The Spirit of ’76 (1917) was a controversial silent film, directed by Frank Montgomery, that depicted both factual and fictional events during the American Revolutionary War. No prints are known to survive, and it is therefore categorized as a lost film.
The film was produced by Robert Goldstein (born September 21, 1883), a California native of German Jewish ancestry, and a costume supplier in Los Angeles. Goldstein outfitted the cast of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), and was reportedly inspired by Griffith’s film to produce a cinematic interpretation of the American Revolution. Griffith initially encouraged and cooperated with Goldstein, but later distanced himself from that project in favor of pursuing his own treatment of the subject, the 1924 film America.
The Spirit of ’76 depicted multiple atrocities committed by the British side during the war, including soldiers bayoneting babies and raping unarmed women, the Wyoming massacre, and the Cherry Valley massacre. It also contained scenes with no known factual basis, such as a physical assault on Benjamin Franklin by King George III, and a sexual liaison between the king and Catherine Montour — possibly based on his supposed (and equally fictitious) relationship with Hannah Lightfoot.
The film premiered in Chicago in May 1917 — just one month after the United States entered World War I on the side of Britain. The head of Chicago’s police censorship board, Metallus Lucullus Cicero Funkhouser, confiscated the film at the behest of the Justice department on grounds that it generated hostility toward Britain. Goldstein trimmed the offending scenes and received federal approval to continue the Chicago run; but the film premiered in Los Angeles a few months later with the deleted scenes restored. After an investigation, the government concluded that Goldstein’s action constituted “aiding and abetting the German enemy”, and seized the film once again.
Goldstein was charged in federal court with violating the Espionage Act. At trial, the U.S. prosecutor argued that as the war effort demanded total Allied support, Goldstein’s film was seditious on its face. Goldstein was convicted on charges of attempted incitement to riot and to cause insubordination, disloyalty, and mutiny by U.S. soldiers then in uniform as well as prospective recruits, and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Implications were made throughout the trial that Goldstein was a German spy, although no evidence was presented in support of that accusation. The judgment was later upheld by an appellate court. Goldstein’s attorneys were unable to argue for protection under the First Amendment because the Supreme Court had ruled in 1915 that movies lacked such protection. (That ruling was overturned in 1952.) His sentence was later commuted to three years by President Wilson.
After his release from jail, Goldstein tried and failed to re-establish himself as a filmmaker in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, and England (which refused him a visa). Eventually he landed in Germany, where he was equally unsuccessful. His biographer, Anthony Slide, could locate no communications from him after 1935, and thought it likely that he perished in a Nazi concentration camp; but after Slide’s book was published a telegram, sent from New York City in 1938, was discovered. In it, Goldstein referred to “my enforced return [to the U.S.], three years ago…” suggesting that the Germans had deported him in 1935. His fate subsequent to 1938 is unknown.