Getty Images
Getty Images

Invade Canada! A Brief History of the War of 1812

Getty Images
Getty Images

Two centuries ago, the U.S. declared war on Britain, and invaded its closest colony. Why was the War of 1812 fought, and who really won?

War of 1812 Re-enactors/

Who started the war?

The United States was the first to declare war, though after repeated British provocations. At the time, the Napoleonic wars were raging across Europe, and the Royal Navy had taken to seizing American sailors at sea and press-ganging them into their undermanned fleet. Already infuriated by British attempts to prevent the U.S. from trading with France, President James Madison and the so-called War Hawks in Congress urged the country to go to war and defend its recently won independence. But the June 1812 vote to go to war only narrowly passed the House and the Senate, and critics condemned "Mr. Madison's War" as a foolhardy adventure, motivated less by crimes at sea than by a lust for land. Indeed, the American offensive began with a land invasion of Canada.

Why invade Canada?

It was the closest British colony, but Madison also had political reasons for targeting America's northern neighbor.

His Democratic-Republican Party drew much of its support from the rural South and what was then the American West — the territory stretching up the Mississippi basin to the Great Lakes. Frontier inhabitants were eager to strike at the British in Canada because they suspected them of arming Native American tribes that were standing in the way of America's westward expansion. Many Americans also believed that the invasion would be a cakewalk, and that ordinary Canadians were keen to shake off their British overlords. The "acquisition of Canada," predicted former President Thomas Jefferson, "will be a mere matter of marching."

How did the invasion go?

Terribly. At the outbreak of hostilities, the U.S. Army was a poorly equipped force of fewer than 7,000 men, many of them "complete amateurs with virtually no training or discipline," said historian Alan Taylor. It didn't help that the initial offensive was led by the aging Gen. William Hull, later damned by a subordinate as an "imbesile" [sic]. After an abortive foray across the Detroit River into Canada, Hull fell for a bogus report that a vast Indian war party was heading his way and surrendered his 2,500 troops to a much smaller force. With the war only a few months old, the entire Michigan territory had fallen into British hands.

Did the U.S. have any victories?

Yes — strangely enough, at sea. In 1812 and 1813, the tiny U.S. Navy bested the supposedly invincible British fleet in a series of duels on the Great Lakes and in the Atlantic. "It is a cruel mortification to be beat by these secondhand Englishmen upon our own element," a British minister declared. But in 1814, Britain decided to teach the upstarts a lesson, and launched a counteroffensive along the mid-Atlantic coast, overwhelming small American gunboats. Some 4,000 Royal Marines marched into Washington, which American officials had abandoned so hastily that an uneaten banquet for 40 was left laid out in the White House. The Marines downed the food and wine before torching the White House and the Capitol building — vengeance for the earlier American ransacking of York (now Toronto). But the British offensive stalled outside Baltimore, where a small American garrison at Fort McHenry withstood a 25-hour naval bombardment — a sight that inspired a young lawyer, Francis Scott Key, to scribble out the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the back of a letter.

How did the war end?

It was essentially a stalemate. By late 1814, the U.S. government was almost bankrupt because of the expense of the conflict, while Britain wanted to end what it regarded as a sideshow to the larger war against Napoleon. So on Christmas Eve, 1814, the two sides signed a peace treaty in Ghent (now in Belgium) that restored the prewar borders of the U.S. and Canada, without even mentioning the maritime issues that had started the conflict. But news of the peace deal didn't reach the 5,000 British troops gathered outside New Orleans in time. They attacked the city on Jan. 8, 1815, but were easily repulsed by some 4,000 defenders led by Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson. By the end of the day, the British had lost 291 men, the Americans only 13. The military triumph restored U.S. pride, and Jackson was hailed as a national hero.

What was the war's legacy?

Everyone declared victory. Canadians could celebrate that they had repelled an invasion, an achievement that united them in a new sense of nationhood. "We were refugees, American loyalists, British soldiers, First Nations, a mixed bag of people who realized they had a common land to defend," said Thom Sokoloski, a Canadian artist who organized a recent 1812 art exhibit in Toronto. For America, meanwhile, the late victory at the Battle of New Orleans was a major morale booster. "The war had become a glorious re-declaration of independence," said historian James Lundberg. "Its missteps were forgotten, and a new generation of national heroes was born — Andrew Jackson first among them." The only real losers were Native Americans. Ravaged by the conflict and abandoned by their British allies, the tribes along the frontier would soon be outnumbered and pushed aside by a wave of American settlers.

The Americans are coming!

