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'Benedict Arnold' is no common turncoat

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 13, 2003


Here's a funny question: What do you know about Benedict Arnold?

If you're like most Americans, you probably know he was a traitor during the Revolutionary War (in a typical modern-day reference, a New York Post headline about Vermont Republican-turned-independent Sen. Jim Jeffords proclaimed him "Benedict Jeffords" when he left the GOP).

If you're particularly studied, you might know Arnold's crime: making a deal with the British to deliver the general who would become our first president, George Washington.

But there's likely a lot you don't know. For example, he was a war hero before his disgrace, the victor in several key battles and the recipient of praise from Washington.

What's more, he had some good reasons for considering an alliance with the British, feeling underappreciated by a Continental Congress that delayed promoting him, put off granting his seniority, credited other officers for his success and scrutinized his actions.

As you might expect from a network dedicated to slightly higher-brow fare, A&E tonight delves into the political and human agendas surrounding the Revolutionary War with a surprisingly well-made movie that attempts to expand the public perception of Arnold.

Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor, starring Aidan Quinn (Legends of the Fall) as Arnold and Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) as George Washington, is a visceral, myth-bursting view of Revolutionary War history that seems imported largely from Mel Gibson's film adventure The Patriot.

"It is true that as a personality, Benedict Arnold was reckless and impulsive. He thought he deserved better promotion and made these issues almost a personal vendetta . . . a trail of trouble that followed him around," said Robert Brent Toplin, a history professor who wrote Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood.

"At the same time, (Arnold) was an extraordinarily talented guy . . . very bold in his military leadership and sometimes very effective in working against terrific odds," said Toplin, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. "In many ways, he's a good subject for TV drama."

Like many historical dramas, Benedict Arnold sometimes sacrifices facts for dramatic impact and emotional accuracy. Arnold did have Washington's support, but there's little evidence they were the buddies Grammer and Quinn portray in A&E's film.

Arnold's decision to turn on the Colonial rebels didn't come down to a climactic decision in 1780 over whether to betray Washington, as shown onscreen; Arnold had been selling information on troop movements and strength to the British for a year.

And even though Arnold's leg was injured twice in battle, as A&E's movie reveals, the second time was from a horse falling on his limb, not the dramatic musket ball wound shown tonight.

In one scene, Quinn's Arnold, lying on a surgeon's table with the musket ball in his leg, hands a pistol to a subordinate and tells him to shoot the physician if he amputates the limb. Philip Levy, an assistant professor of history at the University of South Florida, chuckled when told of the scene.

"They got that from a John Wayne movie . . . The Horse Soldiers," he said. Still, he noted that the amputation scene, showing a doctor tossing another soldier's leg into a bin filled with severed limbs, reflects the reality of that time.

"There are actually photographs of those piles (from the Civil War). You're firing a slow-moving .69-caliber lead ball. It doesn't go through you; it tears you apart," Levy said. "Most movies . . . if they showed what the battles were really like, people wouldn't go to the movie. They're chaotic meat grinders. It's a ghastly experience."

In Levy's view, most movies about America's war for independence err in trying to make the conflict too simple: virtuous American patriots desiring freedom vs. evil British monarchists (a particular peeve of his is the way Gibson's Patriot glosses over such complexities as the role of black slaves in the war and that large numbers of Colonials sided with the British).

Levy divides America's Colonials into thirds when it came to the Revolutionary War: one-third supported fighting England, one-third opposed and one-third didn't care.

He fears that A&E's film ignores an important factor that may have motivated Arnold's turn: the patriots' decision to accept help from the French, whom he had fought 20 years earlier in the Seven Years' War.

"His argument would have been, 'We're fighting against what we see as a tyrannical (British) oppression, but we're going to do that with aid from a Catholic monarchy?' " Levy said. "(But) when you're a small nation fighting a superpower, the way you win is by getting the other superpower on your side. It all becomes a question of principle, and you realize how complex the American Revolution is."

To its credit, A&E's Benedict Arnold communicates some of times' complexity, showing Washington fretting over desertions in the patriot army as Arnold struggled to cope with personal debts and an inability to play the political games that might have secured his position.

Some simplification is done: Arnold's enemies in the army are too often shown as scheming politicians, and many of the Loyalists who supported Britain are cast as slaves to the moneyed status quo.

But Grammer's Washington is more complex, emerging as a determined soldier who served without pay but wasn't above cheating a little on his wife. Arnold, an impetuous man of action who constantly challenges rivals to duels, is shown using military resources to further his business interests.

"The thing that appealed to me in the script is that it attempted to humanize George Washington, the figure of George," said Grammer in A&E's press materials on the movie. "George Washington was capable, I believe, of separating his own ego from his own mission. And I think that's maybe what Benedict Arnold wasn't able to do."

Indeed, the greatest success of A&E's movie -- besides the Patriot-style, bloodily explicit renditions of 18th century warfare -- is in showing that significant numbers of Colonials did support the British, including a Philadelphia woman who would become Arnold's wife, Peggy Shippen.

Irish actor Flora Montgomery plays Peggy, the slightly spoiled daughter of a rich, respected Loyalist family who catches Arnold's eye and eventually persuades him to turn on his staunch defender in the army, Gen. Washington.

(Still, one can't help wondering whether the pivotal scene that cements Arnold's conversion, a decision by the Continental Congress not to send reinforcements when a patriot mob attacks his home over his marriage to Peggy, actually happened.)

"The Revolution creates a world where virtue is punished and vice rewarded," Montgomery's Peggy shouts at Arnold during an emotional confrontation of the sort actors love but real people rarely indulge in. "Why do you still cleave to these charlatans who use and despise you?'

Quinn's Arnold, convinced that handing Washington to the British will bring the glory and power that has eluded him, meets with a British soldier who once courted Peggy to plan the betrayal. But that soldier is captured by Continental soldiers who find papers in Arnold's handwriting that prove the depth of his treachery.

Arnold, in the film and in reality, escaped to Britain and lived out his life under a shadow, his name forever linked to the country's worst betrayal.

In the end, the stuff that makes Benedict Arnold powerful probably leads to its greatest departures from historical truth: casting Arnold's traitorous acts as a betrayal not just of the emerging country but of a deep friendship with Washington and a longtime personal partnership.

"Often in these historical dramas, we don't know everything, and dramatists can fill in the blanks," said Toplin, noting that filmmakers often invent scenes that communicate emotional truths while taking liberties with fact.

The author suggests that viewers come to historical movies such as Benedict Arnold and The Patriot with the knowledge that filmmakers will take liberties and that few entertaining movies about past events can provide a textbook's accuracy.

Instead, he said, fans should expect movies that don't perpetuate huge inaccuracies, with the understanding that dramatic needs will often trump the niggling details.

"The larger question is: Can you get any sense of history from these films, or should you be screaming over their artistic license?" he said. "Did it address issues that are important to historians? Do we see some subtleties, some complexity, and are we inspired to read more and learn more? If so, that's a great achievement."

AT A GLANCE: Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor airs tonight at 8 on A&E. Grade: A.

- To reach Eric Deggans call (727) 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com .

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