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George Washington in Popular Culture

George Washington has made numerous appearances on film and throughout other forms of popular culture. The way Washington is portrayed depends in part on whether the pop culture vehicle in which he appears is intended to educate or merely to entertain. The primary ways in which Washington has been represented in pop culture are: Washington the myth, Washington the general, Washington the president, and Washington the weird.

The mythical Washington category includes films that often rely on famous Washington stories, such as the cherry tree myth, or use Washington to personify America more broadly. From the Woody Woodpecker short International Woodpecker (1957), to the feature film Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014), the cherry tree myth has made frequent appearances on film. Because Washington is so well-known--even iconic--many filmmakers also feature him as a ghost or a character in a dream sequence or as a symbol of all things American and patriotic.1 One example is the 1946 comedy Monsieur Beaucaire, in which George Washington is inserted in the film simply to show that its main characters have moved to America. Another is the Bugs Bunny short Yankee Doodle Bugs (1954), which portrays Washington as a regular soldier being drafted into the revolutionary army.

By far the most popular depiction of Washington in film and television is as a general. Films like Lafayette (1961), General George Washington (1992), the Schoolhouse Rock song "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" (1976), and the television show Liberty’s Kids, Est. 1776 (2002), depict Washington as stiff and formal, a strong military leader whom his troops greatly admire. The television miniseries George Washington (1984) shares this view, but allows the audience also to know Washington more personally by showing his affectionate relationships with his wife Martha and stepchildren Patsy and Jacky. Other portrayals of Washington as the general depart from this formula and emphasize his authority and politeness. In The Crossing (2000), which focuses exclusively on the crossing of the Delaware River and the ensuing Battle of Trenton, General Washington swears often and makes his troops laugh. He is still a modest and ordinary patriot, contrasted to the aristocratic British, but also unlike the stereotypically formal Virginia gentleman.2

Images of Washington the president are represented primarily in two different forms. Brief mentions of Washington’s presidency include examples such as "The Presidents Song" from the Animaniacs television show or the Schoolhouse Rock song “No More Kings,” (1975). More detailed presentations of Washington’s presidency include films such as The Patriots (1976), George Washington II: The Forging of a Nation (1986), and John Adams (2008). These films focus on similar historical themes: Washington's role as the mediator in partisan conflicts, the debate over his title as president, and the unpopularity of aspects of his administration. For example, both The Patriots and George Washington II feature the president as a great and virtually silent go-between during Hamilton and Jefferson's conflict over the Bank of the United States in 1791. All three films feature confusion over what to call the president. “By the eternal, I am not a king!” Washington shouts to a man who calls him "sire" in The Patriots. Washington appears annoyed when anyone refers to him as "your highness" or "your excellency" in George Washington II, and John Adams portrays its title character suggesting numerous pretentious titles for the president to a stunned Senate.

These three films also present a less mythologized Washington by showing criticism of him and of his administration. George Washington II and John Adams feature angry mobs in the capital while cries of “Down with Washington” can be heard in The Patriots. These interpretations fit within an image of Washington as someone who brought respect to the office of the presidency, while ensuring that the United States did not become a monarchy.3

The final category, Washington the weird, utilizes Washington in bizarre and inexplicable ways, often for the purposes of ironic comedy or horror, contrasting to conventional images of Washington. Washington fights Abraham Lincoln to the death on the television show Celebrity Deathmatch, while Deadliest Warrior pits Washington against Napoleon Bonaparte. In the Masters of Horror episode "The Washingtonians," it is revealed that George Washington was a cannibal and the inspiration for a secret society that still practices this custom. The Sleepy Hollow episode "The Indispensable Man" depicts George Washington resurrecting himself four days after he died and was buried in a booby-trapped tomb full of Freemason symbols.

Washington is also featured in numerous video games that also emphasize exaggeration and absurdity. Games like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure and Day of the Tentacle fall into the category of Washington the myth, however these games focus on the myth of Washington's wooden teeth. Washington the general can be seen in games like Age of Empires III, Assassin’s Creed III, and in Sid Meier’s Civilization games. The Political Machine games feature Washington the president. BioShock Infinite features killer George Washington robots as a means to comment on the cultural deification of the Framers.

George Washington is also featured in two different attractions at the Walt Disney World Resort. The Hall of Presidents attraction at the Magic Kingdom falls into the Washington the president category. He is one of three presidents to speak, the others being Lincoln and whoever is the current commander-in-chief. The American Adventure at Epcot briefly features General Washington at Valley Forge eavesdropping on disgruntled Continental soldiers. As evidenced, in popular culture, Washington appears--with varying degrees of accuracy--as both his historical self and also as a symbol of America and its real or imagined values.

Angela Claude
George Mason University

Notes
1. Edward G. Lengel, Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder, in Myth & Memory (New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2011), 161-2. 

2. Nancy L. Rhoden, "Patriots, Villains, and the Quest for Liberty: How American Film Has Depicted the American Revolution," Canadian Review of American Studies 37 (2007): 212.

3. Stuart Leibiger, “George Washington, The Crossing, and Revolutionary Leadership,” in Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor, eds., Hollywood’s White House: The American Presidency in Film and History (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003), 26.

Bibliography
Francaviglia, Richard & Jerry Rodnitzky, eds. Lights, Camera, History: Portraying the Past in Film. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007, vii-viii.

Leibiger, Stuart. "George Washington, The Crossing, and Revolutionary Leadership." Hollywood’s White House: The American Presidency in Film and History, edited by Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003, 19-29.

Lengel, Edward G. Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder, in Myth & Memory. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2011.

Rhoden, Nancy L., "Patriots, Villains, and the Quest for Liberty: How American Film Has Depicted the American Revolution." Canadian Review of American Studies 37 (2007): 205-38.