Mar 302011

Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Users: [ratings]
United Artists, 1959, 83 minutes
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Lawrence Olivier, Janette Scott, Eve La Gallienne, Harry Andrews and Basil Sydney
Screenplay: John Dighton and Roland Kibbee
Based on the play by George Bernard Shaw
Producer: Harold Hecht
Director: Guy Hamilton

Historical Background

The British victory during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) ended the fierce struggle between France and Britain for domination of North America. British control over the French colonies ensured that the northern American colonies no longer had to fear French-backed Indian raids. However, tensions soon grew strained between Britain and the thirteen colonies. British attempts to increase taxation in the American colonies to help pay the huge debts run up led to increased discontent as the increasingly self-reliant colonies resented the British government’s high-handed approach. Believing that a firm display of force would show the colonists their place, the British were shocked when open warfare erupted in 1775, which started the American Revolution (1775-1783). The small army stationed in the colonies was obviously incapable of putting down the rebellion, so additional reinforcements were sent from England, including more than twenty thousand Hessian soldiers rented out by German dukes, in the summer of 1776, the powerful British force easily pushed the American army led by General George Washington out of New York City but a solid core of rebels remained even after a bloody retreat across New Jersey.

Clearly a change of strategy was called for. Lieutenant General William Howe planned to capture Philadelphia, the largest city in the colonies and the base of the Continental Congress. In addition, it was decided to launch a second expedition from Canada that would seize control of the Hudson River, separating Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Massachusetts from the remaining nine colonies. Lieutenant General John Burgoyne was to lead the main army of 8,000 British and German troops southwards from Canada along the Lake Champlain-Lake George route to attack Albany, while a smaller force under Colonel Barry St. Leger invaded the Mohawk Valley as a diversion.

Plot Summary

A British army commanded by General John Burgoyne (Lawrence Olivier) is making its way towards New England but is slowed down by the rebels’ delaying tactics. Running low on supplies, the redcoats are reduced to eating the oxen that were intended to pull the artillery. Frustrated by the delays, the British hang anyone suspected of being a rebel. Reverend Anthony Anderson (Burt Lancaster), a priest from a nearby town, arrives too late to tell the British that a suspected rebel is innocent. Anderson tries to take the body and would have been arrested but the local notables vouch for him. Unfortunately, the hanged man’s eldest son, Dick Dudgeon (Kirk Douglas) steals the body. The black sheep of the family, Dudgeon’s return is not welcomed by the community. Despite Dudgeon’s open rejection of Christianity, he asks Anderson to give the body a proper burial. When the British find the grave, they believe that it had been stolen by Anderson. Through a strange coincidence, Dudgeon is mistaken for Anderson and arrested. Meanwhile, a local guerrilla group is gathering to attack a British garrison but fail until they receive help from an unexpected source. In the end, both Anderson and Dudgeon have re-examined the directions of their lives and chosen new paths.

Historical Accuracy

The screen Burgoyne fears that the disorganized rebels will find a leader and overwhelm his outnumbered army, so his hopes rests on linking up with Howe’s larger army. This distortion of the actual situation is a fatal flaw in the story. The real Burgoyne had dismissed the threat of the rebel army. Having captured Ticonderoga, one of the most powerful fortresses in North America, Burgoyne was so confident of victory that he made little effort to pursue the retreating rebel garrison. He then made the dangerous error of choosing a land route that looked much shorter on a map than the traditional route across Lake Champlain. Most important, Burgoyne’s lack of urgency gave the rebels time to destroy the road that led to Albany. The scorched-earth tactics employed by the retreating rebel army included flooding roads, destroying crops and chopping down every tree near the road. Forty bridges had to be rebuilt, every inch of road appeared to be blocked by intertwined fallen trees and boulders, and large parts of the road had been turned into swamp, so progress was limited to a mile a day. The trees had been cut down long before the British army appeared, otherwise the British light troops and the Indians would have butchered the rebels. In fact, the colonists’ fear of the Indians ensured that no rebel ventured close enough to the British army to snipe at the redcoats.

