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Docudrama about 1799 Fries Rebellion wraps up Lehigh Valley filming

Fries rebellion.jpg
Jay Bradley
A scene is filmed for The Fries Rebellion at the Bethlehem Sun Inn, with John Fries attempting to halt an approaching mob.

LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa., — After months of fundraising, casting and setup, "The Fries Rebellion" — a locally produced docudrama about the 1799 uprising — has wrapped filming.

Penned as "a film about self-discovery and political protest in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley," the movie focuses on the Fries Rebellion, an armed anti-tax revolt that arose from Pennsylvania Dutch farmers in 1799. It lasted about a year during President John Adams' administration and was led by auctioneer and Revolutionary War veteran John Fries (pronounced "Freeze").

Over the eight days of filming this month, actors brought horses, muskets, pitchforks and Colonial attire — as well as a lot of film equipment — to historical locations throughout the greater Lehigh Valley region.

The film explores the places and events of the Fries Rebellion seen through the eyes of a modern schoolgirl and historical flashbacks, both in the buildup to the rebellion and the crackdown by the fledgling federal government.

"Audiences of all ages will be entertained and informed about an insurrection that occurred in 1798-1799, primarily in the German-speaking populations in and surrounding the 'Lehigh Hills' region of then Northampton, eastern Berks, upper Bucks and upper Montgomery counties of Pennsylvania," the historical society says on its website.

The film is being pursued as a part of nationwide celebrations of the United States' 250th anniversary in 2026.

Notable local support

The film was officially announced last year with fundraising events held across the region, tapping local historical venues and groups, as well as local celebrity Carson Kressley, former star of the initial run of "Queer Eye," who cameos in the film.

The Lower Macungie Township Historical Society worked to get the 30-minute, professionally produced and edited film made with production companies In the Wee Hours and ubiFire Video Productions of Allentown. On the premiere of the trailer, the budget for the film was estimated to be about $300,000.

Dan Hartzog Fries Rebellion
Jay Bradley
Director Dan Hertzog (right) looks on as a scene is filmed for "The Fries Rebellion" at Bethlehem's Sun Inn.

"I thought I would never hear from her again when I told her how much it cost to make a movie," ubiFire owner Craig Friebolin said. "And then she said she had to run it by the board and I went 'I will definitely never hear from her again' — and here we are."

Scriptwriter and historical society President Sarajane Williams thanked the many commercial, nonprofit and municipal groups that donated money to make the film happen.

Among those who contributed are a descendant of John Fries and the current owner of Fries' home.

Emmaus' 1803 House, the Bethlehem Sun Inn, and Quakertown's Red Lion Inn are just some of the many historical locations in the film, with municipalities coordinating to close roads and give access to special sets.

"Lower Macungie gave us a grant for doing this project. Lehigh County, Northampton County, did too, so we're really appreciative of that," Williams said.

"It's just a joy to see all of these wonderful, talented people working together coming from all walks of life. A lot of people are friends of mine or people I know in the community and they've just pitched in, and they're overjoyed to do this that's been really the highlight of this."

Before production could begin, Williams said she worked many 14-hour days of rewrites and fundraising to get everything in place.

She praised director Dan Hertzog and the production partners for how accommodating and attentive they were throughout the eight-day filming process, which occurred over the last two weeks. She praised the costume team's work studying the era and the occupations of the cast.

Sarajane Williams Lower Macungie
Jay Bradley
Lower Macungie Township Historical Society president Sarajane Williams addressing the crowd at Rising River Brewing for an early fundraiser. Filmmaker Craig Friebolin stands behind.

"I have not seen so much community support and excitement over a project," said Ruthy Cruz, co-producer and assistant director on the film with ubiFire.

"It has just really enlightened me in the history of the Lehigh Valley and extended Bucks County, Quakertown, areas where these political protests happened. And it's great just to see people's excitement, that we are having reenactment scenes from where these protests took place."

Cruz said it has been a great opportunity for her, even though she is not descended from Pennsylvania Germans, to become closer to the history of the community she grew up in.

The group is still fundraising for post-production, with plans to finish editing in June and premiere the film at end of August.

Casting for the film came primarily from the Lehigh Valley area, with some others coming from New York. About 85 actors took part in the film, according to casting director Beth Clausnitzer, who noted the challenge of finding people who resembled some of the people who led the movement in the late 18th century.

An educational tool

Producers are developing distribution plans, including making the film an educational tool available to school districts in southeastern Pennsylvania. The production team is developing an educational guide to accompany the film.

Educational opportunities began early for the film, too, as Bethlehem Catholic High School and Seventh Generation Charter School students attended film's final day of shooting Tuesday.

Jason Searock, of Telford, who plays John Fries in the film and runs a Facebook blog focused on Pennsylvania German storytelling, said it was great to be a part of it and bring the dialect and story to life in a new form.

Jason Searock John Fries
Jay Bradley
John Fries (Jason Searock) attempts to hold off an oncoming mob during a shoot for The Fries Rebellion Monday

"I'm just very honored that I was given this role," Searock said, noting how amazing it was to be connected with similarly interested people and seeing the appreciation.

"And I hope to use it even as the film goes out. We have another event we're going to do this summer to recreate some of this in the Quakertown area [at the Red Lion Inn]. I hope to be kind of an ambassador to the [history] because it's like, well, I'm John Fries."

Searock said the film and history connect to issues still seen today, like debates over taxes funding foreign wars.