada’s perennial East/West squabbles. The rebel leader’s desire to “destroy the nest of devils [in Boston]” could well have been uttered by thousands of Albertans when Ottawa’s National Energy Program was introduced.

Narrator Hector Elizondo does a credible job of bringing Blue Kraning’s script to life, but in today’s graphic-obsessed world, the stilted imagery fails to reinforce the rage that led to the Shaysites’ attempt to loot the Springfield armoury then march to the capital and burn it to the ground.

The frequent description of the disenfranchised veterans as “insurgents” when, after failing to attract the attention of their more powerful fellow citizens with petitions and appeals, they are pushed to violence has an eerie ring in the daily mention of the same word describing the latest carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan (to name just two).

Ironically, the musical track by Isilnod reflects the blandness of the storytelling; it’s unable to rise above the “just so” tone of the events that forced Washington out of retirement and into the fray of fashioning the Constitution and Bill of Rights. That seismic power shift enabled the U.S. to assume its God-protected role of becoming the world’s only superpower, one armed conflict—sanctioned or not—at a time.

What will be the outcome when a Daniel Shay in rural China chooses insurrection over poverty and confronts the selectively deaf leadership in his “East?” JWR

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Director/Producer - R.J. Cutler
Writer - Blue Kraning
Editor - Arash Ayrom
Animator - Bill Plympton
Narrator - Hector Elizondo
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