Robert Goldstein: Tragic Odyssey

The Goldstein legend was a study originally published by
Inditer Dot Com. The unspoken legacy of Robert Goldstein has colored the image of the Revolution in the minds of the motion picture industry. One can see why the legacy of the Revolution has been put down in the theatre.

The Tragic Odyssey of Robert Goldstein

by John Davis Collins.....© 2001 by John F. Clennan, All Rights Reserved



"Is freedom the thing we must endure?"
-- Dr. James Davies, Lord Woodbury

In 1915, D.W. Griffiths produced with Goldstein's assistance, Birth of a Nation, a paean to the Southern Version of the American Civil War. Until the movie Glory came out, Birth of a Nation was the accepted and authorized version. Its success electrified the world. President Woodrow Wilson, whose 'New Freedom' embodied the progressive ideal, called Birth of a Nation "history shot with electricity." Even the Russian Revolutionary Lenin was suitably impressed.

Standing in the shadows of Griffin's success, a mighty profitable place, Goldstein decided to go back to the true birth of the nation, 1776. At an expense of over $200,000 ($48m in today's money), Goldstein produced "Spirit of '76," an epic which spanned from the Battles of Lexington and Concord to Yorktown.

From descriptions of the film in court records, from Lionel Lincoln, the Cooper novel whose story line was followed, and from later copyists which include America (1924) and Howards of Virginia (1940), the movie had a weak plot, organized around historical vignettes which included various British and Hessain atrocities in the Cherry Valley New York and in Wyoming County, Pennsylvania.

The film opened in Chicago in April 1917. Local police acting on orders from President Wilson seized the film. The United States had just declared war on Germany and the war was not quite as popular as the President would have expected. The country was so divided that the Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryant, resigned in protest. After the offending scenes were redacted, showing resumed. However, like all Americans who face an arbitrary restriction, Goldstein merely took his film elsewhere to show it in its entirety.

Robert Goldstein and the Spirit of '76
Robert Goldstein and "the Spirit of '76"

By all accounts, Goldstein's Spirit of '76 was an electrifying rousing production. Some have said that Patrick Henry's speech to the Burgess is better told on this silent in the gripping face of the actor than words could supply. In comparison the later copyists were surprisingly flat.

By the time Goldstein's production opened in Los Angeles, the psychotic energy of the purge in the making had reached a fever pitch. Far beyond rounding up the usual suspects, labor union activists, socialists and pacifists, Wilson had prosecutions humming in all ten federal circuits against such unlikely rebels as a man who expressed reservations about the war in a private conversation over his dinner table, some Puerto Ricans who opted to retain their Spanish citizenship as was their right, under both American and International Law, a man who casually chatted with a confidant about the war and a man who yelled at Rangers in a National Park.

What is most impressive about the tidal wave of prosecutions is that most reported prosecutions were not launched against public figures vocally denouncing the war, but were instituted against private people for activity without public fanfare or political overtones of any kind.

The wide range of suspects prosecuted concentrated in the 30 months of U.S. participation in World War I, suggest a well defined federal police apparatus and underground informant structure far beyond that which is conventionally acknowledged to have existed in that time and considerable preparation in advance of the declaration of war to undertake the purge.

Goldstein's ill luck was to be caught up in the vortex of the maelstrom. In June 1917, Wilson told Congress that a grave clear and present threat loomed: German-Americans who might side with the German Kaiser. A new Espionage Act was passed, which in broad strokes prohibited any act or utterance, which might create dissention in the Armed Forces. Although German immigration was as long standing as English Colonization, an officially sanctioned purge of Germans had begun.

The flamboyant son of a German-Jewish immigrant Goldstein and his rousing Spirit of '76 became a major target.

Goldstein's film was seized and Goldstein was arrested for espionage. In approving the seizure of the film, Judge Beldsoe wrote, "History is history and fact is fact . . . the United States is confronted with . . . the greatest emergency . . . [its] history. There is now required . . . the greatest devotion to a common cause . . . this is no time . . . for souring dissension among [the] people, and of creating animosity . . .[with the] allies." Convicted of espionage in having attempted to incite to mutiny U.S. Armed Forces, Goldstein defiantly proclaimed his innocence. A sentence of ten years was accompanied by Judge Beldsoe's lecture on the many freedoms America afforded.

The case upon appeal, before the276th term of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals which affirmed the conviction in a terse uninspired memorandum by Judge Hunt. The war for independence is referred to as "a war fought more than a hundred years before." The court did take note that the statute under which Goldstein was convicted had been enacted after the movie had been filmed but found the movie's content sufficient proof of intent to violate a yet to be enacted law and to incite to mutiny, even without proof that a single soldier had seen an exhibition or that the movie had been created for that purpose.