While the British army was moving slowly, it did not leave garrisons in every small town and did not bother to declare martial law, since most of the villages on the route had already been emptied of both supplies and villagers.

Not only did Burgoyne not worry about not linking up with Howe but he wanted to win a victory on his own, in order to gain all of the glory. In fact, Burgoyne had schemed for an independent command since reaching the American colonies in late 1775, and had even returned to England for the express purpose of lobbying for an independent command. However, he did expect that Howe would keep the main Patriot army occupied by marching to threaten Philadelphia. Unknown to Burgoyne, Howe had spent the spring in New York enjoying the charms of his mistress. When he did emerge in early summer, he decided to sail towards Philadelphia, instead of marching, which would have forced Washington to fight, while still giving Howe the option of changing direction to link up with Burgoyne. Instead, Howe spent a month at sea and Washington was able to reinforce the rebel army facing Burgoyne.

Furthermore, Burgoyne was not outnumbered by the rebels until the very end of the campaign. The northern rebel army had retreated again and again because it was too weak to face the British. In fact, the rebel army shrank when two militia regiments left rather than fight a much stronger British force. When the rebels stopped retreating, they were only nine miles from Albany. They would have been crushed but the British were still carving their way their way through the destroyed road. Realizing that Burgoyne had to be prevented from reaching Albany, Washington sent several thousand Continentals (regular troops), swelling the rebel army to 10,000 men. At that point, the rebels began digging in at Bemis Heights, which blocked the only road to Albany. By this time, Burgoyne had roughly 6,000 troops since a disastrous battle at Bennington had cost him 900 men and he had been forced to leave 900 men to garrison Ticonderoga. After two bloody slug fests the only change in the situation was that the British army was smaller, while reinforcements had increased the size of the rebel army. Burgoyne accepted that capturing Albany was no longer an option and he should concentrate on survival. However, the momentum had changed, and militia were pouring in, so he was forced to surrender at Saratoga on October 17.

The script blames the War Office for forgetting to order Howe to join up with Burgoyne, but the real reasons for the defeat were the gigantic egos of Howe and Burgoyne, and the fact that neither man was a team player. Although Howe was commander-in-chief in North America, he was still subordinate to Lord George Germain, secretary of state for America. However, Howe’s family was quite powerful in parliament, so Germain sent numerous letters inquiring politely when Howe planned to restart the war but never received a firm answer. Worried about offending Howe by giving him direct orders, Germain decided to not take the risk, hoping that Howe would see the logic on his own. As a result, Howe was later able to claim that he had followed orders.

The climatic battle at the end of the movie was invented by Bernard Shaw. The only real battle before Bemis Heights was at Bennington, where rebel militia, led by John Stark, won a total victory over a force of Hessians sent to find supplies and horses. Admittedly, Major-General William Phillips, commander of Burgoyne’s artillery, was taken prisoner by the rebels, but this occurred when he surrendered along with the rest of Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga.

While the real Burgoyne did travel with a mistress, the movie does not capture the holiday atmosphere of the expedition, in particular the officers’ nightly carousing. Several of the senior officers had brought their wives, and Burgoyne had thirty carts to transport his personal belongings, so there was no lack of wine. Since the screen Burgoyne is a sympathetic character, the script does not mention that Burgoyne’s wife was back in England on her death bed and that his mistress was the wife of the supply officer.

The above-mentioned problems with the script are based on fact, but have been re-arranged to fit Shaw’s perspective. However, key elements of the story have no connection to reality. The idea that Burgoyne wasted his time on a court-martial of a single rebel is laughable. The British were pretty harsh but they did not hang priests. The rebel militia units operated openly in that region, so the scenes of guerrillas meeting in secret are unnecessary.

