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Did Film Really Incite Mutiny?

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Feb 14, 2018

In 1916, Robert Goldstein had begun work on a film titled “The Spirit of ’76,” about America’s struggle for independence. During the winter of 1918, he sat in jail awaiting trial under the Espionage Act for allegedly inciting mutiny in the U.S. military by showing the movie in Los Angeles, Calif.

Goldstein should have been able to see his future when in November 1917 the company that had financed the project attempted to get the confiscated copy back from the government, saying everything in the movie was factual. On Nov. 30, 1917, U.S. District Judge Benjamin Bledsoe denied the request, saying, “History is history and fact is fact. There is no doubt about that. At the present time, however, the United States is confronted with what I conceive to be the greatest emergency we have ever been confronted with at any time in our history.

“… We are engaged in a war in which Great Britain is an ally of the United States. It is a fact that we were at war with Great Britain during the Revolutionary times, and whatever occurred there is written upon the page of history and will have to stand, whomever may be injured or hurt by the recital or recollection of it. But this is no time, in my judgement whatever may be the excuse, whether it be financial return or otherwise, for the exploitation of those things that may have the tendency or effect of sowing dissension among our people, and of creating animosity or want of confidence between us and our allies. … The constitutional guaranty of ‘free speech’ carries with it no right to subvert the purposes and destiny of the nation.”

To make matters worse for Goldstein, Bledsoe was assigned to be the presiding judge at his trial. On March 7, 1918, the Los Angeles Times reported on the preparations for the trial.

“Headed by United States District Attorney O’Connor, the entire force of his office attended a special matinee performance of ‘The Spirit of Seventy-Six’ in Clune’s auditorium yesterday. The object of the performance was to acquaint Federal officers with the alleged pro-German features of the motion picture. … These objectionable views represent English troops impaling children on bayonets, and red coats and Indians in the pay of England attacking women and children and committing all sorts of atrocities. With England as our ally in the present war, it is held that any picture calculated to hold up English soldiers to scorn and ridicule is within the inhibition of the law and regulations of the government.”

On the 12th, the Times reported that Bledsoe would show the jury only parts of the film. “That the jury may understand just what the pictures were to which the Federal Authorities object, the offending portions of the film will be put on exhibition during the taking of the testimony. … (I)t is charged that the picture is an unlawful attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty and mutiny among American soldiers, and a refusal to perform duty on the part of the army and navy of the United States, by holding up the actions of our ally, England, in the War of the Revolution to ridicule. … Goldstein has been in the County Jail ever since his arrest in November.”

On April 3, the Times noted that the progress of jury selection didn’t look good for Goldstein.

“The examination of the prospective jurors, including the panels of both departments of the Federal Court demonstrated two facts. One was that nearly every member has a relative either in the army or navy or that they had been drafted and were awaiting call to the service. The other, was that the lure of the ‘movie’ is universal, and that every man examined was addicted more or less to the ‘movie’ habit.”

The next day a witness testified, “Everybody connected with the production, with the exception of Goldstein, were of the opinion that some of the pictures were too strong to pass the National Censor Board. Reference was had to the scenes representing a soldier stabbing an old apple woman on the public square, soldiers dragging women by the hair from their homes, the shooting of an old Quaker in his home at the Cherry Valley massacre and the impaling of a child on a bayonet.”

On April 5, the jury got to see for themselves.

“The order of Judge Bledsoe that ‘The Spirit of ’76’ should be shown on a screen to the jury, brought an audience that tested the seating capacity of Judge Trippet’s court room, which was fitted up with paraphernalia of a motion picture theater. The portion of the films to which the objections are made by the Federal authorities under the Espionage Act, show the attack upon the 400 men and boys under Col. Zebulon Butler, by 1100 British, Tory and Indian troops, under Maj. John Butler, which resulted in the killing of almost the entire command, in the famous Wyoming Valley (Luzerne county, Pennsylvania) massacre, July 3, 1778, while the most men were absent in Connecticut Service.”

On April 16, the Times attempted to summarize Goldman’s defense, saying, “On the part of the defense historical truths were appealed to, to establish the correctness of the scenes. … Stress was laid on the statement that Goldstein had entered into the enterprise in good faith, and that the film had never been condemned by the Federal authorities on the charge that the defendant had to face in this prosecution.”

The tactic didn’t work. The same day the Times reported “Robert Goldstein, promotor and exhibitor of the film, ‘The Spirit of ’76’, was found guilty last night on the first and second counts of the grand jury indictment. … The first count on which Goldstein was convicted charges that he attempted to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny and refusal to do duty in the military and naval forces of the United States while that country was engaged in war and the second count that he had in his possession property tending to cause disloyalty, mutiny and insubordination.”

Goldstein was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison, on April 19, 1918, exactly 143 years to the day after the “shot heard round the world” was fired to start the American Revolution. The Times boasted, “United States District Attorney O’Connor from Attorney General Gregory. It read as follows: ‘Permit me to thank and congratulate you for the result of the Goldstein case. It was the first case of prosecution in the United States, following the exhibition of alleged unpatriotic motion pictures, and the conviction of Goldstein cuts new ground in that connection.’”

Goldstein spent the next three years in prison. After his release, his reputation ruined in the U.S., he decided to move to Germany for a fresh start, where most historians believe he ended up in a Nazi concentration camp, never to emerge.

“History is history and fact is fact” – unfortunately, we seem to forget a lot of it.

Next Week: Shipwreck.


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