There’s something sneaky about Sons of Liberty, a six-hour, three-night miniseries that premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on History channel.
This rollicking thrill ride of filmmaking is an 18th-century period piece that’s filled with intense and bloody battles, intriguing political wheelings and dealings, daring spy craft and a tragic love story.
But while being thoroughly entertained by the drama and action, viewers will find that Sons of Liberty, which recounts the run-up to the American Revolution, is also educational and enlightening.
It’s a reminder that history lessons, well told, can keep you on the edge of your seat.
It will be a revelation to some that there’s more to Paul Revere than just his famous “the British are coming” Midnight Ride — and more to Sam Adams than just a face on a bottle of beer.
“By the way,” says Michael Raymond-James, the actor who plays Revere, “it’s Paul Revere’s face, oddly enough, on the label of Samuel Adams beer.”
Which aptly sums up our limited familiarity today with America’s early statesmen, doesn’t it?
“I think people today have a general knowledge of a lot of the bullet points of the American Revolution,” says Raymond-James, a former True Blood cast member. “But the connective tissue and how these events fit together has sort of faded with the passage of time.
“I know it was that way for me before I did this. What we tried to accomplish in this miniseries is reintroduce some of the events, capture the spirit of that era and fill in the gaps. We tried to convey the dangers and the passion of this time. I think the result is a wild ride.”
Even though it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal the ending — America wins! — there’s a “what happens next?” tension throughout.
The cast includes Ben Barnes (star of Seventh Son, in theaters Feb. 6) as Sam Adams, a natural leader with bad-boy knack for mischief; Ryan Eggold (The Blacklist) as Dr. Joseph Warren, who was among the fallen at Bunker Hill; Rafe Spall (Prometheus) as John Hancock, the wealthiest man in Boston at that time; Henry Thomas (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) as John Adams, dedicated public defender and level-headed adviser to Sam Adams; and Dean Norris (Under the Dome) as a bawdy but brilliant Ben Franklin.
It’s very deliberate casting that these figures from history are portrayed by young men.
“These guys were rogues and revolutionaries,” says Raymond-James, whose Revere was deeply involved in intelligence-gathering in and around Boston. “These guys weren’t just intellectuals in fancy clothes and powdered wigs discussing high-minded ideas.
“They were also men of action who put their lives on the line. That’s the story I wanted to be part of telling.”
However, this uniquely American story was filmed in the country of Romania.
“That was necessary because obviously it’s very difficult to film in modern-day Boston and try to make it look like 1770s Boston, because nothing looks the same,” Barnes says. “You need a bit of a blank canvas and Romania gave us that.
“When I arrived, the Boston Square set was little more than wooden scaffolding, and I thought, ‘This is never going to be ready in six weeks.’ First we shot the war scenes on location. We actually shot on the fields where Vlad the Impaler famously impaled his victims. Then back to the studio.
“And by the time we returned to the studio, we had these amazing 360-degree sets recreating old Boston. You could walk down alleyways and you could walk into a stable with horses in it or turn around and actually see a ship floating in water. These great set builders had really pulled it off.”
And there’s nothing more magical for an actor, Raymond-James says, than immersing yourself in the clothes, the customs and the architecture of the past.
“It’s really a blast to do a period piece,” he says. “Putting on the clothes, the 14 layers of 18th-century wool and leather that they had to wear, really has an effect on you as an actor. You put all that stuff on and something mysterious happens: You really sort of feel like you step into that world.”
Sons of Liberty
▪ 8 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday