The dusty pages of history vividly come to life in the History Channel's ambitious telling of the American Revolution and the events leading up to it.
Airing over three nights Jan. 25-27, the six-hour miniseries is the back story of the founding fathers, following them as they rebel against increasingly oppressive British rule and move closer to war. Throughout, viewers see the personal sides of the men who shaped history, including Sam Adams (Ben Barnes), John Adams (Henry Thomas), Paul Revere (Michael Raymond-James), John Hancock (Rafe Spall), George Washington (Jason O'Mara) and Benjamin Franklin (Dean Norris).
"There's an unfortunate tendency — in books, movies, TV — to treat this period with a stodgy reverence," says writer-producer Stephen David. "Going into 'Sons of Liberty,' my mission was to strip away that veneer and get to the heart of who these men were as people. The 10 years preceding America's Revolutionary War were a radical and dangerous time. When you read the actual history, it sounds like a Hollywood action movie, and that's the feeling we wanted to capture with 'Sons of Liberty.'"
David knew he wanted to do a project about the period, but it didn't coalesce until the Rolling Stones song "Paint it Black" gave him an idea. "I starting thinking about the turbulent years of the 1960s and how that might relate to the 1760s. I immediately called up my development team, and asked them if there was anything with the Revolutionary War that had to do with teen angst. They more or less said, 'What the hell are you talking about?' And I asked them to look into the American Revolution from a more human, relatable perspective. Within a few hours they came back to me with all this great material on the Sons of Liberty."
The research just started there. "Even though 'Sons of Liberty' is a scripted miniseries, the amount of research that went into the development of the series was no different than what we put into our documentaries. We drew from a wealth of resources, everything from contemporary histories to primary documents, such as letters exchanged between our main characters," David notes.
"Any time you're dealing with a historical scripted series, you're going to need to set a balance between historical fact and creative license," he continues. "'Sons of Liberty' isn't a documentary; it's a dramatic interpretation of the events that shaped our country. The goal of the miniseries was to recreate this period in colonial America, and the personalities at the center of that incredible drama. We went to great lengths to recreate a living, accurate representation of the time and place, while staying true to the spirit of the revolution.
"During the scripting process," he says, "We always stayed as true to the nature of these historical characters and their stories as possible. But sometimes, we faced either gaps in the historical record or dramatic hurdles that required us to employ some creative license. We're condensing 10 incredibly complex years of American history into a single, six-hour narrative. That meant truncating characters and compositing events in some instances to strengthen our dramatic arc and reinforce the overall thematic content."
Despite the ambitious scope of the project, David's team cut few corners. "We knew we wanted to do these iconic moments — the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Bunker Hill — and to present them in a way that would resonate with a contemporary audience. It's a great credit to our incredible production team that we made practically zero concessions from script to screen."
It wasn't difficult to find a balance between the political and the personal, says David, who honed in on "the evolution the conflict and characters. For Sam Adams and the other Sons of Liberty, these men lived and breathed the revolution. The conflict began as an economic issue. From there, it became an emotional issue, a moral issue, and eventually, a political one. It permeated every part of their lives."
While all the main characters are historical figures, "Some of the secondary characters, such as Sons of Liberty member Tim Kelly, are composites of Sam Adams's inner circle," David points out. "In the case of Dr. Warren (Ryan Eggold) and Margaret Gage (Emily Berrington), while we don't know for certain whether or not they had an affair, there's been a great deal of historical speculation as to their relationship and her role as a spy for the Sons of Liberty."
George Washington (Jason O'Mara, right) and Benjamin Frankllin (Dean Norris) as they appear in "Sons of Liberty."
Having U.K. actors play many of the key roles may seem ironic, but Irishman Jason O'Mara reminds that George Washington was an Englishman and served in the British Army. He read Ron Chernow's bio "Washington: A Life" to prepare to play the future first president. "It shows him in quite an ambitious light. Everyone has a take on why he married Martha, whether it was for the money, but he was a man who really learned success through failure. Often times he's painted as a guy who can do no wrong from the beginning. I really wanted to play him as a flawed human being. It was great fun. Two hours in the makeup chair though—that nose, and the wig,' notes the actor, who is slated to play another American president, Ulysses Grant, in the Civil War miniseries "To Appomattox."
"Sons of Liberty" was shot in Romania for its geographical similarity to Colonial Massachusetts. "Even the weather, for the most part, was pretty accommodating, with one exception. We actually had a tornado near set one day," David recalls. But there were plenty of challenging scenes to shoot. "The Battle of Bunker Hill was a huge action set piece, with hundreds of extras, numerous camera setups and complicated stunts. But for every big action scene, we also had plenty of intimate moments between our main characters. These smaller scenes, like the ones between Sam Adams and John Hancock – need to accomplish a great deal of drama on their own scale. Our crew was remarkably versatile, and I think they really nailed both ends of that dramatic spectrum."
David praises his production team's contribution as well. "Our costume designer, production designer, locations department and military and fight consultants immersed themselves in the period and their dedication comes through in the final product," he says. "There's no question that 'Sons of Liberty' wouldn't be the show we had initially envisioned without their work."
He hopes viewers will learn something while being entertained. "I think the average viewer tends to take American Independence for granted. It's all that we've ever known," he states. "But for our Founding Fathers, nothing was a given. American colonists lived their lives under foreign rule for nearly two centuries. Even to these Founding Fathers, declaring independence was, at first, unthinkable. To step forward and take a stand was to put your life on the line. That sort of raw courage is visceral, and the story of how these men went from defiance to independence isn't just about quill pens and town meetings. They were men of action. It's one of the greatest stories, if not the greatest story, in American history, and I couldn't be more excited to share it with audiences."
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