The Howards of Virginia (1940)



Director:  Frank Lloyd

Starring:  Cary Grant (Matt Howard), Martha Scott (Jane Peyton Howard), Cedric Hardwicke (Fleetwood Peyton), Alan Marshal (Roger Peyton), Richard Carlson (Thomas Jefferson), Paul Kelly (Captain Jabez Allen), Irving Bacon (Tom Norton), Elisabeth Risdon (Aunt Clarissa), Anne Revere (Mrs. Betsy Norton), Tom Drake (James Howard at 16) (as Richard Alden), Phil Taylor (Peyton Howard at 18), Rita Quigley (Mary Howard at Age 17), Libby Taylor (Dicey), Richard Gaines (Patrick Henry), George Houston (George Washington).

the run-up to the Revolution in Virginia




Good movie.  The movie covers a great deal of time: from the French and Indian War to American victory in the Revolutionary War.  It's not easy covering such a long and important period of time, so the movie is to be commended.

The action opens in the 27th year of the reign of King George II in Albemarle County, Virginia.  Young Matt Howard's father is having a rough time growing tobacco on his worn-out land.  His brother-in-law offers him an out.  He informs him that General Braddock is planning an expedition to chase the French and Indians out of Ohio Country and that two companies of Virginia troops will be raised.  Even better, they will pay the soldiers not in money but in land, 1,000 virgin acres for each soldier.    

The two older men join the army and set out for Ohio country.  Matt Howard goes to an advanced boarding school, which Colonel Jefferson arranged for him.  In school, Matt's best friend is Thomas Jefferson. 

Matt's world is suddenly turned up-side down when he learns that every man from Albemarle County fighting with Braddock was killed.  Now he will have to stay on the farm and help his family survive. 

Twelve years later, in Williamsburg, the capital of the Virginia Colony, Matt meets Tom Jefferson again.  Matt tells Tom that he is headed out to Ohio Country to be a surveyor.  But Jefferson wants Matt to stay in Virginia and he convinces him that he should start his surveyor career among the wealthy gentlemen of Virginia.  To this end, Jefferson introduces Matt to members of Virginia high society, exaggerating his abilities and background and de-emphasizing his faults.  He explains that Matt is just down on his luck for the moment and is going through hard times. 

Matt's first job is at the Peyton Plantation.  He meets Jane Peyton and is immediately taken with her, as she is with him.  But when she learns that Matt is actually from a poor family, she and her family are mad at both Matt and Jefferson.  This makes Matt mad, but it does not discourage him.  With Jefferson's help, he is able to obtain some land in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.  With some exaggeration of the quality of the purchase, Matt is finally given permission to marry Jane.  You can imagine Jane's shock when she sees that the plantation is backwoods and the plantation house is not much more than a cabin. 

They start a family and raise three children.  They cultivate the land and build a large home for themselves.  Jefferson, now a lawyer, comes out to visit the place and urges Matt to run for the House of Burgesses.  Matt runs for the office and wins but his wife is not happy about it at all.  She wants a private life at home with her family. 

Now the build up to the Revolution begins: protest over the Stamp Act; protest of the Declatory Act that promises to enforce new laws imposed on the colonies;  concern over the landing of British troops at the Port of Boston; the Boston Massacre; setting up Committees of Correspondence to exchange grievances and information among the thirteen colonies; protest against the dissolution of the House of Burgesses; the secret meeting of the Committee of Correspondence; and the Boston Tea Party.

Jane Howard is even more upset when Matt decides to go as a delegate from Virginia to Philadelphia to support the concerns of the colonies against the mother country.  She tells her husband that his great enthusiasm for politics and his many fights with her Tory family betray "the violence and passion I've grown to hate and fear."  She does make a good point that he has shown favoritism to his younger son over the eldest son simply because the latter was born lame. 

The final straw for Jane comes when her husband decides to join the army and becomes Captain Matt Howard.  The disagreement is so strong that marital separation seems a real possibility.  The two part company in a huff.  Matt goes off to war and Jane stays at her family home with her Tory brother, Fleetwood. 

Several key events of the Revolutionary War are dealt with briefly. 

Will Matt be able to save his marriage and his family?  And will Jane ever have any appreciation that these are times that try men's souls and that sacrifice is necessary for the duration of the war?  Will she become more sympathetic to her husband's views or to the Tory views of her brother?      

It was a little difficult to get used to hearing the usually sophisticated Cary Grant using the accent of a backwoodsman from Virginia.  And he emphasizes the enthusiasm of his character about his life and politics that he steps over the line and becomes a little "over-enthusiastic."  Martha Scott is good as his pampered wife who tries to rise to the occasion of living in the backwoods.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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