The War of 1812 produced its own Paul Revere, except this folk hero was a woman who served the British. On the evening of June 21, 1813, Laura Secord overheard American officers billeted at her home, in Queenston, Ontario, plotting a raid on a nearby British outpost. The 37-year-old mother of five hiked for 18 hours through mosquito-infested swamps and forests to reach the redcoats' camp. Armed with her information, the British and their Indian allies were able to ambush the American force, capturing 462 soldiers. Secord received no recognition or compensation for her part in the victory until 1860, when the Prince of Wales stopped in Queenston to pay tribute to the veterans of 1812. Told of Secord's heroism, he awarded the then 85-year-old 100 pounds as thanks for her bravery.

Every so often, we'll reprint something from our sister publication, The Week. This is one of those times.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Warner Bros.
19 Shadowy Facts About Tim Burton's Batman
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Superhero movies are bigger than they’ve ever been before, but we arguably wouldn’t be here at all without 1989’s Batman. Produced at a time before comic book movies were considered big business, Tim Burton’s dark look at a superhero then best known for a goofy TV show is a pop culture landmark, and the story of how it was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. So, to celebrate Batman—which was released on this day in 1989—here are 19 facts about how it came to the screen.

1. AN EARLY MOVIE IDEA RELIED ON THE CAMPINESS OF THE CHARACTER.

As development of a Batman movie began, studio executives were still very tied to the campiness embodied by the Batman television series of the 1960s. According to executive producer Michael Uslan, when he first began attempting to get the rights to make a film, he was told that the only studio who’d expressed interest was CBS, and only if they could do a Batman In Outer Space film.

2. IT TOOK 10 YEARS TO MAKE.

Uslan lobbied hard for the rights to Batman, and finally landed them in 1979. At that point, the fight to convince a studio to make the film ensued, and everyone from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures turned it down. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to back the film, the issue of developing the right script had to be settled, and that took even more time. In 1989, after years of battling, Batman was finally released, and Uslan has been involved in some form in every Batman film since.

3. AN EARLY SCRIPT FEATURED BOTH THE PENGUIN AND ROBIN.

When Uslan finally got the chance to develop the film, he drafted legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a consultant on Superman, to write the script. The Mankiewicz script included The Joker, corrupt politician Rupert Thorne, a much greater focus on Bruce Wayne’s origin story, The Penguin, and the arrival of Robin late in the film. The script was ultimately scrapped, but you can see certain elements of it in Batman Returns.

4. TIM BURTON WASN’T THE FIRST POTENTIAL DIRECTOR.

Though Warner Bros. ultimately chose Tim Burton to helm Batman, over the course of the film’s development a number of other choices emerged. At various points on the road to Batman, everyone from Gremlins director Joe Dante to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was in line for the gig.

5. MANY STARS OF THE TIME WERE CONSIDERED FOR BATMAN.

The casting process for Batman was a long one, and involved a number of major stars of the day. Among the contenders for the title role were Mel Gibson, Bill Murray (yes, really), Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Pierce Brosnan, who later regretted turning down the role.

6. TIM BURTON HAD TO FIGHT TO CAST MICHAEL KEATON.

At the time, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Night Shift, so the thought of casting him as a vigilante of the night seemed odd to many. Michael Uslan remembers thinking a prank was being played on him when he heard Keaton’s name pop up. Burton, who’d already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, was convinced that Keaton was right for the role, not just because he could portray the obsessive nature of the character, but because he also felt that Keaton was the kind of actor who would need to dress up as a bat in order to scare criminals, while a typical action star would just garner “unintentional laughs” in the suit. Burton ultimately won the argument, and Keaton got an iconic role for two films.

7. JACK NICHOLSON WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE JOKER, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY CHOICE.

From the beginning, Uslan concluded that Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play The Joker, and was “walking on air” when the production finally cast him. He certainly wasn’t the only actor considered, though. Among Burton’s considerations were Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Brad Dourif, David Bowie, and Robin Williams (who really wanted the part).

8. TIM BURTON WON JACK NICHOLSON OVER WITH HORSEBACK RIDING.

When Nicholson was asked to discuss playing The Joker, he invited Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen for some horseback riding. When Burton learned that was what they’d be doing, he told Guber “I don’t ride,” to which Guber replied “You do today!” So, a “terrified” Burton got on a horse and rode alongside Nicholson, and the star ultimately agreed to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

9. EDDIE MURPHY WAS ONCE CONSIDERED TO PLAY ROBIN.

Though the character of Robin was ultimately scrapped because it simply didn’t feel like there was room for him in the film, he did appear in early drafts of the script, and at one point producers considered casting Eddie Murphy—who, you must remember, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s—for the role. 