Wilson's purge did not merely target German-Americans like Goldstein active in the arts, but burned with white-heat fury at the German language which had been spoken in many places interchangeably with English and at the casual craft of the German-Americans: the liquor industry. An unusual alignment of the planets, appeasing women's temperance groups on one hand and stabilizing the price of grain on the other, together with depriving the Germans of their daily bread led to a national prohibition of alcohol, both measures would have worked an unanticipated social realignment, that the progressive advocates of the 'New Freedom' could never have anticipated.

In jail, Goldstein joined the other intractable enemies of the State, advocates of an eight-hour workday and a minimum wage, advocates of women's rights, and opponents of child labor.

Mercifully, Wilson, treated like a "chump" by the suave European victors at Versailles, faced a backlash from the American public terrorized by the purge. Wilson collapsed in a stroke and the Democrats were brought down with him.

In 1920, Americans had endured 'The New Freedom' long enough. The Democrats were trounced from office. The incoming Republicans, playing lip service to greater moral ends, of the progressive New Freedom allowed the country to settle into 'The Great Ten year Drunk,' in which alcohol was officially illegal, but more available than ever before. The period is called Prohibition, but little but noble word was offered to stem the intoxication of freedom.

Goldstein would not see America distilled from the rigidity of the oppressive 'New Freedom' into the bubbling libertine age of the Roaring 20's. His sentence commuted after three years, Goldstein went into exile, trying to make films in Europe. In 1935, he found himself stranded in Germany unable to beg, borrow, or steal the nine dollars needed to renew his U.S. passport. Some say Goldstein was swept up in the Holocaust, ignored by the country whose heritage he had tried to preserve; others say the Germans expelled him as persona non-gratis and Goldstein finished up his days in obscurity in New York City. There is no definitive source.

It is hard to assay the impact of Goldstein in positive terms. Joseph Campbell, the guru of the New Age, said of Goldstein's times that they were a period in which America abandoned its heritage and embarked upon a long association with Britain and thus ceased to be a nation. In the motion pictures, the American Revolution became a taboo subject. Few attempts were made; those which were made were not financial successes. The Revolution was entirely left out of the epic movie How the West Was Won (1960), a history of the United States told as the life story of two sisters.

But to say that the Revolution was put down in the cinema does not mean the cause was lost. Literature, less controlled by the government, produced a flurry of writers on the subject. In the 1930's as the radicals of the moment tried to tie their cause to the icons of old, the subject was re-explored in historical romances.

While certainly Cooper's Lionel Lincoln inspired Goldstein, Goldstein may have defined the modern American historical romance; a loose fictional plot strung together by portraits of historical events, driven more by history than plot, far more so than D.W. Griffiths. One can see that style reflected in the historical romances written by Howard Fast and the other major writers of historical romance concerning the Revolution, F. Van Wyck Brooks, Kenneth Roberts, Conrad Richter, and Noel B. Gearson, and even more recently John Jakes.

What distinguishes this style of historical romance is the weakness of the story lines and the superficiality or rather the lack of depth, in scenes and characters. It's history told as a story, neither history nor story but something in between.

And perhaps that's true of Robert Goldstein, a personal story lost between lines in his own script. Neither truly a disinterested witness to history nor completely a victim to the maelstrom, Goldstein became transformed into the character of a historical romance, who tumbles through the tapestry of the cascading tumults against the tidal passions of the torrents of history.

Goldstein did merit a place of immortality of sorts as one of the demi-gods of right wing web sites which salute his long suppressed film as one which will never be lost from the hearts of men.

Less can be said of the fate of 'New Freedom.' If Wilson's purpose was to found a progressive state reinforced by the British alliance with an anglified character, the 30-month purge effectively destroyed all the accomplishments of his previous five and a half years. The main target of the purge, the German-Americans, was the largest Protestant immigrant group.

The effect of the purge worked in unanticipated directions. Many Germans swelled the ranks of the Klan in the 1920's to become good Americans by joining the culture of intolerance where ignorance is the greatest strength. But by and large, the German-Americans birth rate fell of in the 1920's, vis--vis other immigrant groups, particularly the Italians, creating in the following generation an unexpected population imbalance, just as the licentiousness of the Roaring 20's would make of the Italians a non-Anglo noveau riche, enshrined in legend as true heirs to the rebel tradition for their exploits in providing illegal liquor to the public during prohibition.

The purge became the defining event for America in the 20th Century over shadowing the impact of two World Wars and the great depression.

Literature too deals its own hidden rewards and punishments, was not "Goldstein" Big Brother's nemesis in Orwell's 1984?


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