In his own notes about the play, Shaw had stated that Burgoyne had been made a scapegoat for the defeat at Saratoga. Instead, Shaw places the blame on Lord George Germain, who refused to delay a a vacation because the dispatches ordering Howe to meet Burgoyne at Albany were not ready to be signed. Shaw believed that the stupidity that led to Burgoyne’s defeat was similar to the thinking that caused British setbacks during the Boer War. In the end, he was more willing to admit British stupidity than the ability, perseverance and good fortune of the rebels. Furthermore, he ignores the many mistakes that Burgoyne had made and the man’s relentless ambition, which drove him to leave his dying wife to go to North America in search of glory. Burgoyne’s scheming had ensured that he, not Guy Carleton, governor of Quebec, had received command of the expedition, but an offended Carleton would refuse to provide the expedition with any support. British defeat is presented as inevitable, when it was actually due to a steady stream of rash decisions and mistakes.

Despite Shaw’s sympathy for Burgoyne, his desire to use the general as a mouthpiece for criticism of the British government means that he did not actually try to present an accurate portrayal of Burgoyne, who was one of the more interesting players in the Revolution. Words are put into the screen Burgoyne’s mouth that simply do not match the real man’s attitude. Burgoyne certainly did not think that England would lose the American colonies, even after surrendering. The Saratoga Campaign was a decisive period in the American Revolution.

The British surrender at Saratoga convinced France to ally with the Americans, which transformed the war. Britain was no longer trying to put down a rebellion by uppity colonists, but was now struggling to preserve its global empire. Thousands of redcoats were taken from the American colonies and sent to defend British-controlled islands in the Caribbean, while the rebels would receive badly needed supplies, soldiers and naval support from France. The Devil’s Disciple is the only film that deals with the campaign, so it is a pity that the movie does not actually explain why the rebels won.


The movie was a co-production between Burt Lancaster’s production company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster (HHL) and Kirk Douglas’ Bryna, but HHL had gone over-budget with previous films, so United Artists had refused to permit the huge budget needed for a color extravaganza. Worse, since Douglas was hot due to the success of his movie The Vikings the year before, he was given the best role, while Lancaster had to make do with the bland role of the reverend, even though he had initiated the project. The production was not helped when director Alexander Mackendrick was fired a week into the filming and replaced by Guy Hamilton, who later became famous for directing four James Bond movies and Battle of Britain.

It is quite a change of pace to see Burt Lancaster playing a peaceful man of God, and not entirely believable.

Lawrence Olivier’s disillusioned and cynical Burgoyne is entertaining but has little to do with the real man. Actually, Olivier confessed in his autobiography that he was severely disappointed in his acting since he felt that he had been too affected by the end of his marriage with Vivian Leigh to give Shaw’s play the performance that it deserved.

Kirk Douglas clearly enjoys his roguish, Christianity-rejecting character, who delights in pointing out the hypocrisy of his relatives.

Shaw had written the play as a satire on the American Revolution While Shaw did not actually appear to know much about the Revolution, he did write some nice dialogue. When Dudgeon says that the British hang rebels because they are paid to do so, Burgoyne responds with a good comment about the cost of his commission compared to his low pay.

Anderson’s wife spends most of the movie in tears, which is painful to watch. In fact, it is probably the most hysterical crying that I have seen in a movie. For such a pious woman, she falls for Dudgeon surprisingly quickly.

The combination of Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Lawrence Olivier should have at least produced an entertaining film, but it is both inaccurate and boring.

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  • martin fennell

    Inaccurate; i’ll take your word for it. But, certainly not boring.
    it’s not Burt and kirk’s worst movie together (i walk alone) or best(seven days in may), but i was entertained by it. You could feel Burt hemmed in by that minister’s garb. As you say, the woman’s role was very poor though. Was that character in the original play?

    • historyonfilm

      You clearly enjoyed it more than me, I just found it bland, which was a strange feeling since I usually like films with Burt Lancaster.