10. SEAN YOUNG WAS THE ORIGINAL VICKI VALE.

Burton initially cast Blade Runner star Sean Young as acclaimed photographer Vicki Vale, who would become Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Young was part of the pre-production process on Batman for several weeks until, while practicing horseback riding for a scene that was ultimately cut, she fell from her horse and was seriously injured. With just a week to go until shooting, producers had to act fast to find a replacement, and decided on Kim Basinger, who essentially joined the production overnight.

11. TIM BURTON WASN’T OFFICIALLY HIRED UNTIL BEETLEJUICE BECAME A HIT.

Though he was basically already a part of the production, Burton wasn’t officially the director of Batman right away. Warner Bros. showed interest in him working on the film after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but according to Burton they only officially hired him after the first weekend grosses for Beetlejuice came in.

“They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did,” Burton said. “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

12. DANNY ELFMAN THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO BE FIRED UNTIL HE PLAYED THE MAIN THEME.

Danny Elfman is now considered one of our great movie composers, but at the time Batman was released he didn’t have any blockbuster credits to his name. He recalls meeting with Burton (with whom he had worked on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) and producer Jon Peters to go over some of the music he’d already written for the film, and feeling “a lot of skepticism” over whether he should be the composer for Batman. It wasn’t until Burton said “Play the march,” and Elfman went into what would become the opening credits theme for the film, that he won Peters over.

“Jon jumped out of his chair, really just almost started dancing around the room,” Elfman said.

13. THE JOKER WASN’T ALWAYS GOING TO KILL BATMAN’S PARENTS.

In the final film, The Joker (then named Jack Napier) is revealed to be the gangster who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in the streets of Gotham City. It’s a twist that some comic book fans still dislike, and according to screenwriter Sam Hamm, it definitely wasn’t his fault.

“That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

Hamm also emphasizes that it was also not his idea to show Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave.

14. THE CLIMACTIC SCENE WAS WRITTEN MIDWAY THROUGH SHOOTING.

Though much of the film is still derived from Hamm’s script, rewrites continued to happen during shooting, and one of them involved the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker in a Gotham City clock tower. According to co-star Robert Wuhl, the climax was inspired by Jack Nicholson and Jon Peters, who went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera midway through filming and watched as the Phantom made his final stand in a tower. Together, they somehow determined that a final fight in the tower was what Batman needed.

“The next day, they started writing that scene … the whole ending in the tower,” Wuhl said.

15. MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN MOVEMENTS WERE INSPIRED BY THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE COSTUME.

Batman fans still love to make jokes about the original costume, and Michael Keaton’s inability to turn his head (there’s even a dig at that in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but the restrictions of the costume actually inspired how Keaton performed as the Dark Knight. In 2014, Keaton revealed that his performance as Batman was heavily influenced by a moment when, while trying to actually turn his head in the suit, he ended up ripping it.

“It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing was stuck to my face and somebody says something to Batman and I go like this [turning his head] and the whole thing goes, [rriipp]! There was a big f***ing hole over here,” he said. “So I go, well, I've got to get around that, because we've got to shoot this son of a bitch, so I go, 'You know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”

“I'm feeling really scared, and then it hit me—I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect! This is perfect.' I mean, this is, like, designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that's really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed. This is it.”

16. GOTHAM CITY WAS REAL, AND IT WAS EXPENSIVE.

Production designer Anton Furst put a lot of work into the incredibly influential designs for the film’s version of Gotham City, and the production was committed to making them pay off. The production ultimately spent more than $5 million to transform the backlot of London’s Pinewood Studios into Gotham City, and you can see the dedication to practical effects work in the final film.

17. PRINCE WAS PART OF THE PRODUCTION EVEN BEFORE HE JOINED IT.

Batman famously features original songs by Prince, who wrote so much new material for the production that he basically produced a full album. Even before the Purple One was drafted to write for the film, though, he was influencing it. Burton played Prince songs on set during the parade sequence and the Joker’s rampage through the museum.

18. THE FILM’S MARKETING WAS SO EFFECTIVE THAT IT INSPIRED CRIMES.

By the time Batman was actually on its way to release, it was becoming a phenomenon, and the marketing for the film was inspiring a frenzy among fans. People were buying tickets to other films just to see the first trailer, and selling bootleg copies of the early footage. The poster, featuring the iconic logo, was so popular that, according to Uslan, people were breaking into bus stations just to steal it.

19. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE LANDMARK.

Though studio executives resisted the idea of a “dark” Batman movie for years, the film ultimately set a new standard for box office success. It was the first film to ever hit $100 million in 10 days, the biggest film in Warner Bros.’ history at the time, and the box office’s biggest earner of 1989—and that’s not even counting the massive toy and merchandising sales it generated.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Scott Olson, Getty Images
Underwhelmed Tourists
Scott Olson, Getty Images
Scott Olson, Getty Images

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios