George Washington: The Man Who Wouldn’t Be King

Year: 1992

Length: 90 minutes

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"If you think you know who George Washington was, think again."

He is the most famous of America's founding fathers, the legendary general who led the revolution that changed the world. But before he became that man-the man who sacrificed to the greater good the chance to be America's first monarch--George Washington was, among other things, a grasping, land-hungry young surveyor, a swindler, and a self-conscious, insecure military officer who often blamed others for his own mistakes.

The personal development of George Washington is the focus of George Washington: The Man Who Wouldn't Be King. Sutherland brings to life a uniquely human Washington, a man who transformed himself from a social climber into a patriot willing to give up everything for a higher cause.

As William Martin, the film's writer and narrator, puts it, "We tend to forget what was behind the face...The struggles, the emotions, what makes us all human. As a young man, he put all his failings onstage for the whole world to see. But he changed and grew, and he found someplace within himself the man he wanted to be."*

After hundreds of hours of interviews, six months of research and re-creating battle scenes, Sutherland has created a story that lets us in on an American myth. With "The Man Who Wouldn't Be King," Sutherland shows us that a hero is made and not born.


Broadcast nationally on the PBS history series The American Experience

Awards & Press

Praise for "George Washington"

"Gives us a facinating portrait of a man more remarkable than we could have imagined from grammar school history lessons. There is no doubt that in myth, Washington echoes through time. At the end of this portrait, he resounds."


"Independent filmmaker David Sutherland goes beyond the stiff textbook portrait to fill in the details of a complex man. Using dramatic re-enactments of battle scenes and beautiful footage of eastern landscapes, Sutherland's unconventional documentary portrays Washington as a man who started his career as a social climbing, land-hungry opportunist. With THE MAN WHO WOULDN'T BE KING, Sutherland goes a long way toward making Washington real."


"A mezmerizing psychological study of Washington from his youth through a disastrous early military career to the end of the American Revolution and the moment he seized his place in history by eschewing power and rejecting complete control over a nation desperate to give birth to itself."

-Jeff Silverman, DAILY VARIETY


Winner of the Gold Plaque Award: Specialty in Directing, Chicago International Film and Video Festival, 1993

CINE Golden Eagle, 1993

Special Merit Award, Houston International Film and Video Festival, 1993

Certificate For Creative Excellence: Biography

U.S. International Film and Video Festival, 1993

Full Length Reviews


"History is often kinder to those who existed before videocams, sound bites and C-Span. When future students, scholars and citizens sit down to assess George Bush, little will be left to the imagination.

It's a more complicated task to take the full measure of a man long departed, in that he exists for all but the most learned as little more than a series of handsome and dramatic oil portraits and anecdotes about, say, chopping down a cherry tree or throwing a dollar across the Potomac.

How strange -- and, in its way, wonderful -- to hear about George Washington that he was "a man on the make" in the latest edition of "The American Experience" called THE MAN WHO WOULDN'T BE KING. The vernacularly contemporary assessment of Washington is certainly not as damning as it sounds, and it is one of many tasty takes in a show that, with no mention of cherry trees, silver dollars or, for that matter, Valley Forge, gives us a fascinating portrait of a man more remarkable than we could have imagined from grammar school history lessons.

After some early years as a surveyor -- which gave him the land lust he would feel his whole life -- he began his military career as a British soldier in the French and Indian War with no more background than a self-taught course that consisted of reading two books on the art of war and of taking fencing lessons.

But he liked battle. As he wrote his brother, "I have heard the bullet's whistle and there is something charming in the sound."

His early military ventures were disasters. Afterward, he cheated his troops out of about 20,000 acres of land they had been promised. But he also began remaking his life: marrying well and wealthy, reading voraciously and entering politics.

His emergence as a leader of the revolution was something of a public-relations coup and his experiences in the war -- more struggles than triumphs -- marked the growth of Washington's confidence, and perhaps, his humanity.

