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Film / The Crossing

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"Washington needed a victory, they got a miracle."

The Crossing is a 2000 made-for-TV movie that aired on A&E, depicting the first Battle of Trenton in The American Revolution. It stars Jeff Daniels as George Washington and follows him through December, 1776 as he tries to find a way to save his army and the Revolution from disintegration after a desperate retreat across the Delaware.

There are no British troops immediately in the vicinity, their commander having deemed the Continentals too pathetic to bother with, leaving instead a force of 1200 Hessians—around the numbers that Washington can drum up from the other generals. He decides to cross the Delaware on Christmas night and ambush the Hessians, a plan that everyone thinks is crazy. But with enlistments set to expire at the end of the year, Washington sees no other choice if the Revolution is to continue at all.

Although it takes some liberties with the facts of the battle (see Hollywood History for details) The Crossing takes a distinctly human view of the struggle. The Continental Army is portrayed not as a plucky band of irregulars but a weary, demoralized remnant in dire need of supplies and a boost to morale. Washington, who is known for being mythologized as much as he is for his historical significance, is shown as a human being who is frustrated and at his wits' end trying to keep what's left of his army from disintegrating while his generals, loyal and plotters alike, question his admittedly desperate plan. The result makes it clear how close the Revolution came to dying before it was even a year old, which makes the victory at Trenton even more impressive.


