Sunday, October 7, 2018

Turn: Washington's Spies

George Washington Statue
Boston Common
George Washington said, "The necessity of procuring good intelligence is apparent and need not be further argued."  No serious student of military history would argue the proposition.  Accurate intelligence is critical to the business of waging war.  George Washington did try to create an effective intelligence service on the patriot side to counter the enormous advantages (financial, historical, etc. ) that were enjoyed by the British during the American Revolution.  Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who was Washington's chief of intelligence after 1778, did create a codebook to enable secret correspondence with agents in the Culper ring.

The TV mini-series Turn: Washington's Spies dramatically represents the activities of the Culper ring during the American Revolution.  Turn is, of course. not a documentary but rather a dramatization of historical events.  The Colonial period, while tremendously important, has been sadly neglected by popular culture.  The Founding Fathers are routinely represented in superhuman terms.  The huge success of Hamilton the musical has gone some way towards redressing the imbalance.  Turn shines the light onto the espionage activity which helped to win the war of the 13 colonies against the greatest empire in the world at the time.  The series is based upon a book by Alexander Rose and was developed by Craig Silverstein.

History often gets a bad wrap for being dry and tedious.  This drama amply demonstrates the power of History to entertain.  Over the course of four seasons (40 episodes) there are many twists and turns.  There is romance.  There is plenty of action.  An American family is forced to navigate through the treacherous times of the American Revolution.  We Americans often tend to view the American Revolution through rosy-hued spectacles and miss the conflict's brutality.   In many respects the American Revolution was a Civil War with all of the brutality that this implies.  This is depicted quite well in Turn where the British and those with Tory sympathies are not simply demonized but are given a more balanced portrayal.

Turn is very well done but is should not be confused with documentary film-making.  Many liberties are taken with historic veracity in order the enhance entertainment value.  The character of Robert Rogers, who founded the American Rangers, is portrayed very effectively by the Scottish actor Angus Macfadyen though Rogers was, in fact, of Irish descent.  There is no evidence to suggest that the real Anna Strong ever had an affair with the real Caleb Brewster who was ten years her junior.  And so on.

Another quibble is the inconsistency of the series.  With the execution of Major John AndrĂ© (the British spy is played brilliantly by JJ Feild) at the end of season three much of the air seems to go out of the balloon on the show which limps along until Yorktown.  Ian Kahn is superb as George Washington.  Ksenia Solo adds spice as a gorgeous and luminous Peggy Shippen.  Samuel Roukin plays an over the top psychotic version of John Graves Simcoe which is dramatically effective though not not historically persuasive -- Simcoe was later a founding father of Canada.

As with most espionage dramas, Turn tends to overemphasize the importance of spying in the conflict.  Washington was right that good intelligence is a necessity in war, but it forms only a part of military success that requires willing soldiers, finance, allies, sound strategy etc.  Benedict Arnold's actions at the Battles of Saratoga, for example, did more to win the Revolution for the Patriot side than all the activities of the Culper Ring.

These are, however, minor objections to a program that is stylishly produced, historically overlooked and vastly entertaining.

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1 comment:

Alexander Rose said...

Good review. Thanks for letting me know.