June 19, 1957 – The Live Action Feature Film Johnny Tremain is Released to Theaters
“To the youth of the world…in whose spirit and courage rests the hope of eventual freedom for all mankind…”
On June 19, 1957, the live action feature film Johnny Tremain was released to theaters. The film was based on the 1944 Newberry Medal winning book by Esther Forbes. Originally, the story was set to be a serial on the Disneyland anthology (much like The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh), but due to mounting production costs, Walt Disney decided to make it a feature film instead; it was aired on television the following year in two parts: The Boston Tea Party and The Shot Heard ‘Round the World. Sharon Disney, Walt’s daughter, has a small part in the film. It was directed by Robert Stevenson, who would go on to be one of Disney’s main directors in the 60s and 70s. The film stars Hal Stalmaster as Johnny Tremain, Luana Patten as Cilla Lapham, Dick Beymer as Rab Silsbee, Jeff York as James Otis, and Sebastian Cabot as Jonathan Lyte.
Set in Boston, July 1773, the film tells the story of young Johnny Tremain, who is an apprentice for the silversmith Mr. Lapham. A wealthy landowner named Jonathan Lyte enters the shop and asks Lapham to fix a broken teapot by Monday, but Lapham feels he is unable to fix the piece. Tremain convinces Lyte to let Lapham fix the piece, then works on convincing Lapham that he can fix the piece himself. Lapham tries and fails to recreate the handle of the piece, but Tremain refuses to give up. When Lapham’s granddaughter Cilla asks why Tremain is so concerned with this particular commission, he confesses a secret: he is related of the wealthy Mr. Lyte, and shows her his mother’s christening cup. He confides that he promised his mother that he will never tell Lyte of their relation, unless he is in dire need.
The next day, Tremain goes looking for his friend, Paul Revere, to ask for help in making the handle. Revere is at the printers, where Tremain learns about plans for preventing tea from entering the Boston harbor from his friend Rab Silsbee. Revere tells Tremain how to fix the handle, and Tremain sets to work. He ignores the Sabbath to keep working, and badly burns his hand, making him unable to apprentice anymore. He runs into Silsbee again as he and a few others are at the docks, preventing the tea from being brought onto Boston shores. Lapham, saddened that Tremain can no longer apprentice, offers a chance for Tremain to remain under his roof, but Tremain, very proud, refuses, as he feels he can’t earn his keep. He searches around town for work, but no one is willing to hire a boy with a disabled hand. As he sits, dejected, he runs across Mr. Lyte, and confesses his relation to him, showing him the christening cup. Lyte asks Tremain to bring the cup to his house that night, but when he does, Lyte has Tremain arrested for stealing the cup.
As Tremain sits in jail, he is visited by Revere and Silsbee, who bring a lawyer named John Quincy Adams to defend him at his trial, as they believe he is innocent. During the trial, Lyte tries to make an example of Tremain, disliking those young men that are against the King and his taxes. Adams does a good job of exposing Lyte’s prejudice, then calls Cilla to the stand as a witness. Cilla proves that Tremain did not steal the christening cup, though Lyte tries to make Cilla out to be some sort of villain as well. The judge finds Tremain innocent, and Tremain tells Silsbee that he will do anything to repay him for his help. Silsbee has an idea for Tremain to ride his uncle’s horse Goblin, as no one has been able to handle the easily spooked horse. Tremain is able to keep the horse calm, and is hired as the new horse boy. Silsbee also reveals to Tremain about a group called the Sons of Liberty, and that Tremain will also be tasked to deliver messages to and from the group.
Tremain takes to his work quickly, and is soon able to observe one of the meetings for the Sons of Liberty. At this meeting, the members tell Tremain and Silsbee that they are attending another meeting about a shipment of tea that has been kept in port for 20 days, and will soon be seized and sold at auction by the governor. Tremain is then tasked to give a signal should he hears the phrase, “this meeting can do nothing more to save the country.” While Tremain waits in the church for the possible phrase, Silsbee is outside with other men, dressed as Native Americans, waiting near the ship. After the governor’s response arrives, the phrase is uttered, and Tremain heads out to sound the alarm. The men dressed as Native Americans set out, and the Boston Tea Party is launched. On the ship, Tremain stares out at the water, wishing he had two good hands to help. Dr. Warre, nthe town surgeon, reminds him that, any time he wishes to come by, he can repair his hand. The tea is dumped into the ocean, and the men head to the Liberty Tree after cleaning up the ship, hanging lanterns and posting signs.
