During World War I, the making of movies—even seemingly pro-American films—could be a dangerous proposition, given the wartime hysteria so prevalent on the U.S. home front. Case in point:
Robert Goldstein, producer of the 1917 Revolutionary War epic The Spirit of ’76, was arrested under the Espionage Act, charged with making a motion picture that portrayed Britain, now America’s ally, in an unfavorable light. Among other unflattering depictions, the film showed Red Coats bayoneting babies, raping women, and massacring Patriot soldiers.
In building its case against Goldstein—ironically named United States v. “The Spirit of '76”—the government asserted that Goldstein had knowingly made a pro-German propaganda movie with the intent to impugn the nation’s allies, foment disloyalty, and impede the U.S. military’s conscription efforts. Goldstein countered, to no avail, that his main motivation in making the picture had been financial—that he believed a movie dealing with America’s victory in the War of Independence would have broad box-office appeal, given the patriotic mood of the country. The atrocities committed in the film by British soldiers were, he further contended, historically accurate and necessary to the plot.
In the end, a jury would have none of Goldstein’s arguments. On April 15, 1918, he was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison (later commuted to 3 years) and fined 5,000 dollars. Said sentencing judge Benjamin F. Bledsoe at the trial’s conclusion, “Count yourself lucky that you didn’t commit treason in a country lacking America’s right to a trial by jury. You’d already be dead.”
Upon his release, Goldstein moved to Europe and attempted without success to reestablish his film career. After being expelled from Nazi Germany in the mid 1930s, he returned to the United States where, so far as is known, he died in obscurity. Like a great many films of the silent era, The Spirit of ’76 is now considered lost, with no print known to survive.
Anthony Slide’s 1993 book Robert Goldstein and The Spirit of ‘76 remains the standard work on Goldstein’s film, legal woes, and overall bad luck.