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CW Journal : Summer 04 : Remastering a Masterwork

Succinct Script Yields Memorable Quotes

Dennis Montgomery

For weeks the writers and creators of Williamsburg: The Story of A Patriot fretted and studied and scratched their heads over a fundamental production dilemma -- a problem that would have forced them to make an altogether different movie if they hadn't noticed the solution that was waiting at their fingertips.

From inception, the project's goal was to give audiences the illusion of being transported to the 18th century and experiencing history first-hand. The theater itself was designed to that purpose. The ground to be covered suggested a shot-on-location drama of about two hours.

Nevertheless, the film could be no more than a 30-minute scene-setter for visitors soon to be ferried to the Historic Area for-real. That all but dictated a time-saving device best suited to a documentary film: the omniscient narrator.

By merely relating information that must otherwise be portrayed, an anonymous, all-knowing, off-screen storyteller could more speedily advance the plot. But he would as surely spoil the you-are-there illusion.

Revise as they might, writer Emmet Lavery and director George Seaton could see no way out. In January 1956, with shooting set for May, they resigned themselves to a narrator.

A screenplay finished March 12, however, solved the problem by recruiting lead-character John Fry to double duty. Fry picks up a quill and starts to pen a letter home. The audience overhears his thoughts; the narration is now part and parcel of the drama.

A solution to a writing problem found at the business end of a writer, Fry's missive carries the story from 1769 to 1776. Running 1,210 words, his narrative takes 17 figurative years to finish. But it seamlessly advances the story with credence and economy.

In fact, the whole 33-minute, 53-second script now shown is thrifty. From opening line -- "Look, I found a duck with a broken wing. Where's Master Robert?" -- to closing clause -- "I am now, as ever, your loving husband John." -- all the words nestle comfortably within 11 stingy pages of a transcript. It is a model of brevity, pace, and felicitous phrasing.

The favorite line? By a casual sampling of Patriot fans, it may be the sentence Fry's dowager mother pronounces over a British bolt of blue brocade: "English goods were ever the best."

Among other stand-out sound-bites:

Fry, in his Ralegh Tavern accommodations against a background of snoring lodgers and a pair of big bare feet thrust out above a footboard:

"I am forced to share this room with three other men, being bedded with one who is of prodigious height, and carries the combined scent of all the animals known to God."

William Byrd III, as the fiery Patrick Henry enters the Apollo Room:

"The temperature rises. Our hot-headed orator has arrived."

Governor Botetourt, punishing the House of Burgesses for approving anti-tax resolutions:

"Gentlemen, I have heard of your resolves, and I augur their ill effects. You have made it necessary to dissolve you, and you are, accordingly, dissolved."

Patrick Henry, urging continental union:

"It is our only defense. England is hungry, gentlemen. I have never seen even the most ravenous of men devour a cluster of grapes in one mouthful. But I have seen many, already fat with food, achieve the same result by plucking the fruit one by one."

Henry, declining to introduce a resolution for a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer:

"Of late, if I merely propose the opening of a window on a sultry day there are those who see in my request treachery and evil."

John Randolph, a Tory, on the consequences of Lexington and Concord:

"The sword has been drawn. God knows when it will be sheathed."

Randolph, leaving for England:

"Yes, I am going home. And you?" Fry: "I am home."

Fry, choosing revolution over peace:

"It wasn't an easy choice, but it was a free one."