The time then turns to the spring of 1775, and Dr. Warren has been called in to meet the Governor, and reads a newspaper that contains a speech by a prominent member of the House of Commons in England, demanding that the British leave Boston. The governor is not impressed, and refuses to open the ports until the tea that was dumped into the harbor has been paid in full. Meanwhile, Tremaine is sent over to the Lyte household, with Lyte telling him that he is moving back to England. Lyte shows himself to be a Loyalist, but is unable to sway Tremain. Finding that Tremain is a firm Patriot, Lyte informs him that he was going to adopt him into the family and take him to England to live, but Tremain tells him flatly that he would have wasted his time and returns the christening cup. Many young men and women gather with Silsbee, and plan to help Dr. Warren as best they can by finding out what the governor is planning to do. Silsbee reveals that the men old enough to carry guns have been requested to go to Lexington to join the Minutemen, and Tremain is dismayed to be asked to stay behind to watch the moves of the Redcoats. Cilla is rather happy that Tremain is kept out of danger.
Back at the Laphams, a Redcoat is angered by how long it will take to repair his flask, and Tremain uses this opportunity to ask questions about where the soldiers are going, and finds they are off to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Tremain runs to tell Dr. Warren and the other Sons of Liberty, and the Patriots are able to prepare themselves at Portsmouth before the Redcoats arrive. The governor then finds that the Patriots are able to get enough arms and gunpowder to prepare themselves for any battle. The Redcoats then group together as a force to take down the Patriots, as they think that a bunch of farmers and mechanics can’t take on the British army. Cilla gets a job at a local tavern to get intelligence on the next moves the British plan to make, and by sheer luck, happens to get a copy of the governor’s latest order, although she is dismayed to find that everyone else already had a copy. A late meeting of the Sons of Liberty is called, with every single person called, as it may be the last meeting. The young men are then sent to Lexington to fight. Again, Tremain is upset that he can’t fight with the others, but Dr. Warren reassures him that he is of better use in Boston.
The last meeting of the Sons of Liberty is called to order, with the main conversation being an inevitable war. Many believe that the colonists should only go to war if war is made against them. The conclusion, thanks to a speech by Mr. Otis, is that they should go to war for the rights of men, all men. A little while later, Tremain is seen writing in the old printing house, with his hand fully repaired, thanks to Dr. Warren, and overhears the plan to find out how the British are coming using lanterns in the chapel steeple: one if by land, and two if by sea. Tremain and Cilla find out from the stable boy at the tavern that the British plan to travel by sea to get to Concorde. Tremain, pursued by British soldiers, runs to the church to make sure two lanterns are hanging as signal for Paul Revere, who soon takes off to warn everyone that the British are coming. Tremain soon sets off for Lexington, giving the worried Cilla a kiss before he goes.
It’s April 19, 1775, and the militia is ready at Lexington Green. Tremain is reunited with Silsbee, and stands with him as they watch the Redcoats approach. The militia is ordered not to fire unless fired upon, and the British are ordered not to fire until given an order. A shot is fired, although neither side knows by whom, and the British begin shooting the militia men, killing several before the militia flees. War has begun in the colonies, and all of the able bodied Patriots gather to fight. Tremain and Silsbee catch up with the other men to head to Northbridge, where the British are trying to cut off the Patriots from reaching Concorde. Although the British fire a warning shot, it doesn’t deter the Patriots. They win the battle at the bridge, and continue to fight the British as they march on Concorde. The beaten British troops head back to Boston, informing the governor that they should not have underestimated the Patriots. The governor responds gravely that they have experienced more than defeat; they have been vanquished by an idea: a belief in human rights.
At the militia camp, Cilla finds Tremain lying on a hay bale, and, thinking he is gravely wounded, rushes to his side. He looks up in surprise and reassures her that he’s just tired after chasing redcoats all day. He tries to give her a kiss, but they are interrupted by Silsbee asking for help putting a log on the fire. Cilla then says that she’s glad it’s all over, but Mr. Otis says that it’s not over, it’s all just beginning. The camera pans out to show all of the militia camps surrounding Boston, with all of the Patriots at the ready to give their lives for liberty.