Produced and directed by David Sutherland, "The Man Who Wouldn't Be King" effectively not only uses familiar paintings, prints and etchings of the times, but also gives us rapid camera movements in black and white to signify battles, visits the sites of historical events and takes us inside the room where Washington, using every ounce of his inherent showmanship, talked his generals out of taking arms against Congress.

If Washington had a genius, it was his ability to lead and inspire men. If he had a mission, it was fueled by a combination of complexities and conflicts. There is no doubt that in myth, Wasington echoes through time. At the end of this portrait, he resounds."



"Oh sure, our United States presidents have come and gone, for better or for worse, over the more than two centuries of our existence. But who were the greatest of them all?

No argument about it, if a poll of historians and/or schoolkids was ever taken, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln would surely head all the top 10 lists.

With Lincoln, we have a better opportunity to know the man, at least physically. Matthew Brady and his camera was clicking away by then, so there are lots of photographs and images. And the working press had a field day with Honest Abe during his time. He was a very visible guy.

With Washington, however, getting the true vision of the man is a daunting task. True, we have all those famous portraits and statues, but finding the essence of George is tougher, requires a bit more effort, needs to go beyond the cherry tree mythology.

Filmmaker David Sutherland takes the job on tonight for "The American Experience," Channel 13 at 9 p.m., and he delivers an intriguing documentary that fleshes out GEORGE WASHINGTON: THE MAN WHO WOULDN'T BE KING.

Sutherland is fondly remembered for his photo essays on artists Jack Levine and Paul Cadmus, as well as his remarkable HALFTIME: FIVE YALE MEN AT MIDLIFE.

In this instance, he overcomes the lack of actual photos of living individuals by using portraits and sketches of Washington as a base. Sutherland then goes beyond those flat images by interweaving spoken narration and commentary with films of the actual sites where the great general led the Revolution and changed the world forever.

There, he has staged stylized battle reenactments, shot in black-and-white newsreel fashion, which give us the sense of being there, of witnessing history in the making.

But first, according to this fascinating collage, George was pretty much of a callow youth, a greedy, graspy bounder who was more interested in grabbing land and a commission in the English army then in the creation of our country.

Eventually, we are told by William Martin, who wrote the documentary with Sutherland and serves as the narrator, Washington grew into his greatness, won his battles with himself and the enemy and gave up the tempting opportunity to seize power as America's first king.

The Washington we see is human then, not infallible, and somehow we like him better than the usual textbook portraits of a larger-than-life founding father. In the end, George emerges as a consummate politician, PR man and military leader, who knew the right buttons to push, knew what river to cross.

And by giving up regal power, he ensured his reputation for all ages.

This is solid history brought to vivid life, another superb "American Experience," particularly fitting as we are about to change the guard again in the city named by George -- for THE MAN WHO WOULDN'T BE KING."

-Jerry Krupnick, STAR-LEDGER


"If you think you know who George Washington was, think again. Instead of the man covered with pigeons in the Boston Public Garden, THE MAN WHO WOULDN'T BE KING gives us a sense of the very real human being behind the legend. The story focuses on the adult Washington, from the young surveyor who longed for a title and position in colonial Virginia society through the revolutionary general who declined a kingship and military rule. The tone is more akin to a pre-election biography of a candidate in exposing his strengths and weaknesses. They accomplish this through interviews, pictures and the daring step of creating fake documentary footage as is there were newsreel cameramen around in 1776. The technique is a dangerous one: we wouldn't accept actors pretending to be Washington or one of his contemporaies speaking to an interviewer. Instead, it is used to convey atmosphere, so we get some idea of what colonial soldiers marching off to war look like, or the view of a fort before an attack."

-Daniel M. Kimmel, PATRIOT LEDGER

"The program focuses not only upon Washington's duties as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and President, but also upon his life as a young man. Sutherland contacted dozens of museums, libraries and private collections to gather an extensive collection of paintings, etchings and prints of his subject in his youth, many previously unseen on television. He supplemented these with his newsreel-style footage, which he chose in an attempt to avoid having the dramatic recreations look 'heavy-handed or Monty Pythonesque.'"