  • An Ass-Kicking Christmas: The river crossing begins on Christmas night, and the battle itself the morning of the 26th. The film goes with the popular legend that the Hessians were too hungover from their celebrations to mount an effective defense and that Washington timed the battle to take advantage of this.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • While Horatio Gates did oppose Washington's plan and claimed illness as an excuse not to participate, he was not marched out of camp at gunpoint as the film depicted.
    • General Mercer claims America suffered no casualties in the Battle of Trenton. This is not quite true, although casualties were remarkably light. In real life, two American soldiers froze to death on the march to Trenton, while another five were wounded during the battle itself. One of them was an 18-year old lieutenant named James Monroe, who would go on become governor of Virginia and the President of the United States.
    • Washington denounces the Hessians as "Mercenaries" and "Men who kill for profit". The Hessians were hired out for profit, but it was their German overlords who got paid, not themselves—they were regular troops not unlike the Redcoats and didn't have much say in being sent out to fight.
    • The prelude to the battle is condensed. Washington actually began attacking the Hessian perimeter a week before the attack, shortly after having a spy of his spread disinformation about how the Continental Army was too demoralized to even consider attacking Trenton. (It helped that it was almost true.) Also, an independent American force had attacked a Hessian outpost during the final march and Rall took that for the attack he had feared, leading him to let down his guard.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: The Hessians' formations are fine when attacking in a planned battle, not so much in an ambush where most of them are still half-asleep.
  • Badass Bookworm: Henry Knox (the namesake of Fort Knox) who is mocked by Glover for being fat and ran a bookshop before the war, is an excellent artilleryman. In fact, he was considered a natural genius in the use of artillery by his British enemies, and has come to be considered one of the greatest artillery officers the world has ever seen.
  • Brutal Honesty: This is Colonel Glover's trademark, along with generally being insulting.
  • Bayonet Ya: Discussed in the strategy sessions. Washington elects to start the battle with a bayonet charge because the cold, wet conditions will inevitably spoil their gunpowder.
  • Camping a Crapper: Non-lethal version. The owner of a foundry comes out of the privy to see Colonel Glover and a large number of soldiers waiting to inform him that they have just commandeered his shipping fleet.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The rifle sealed with candle wax.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Hamilton versus the Hessians in the guardhouse and the rest of the Continentals in the main battle against the Hessians.
  • Crazy Enough to Work: This is essentially Washington's plan. He's throwing the whole of his forces (which are not in any good condition) against a garrison that is made up of the enemy's most feared troops (who are in very good condition). It's certainly true that the British wouldn't expect such a thing, but every single person Washington explains the plan to stops at the "crazy" part.
  • Darkest Hour: In December 1776, the Continental Army under Washington has been enduring defeat and retreat for many months, pushed out of New York and across New Jersey, and the few who haven't deserted are still going to be gone once their enlistments run out at the end of the month. The American Revolution had a lot of very, very low points, but the end titles state that this was the worst of them.
  • Dawn Attack: Washington wants this, but the crossing proceeds so slowly that it's past sunrise by the time his army arrives.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Washington, and several others in his army.
    Mercer: [General Howe] has her in his bed every night, glassy-eyed and fornicating like a fifteen-year-old.
    Washington: [Beat.] Well that's very stimulating, Hugh, but where's the connection?
  • Determinator: "As long as I command a corporal guard, I will march on Trenton."
  • Distracted by the Sexy: General Howe, apparently. According to Mercer, Howe's torrid affair with a married woman is the main reason he hasn't totally crushed the Continental Army.
  • The Dreaded: The Hessians, who killed surrendering troops at Brooklyn. They're particularly dreaded by the Pennsylvania German troops, who call them "devils."
  • A Father to His Men:
    • Very much so. It's actually one reason Washington feels obligated to make one final attempt at a victory, because he feels he owes it to the lads who have not deserted. He also shouts at a group of officers who are huddling inside rather than freezing alongside their troops.
    • Colonel Rall shows some signs of this as well, the Skewed Priorities part below not withstanding. He seems to keep himself alive long enough to ask that his men not be abused in surrender.
  • Fee Fi Faux Pas: When Washington's officers dine with the wealthy couple who have offered their home up for army headquarters, Glover gives a brief speech about how he wears his own clothes and not a uniform, and his hair is his own and not a powdered wig. Their wig-wearing host and his wife look uncomfortable until Washington smooths things over.
  • Foil: The Continental Army and the Hessians are portrayed as this. The Hessians are disciplined, well-drilled, professional soldiers in crisp uniforms. The Continentals are argumentative militiamen who don't even share a single language and many dress in their own clothes. In the climactic battle, however, the Hessians' rigid discipline hampers them because they're too busy preparing their uniforms and martialing into neat battle lines, while the Continentals don't bother with that and attack before the Hessians are prepared to respond.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The Continental Army wins.
  • Four-Star Badass:
    • Washington, front and center.
    • General Hugh Mercer as well.
  • Historical Domain Character: All of named characters in the story are real historical figures. The movie made a deliberate effort to portray Washington not as the deified patriarch of the nation he was turned into after his death, but as an actual human who had good and bad qualities. His temper (as noted by contemporaries) could be short and sharp, he enjoyed a glass of wine, and rather than being glorious and victorious, he knew defeat in 1776 far oftener than victory.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: As with most portrayals of Washington, The Crossing ignores his status as a slaveholder by failing to include his enslaved valet, William Lee, who was with Washington for most of the war.
  • Hollywood History:
    • The common wisdom that the Hessians lost because of German Christmas celebrations. In actuality, it had more to do with the fact that they'd stopped routine precautions (such as distance patrols). Even though they were tipped off that something was going on and thus suspended their revelries, they were unprepared for the magnitude of the assault. Some of the Continental officers consequently did believe that Hessian hangovers contributed to their victory and said so in their letters, which is probably why the myth survives.
    • The confrontation between Gates and Washington didn't happen. In fact Gates was even more weaselly than the film suggests—he contrived to avoid the concentration opposite Trenton entirely, reporting to Congress instead of showing up in Washington's camp.
