I have spoken in the past about how it is a shame that there are so few books and films set during the Revolutionary War. As a lover of this time period, I am always on the lookout for new ones. So when I heard about Beyond the Mask, a swashbuckling Revolutionary War era film released in 2015, I was curious to see it. And, oh boy, I was not prepared for what was in store!
Wikipedia describes Beyond the Mask as a ‘Christian historical action-adventure’, and it follows the life of a former assassin, William Reynolds (Andrew Cheney), who wants to redeem himself and start a new life. Through a series of overly complicated mishaps which I won’t bother to explain, he finds himself in the American colonies, helping the Americans fight for independence from Great Britain while dressed as a masked vigilante called ‘The Highwayman’. Who gives Reynolds this moniker? Why, no other than Benjamin Franklin himself! There is a pretty hilarious scene where Ben Franklin, who runs the local printing press, is trying to figure out what to call this new, mysterious vigilante running around Philadelphia and says: ‘We’ll call him what he is! A highwayman.’ This makes no sense. Reynolds is not in any way a highwayman (a robber who stole from travelers, usually on country roads). But this is just one confusing detail in a film which is full of confusing details, bonkers plot twists, and tons of explosions.
But, I will tell you this right now: I really enjoyed watching Beyond the Mask. It is like a zany medley of several other, better films (mostly Zorro, but there’s a bit of V for Vendetta in there and the score sounds like a crappier version of Pirates of the Caribbean). Sure, it is wildly historically inaccurate. Sure, it moves along at a break-neck pace and I was often confused about what was going on. Sure, the characters were completely empty and devoid of ANY personality (why do the main two people fall in love?? What do they like about each other?). And sure, the theology in it never makes a ton of sense or seems to really matter for the plot. BUT it was super silly and super fun. Especially John Rhys-Davies, who plays the one-dimensional villain character whose evil scheme is (spoiler alert) to blow up the Continental Congress using an electrical generator that he stole from Ben Franklin and has hidden in an underground submarine hideout! This stuff is gold.
I expected this to be more of a wannabe Les Miserables, a story which has an overtly Christian moral about redemption. In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean, a criminal, is given a second chance of life when a priest shows him kindness and the whole book (and film and musical) is about the redemptive power of kindness and love. I think that might have been what director Chad Burns was going for here (a story about how love transforms a man from a murderous assassin to a guy who just beats people up sometimes), but all of that is lost in the sheer weirdness of the drama and the many wannabe Jackie Chan fist-fight sequences.
I’m not even going to touch on the historical accuracy of this film, but I will mention that, just like The Patriot (which I discussed here), it seems to think that only rebels were tormented and harassed by loyalist citizens and British soldiers, whereas in reality often it was those who remained loyal to the King who faced violence. But that is the least of the movie’s issues and if you’re going into it looking for any sort of historical accuracy, or even attempts at historical accuracy, then you’re looking in the wrong place, my friend.
Still, there are a couple of things that work well in the film (besides Rhys-Davies). The costumes are largely period-appropriate and look pretty good! Also I was impressed with the sets. They are obviously working with a limited budget and the 18th century Philadelphia set was particularly impressive.
So would I recommend this deeply silly movie? If you enjoy this sort of thing, then 100%! I watched it with two pals who enjoy films like this as much as me and we had a blast, giggling at all the absurdities and frequently pausing the film to ask: ‘WHAT JUST HAPPENED?’
If you are looking for an ambitious or thought-provoking or well-researched film about this period, then I would direct you to something like The Witch, or perhaps the John Adams Miniseries. But if you’re looking for a film where the main character exclaims things like ‘I live in a web of lies!!’ and leaps around in the darkness like Batman, then you’re going to enjoy Beyond the Mask. I know that I did.
Beyond the Mask directed by Chad Burns (so long as you know what you’re in for!)
Film Review: Beyond the Mask in Variety
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!