    • The scene where a squad of Patriots led by Hamilton ambush and slaughter a German guardhouse did not happen. There was a guardhouse, and the garrison of said guardhouse exchanged volleys with the Americans for a while before retreating back into town when they realized there were way too many Americans coming for them to deal with.
    • The weather during the river crossing, the approach on Trenton, and the battle was even worse that the movie indicates, with the Delaware choked with ice and and heavy sleet in the Americans' faces as they attacked. This may have been left out of the movie due to budgetary limitations.
    • In the movie, the Americans suffer no casualties. In the real battle, two men died of hypothermia during the march, while five were wounded in the battle itself. (Which is still an astoundingly low number, but not Everybody Lives.)
  • I'm a Doctor, Not a Placeholder: Mercer says "I'm more physician than general" before entering into a summation of how dire the army's condition is.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: An Irish innkeeper (and Patriot spy) at first refuses to drink from the bottle of Madeira he's just given Washington. Then Washington tells him about the plan. The innkeeper immediately asks if he can have a glass.
  • It's Personal: Washington is absolutely livid at the Hessians for killing his retreating troops in Brooklyn, bayoneting them in the back as they tried to flee or surrender. The regular soldiers feel the same way; during the final battle they are merciless to the Hessians and Washington watches without sympathy.
  • Jerkass: General Gates is portrayed as one here, to the point where Washington ordered him out at gunpoint. (In Real Life, Gates tried twice to replace Washington during the war before disgracing himself through cowardice.)
  • The Lancer: Hugh Mercer to Washington. Not only is he Washington's Number Two, but is explicitly stated to be his closest friend.
  • Language Barrier: The Pennsylvania German troops under Captain Heineman. When he requests that he be able to warn his men that they'll be attacking Hessians, Washington's staff shrugs and allow it because they figure nobody could understand them.
  • Limited Advancement Opportunities: Colonel Glover would be a general if he hadn't offended all of Washington's staff at one point, but he's not too interested in higher rank anyway.
  • Last Words: After he is mortally wounded, Colonel Rall requests to speak to Washington. Washington initially refuses to see him, but is convinced to go by his officers. Washington approaches him and says only, "I am Washington." Colonel Rall requests that Washington treat his defeated Hessian soldiers with honor, and promptly dies. Washington simply turns on his heels and walks out.
  • The Men First: Washington yells at some officers who elect to warm themselves at the fire while their troops are freezing outside.
  • Mildly Military: One point that Gates uses to strike at Washington during his rant; Washington admits that he is right in that and then turns it around on him.
  • Military Maverick: Washington. Given that he's the commander-in-chief, he can get away with it basically on the strength of "because I say so," But not even Mercer, his best friend, thinks the plan will work.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Washington is disgusted by the Hessians, as they are only hired mercenaries fighting for profit; while the British at least have an excuse to not want the Colonials to be free. Gen. Nathaniel Greene gives a little speech on the matter, pointing out that one of their own chief complaints is overtaxation, and that everyone ultimately fights for profit.
  • Not Worth Killing: General Howe, the British commander, withdraws all of his troops except for the 1200 Hessians in Trenton because he's written the Americans off as already defeated. (Historically, Rall's superiors also refused numerous requests to bolster defenses.) Washington is shocked, and also insulted.
  • Oh, Crap!: A small squad of Hessians manage to get into formation to fire on a line of Patriots...then the American line splits and a canon is wheeled into place right in front of them.
  • One Bullet Left: A particularly well done, and extreme, example. A Colonial soldier seals his powder chamber with wax, hoping it will stay dry. This makes him the only soldier in the Continental Army to have a gun that can fire, and he only has one shot. He uses it to mortally wound Col. Rall, ending the battle
  • Poirot Speak: A little bit with Captain Heineman, but mostly with words that are almost cognates anyway—"und" for "and" along with a hard "g" in "general."
  • Psycho for Hire: Washington's opinion of the Hessians. The Pennsylvania Dutch troops in the Continental Army are so terrified of them (having experience with them or their reputations prior to the war) that their captain got special dispensation to warn his lads so that they wouldn't freeze up on learning who they were up against. While the Hessians did earn their reputation for vicious behavior, they were also ill-treated conscripts who didn't have a say in being sent to fight the Continentals. (In fact, the epilogue states that a good chunk of them decided to remain and became American citizens.)
  • Race Against the Clock: Washington has until the 31st of December to win a victory so that his men will have a reason to re-enlist.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The Continental Army of course, but they're more "dirty, hungry, sick and demoralized" than "ragtag" at this point in time.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • Gates gives one to Washington. Washington more or less responds with "go to hell" and takes his troops.
    • Played straight, then averted: Washington starts giving one to Colonel Glover, calling him a pain in the ass and a thorn in his side, then goes on to call him a damned fine soldier and the bravest man he knows, and would he please be so good as to have his men ferry his troops over the river?
  • Skewed Priorities: When informed of the American attack, Colonel Rall very methodically dresses in his uniform rather than immediately taking command. Meanwhile, his men are being cut down in their pajamas.
    • Presumably he didn't know how badly the battle was going.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Washington. A Virginia gentleman and lover of fine wine. Also known for peppering his speech with curses, and saying this during the crossing:
    "Move your fat ass, Henry! Don't shake your balls or you'll swamp the boat."
  • The Spymaster: We see hints of Washington's information network, both in letters and an in-person meeting with a contact.note 
  • War Is Hell: From the opening scene, which shows Washington's broken, dispirited army on the retreat. When the dying Colonel Rall demands to surrender to Washington as a courtesy of war, Washington bitterly snaps that "there are no courtesies in war."
  • We ARE Struggling Together: Both General Lee and General Gates think that they should be in charge, and Washington's staff bicker among themselves quite a lot.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: At the beginning of the movie, Washington orders Glover to commandeer a fleet of boats from a local foundry so that they may escape the British. Needless to say, the foundry owner isn't too happy.
    Owner: "My God, sir, is this your 'Revolution'? Is this your 'liberty and equality'? To destroy a man's business? To rob him of his property?!"
    Glover: "I follow my orders, sir."
    Owner: "Whose orders?"
    Glover: "General Washington."
    Owner: "Then God damn him for the bandit that he is! How am I gonna make a living?! Who's gonna pay me??!!"
  • Where Are They Now: Sort of anyway. The characters are all long dead (of course), but the epilogue reveals their fates. (Hugh Mercer was killed less than two weeks later at the Battle of Princeton.)