Sunday, June 10, 2018

Stephen Brumwell's "Turncoat"

Stephen Brumwell is a writer and independent historian specializing in British-American military affairs of the eighteenth century. He received the George Washington Book Prize 2013 for his book, George Washington: Gentleman Warrior. He lives in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Here Brumwell dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty:
In September 1780, the young United States of America came perilously close to losing its bitter war for independence from Great Britain. A plan to betray the Hudson River fortress of West Point into British hands, and with it, the Patriot’s revered leader, General George Washington, was only foiled at the eleventh hour by a truly extraordinary chain of events.

Most shocking of all, the plot was masterminded by one of Washington’s most trusted commanders, Major-General Benedict Arnold. When his treason was revealed on the very brink of activation, Arnold escaped to the British in New York - but only by the skin of his teeth.

This dramatic denouement marked the culmination of secret negotiations going back seventeen months. Despite the best efforts of Washington’s spies, Arnold, who’d been crippled fighting for American liberty, was never suspected of treachery. After his scheming was finally uncovered, Arnold’s horrified contemporaries blamed his greed. Since then, historians have argued that hunger for cash was bolstered by other gripes, particularly a conviction that he’d been ill-used by an ungrateful Congress.

But as I discovered while researching Turncoat, the reality was, if possible, even more remarkable. Above all, Arnold was driven by an unswerving self-belief, and an obsessive concern for his personal reputation. That posed an intriguing question: why would a man who cared so much about honor commit an act of betrayal that would be deemed utterly dishonorable? Answering that puzzle became central to my book. Scouring archives in the US and UK, I unearthed evidence that led to a startling conclusion: Arnold acted from what he sincerely believed to be the very best of reasons – to save his misguided countrymen from a corrupt and ineffective government, and from a long, bloody and stalemated civil war. But of course, his plot backfired, Britain lost America, and Arnold remains reviled as his country’s worst traitor.

The extraordinary facts of Arnold’s life and treason, as reconstructed in Turncoat, need no exaggeration on screen. A tight narrative and a varied cast of characters already provide rich raw material for a compelling movie adaption. In his blog, the experienced and versatile actor Andrew Sellon, who narrated the audiobook of Turncoat, observes that it ‘reads like a top-drawer Hollywood screenplay; it’s a true cinematic nail-biter.’

With its dramatis personae of colorful historical figures, Turncoat offers many challenging roles. Besides Arnold and Washington, there’s the defector’s doomed collaborator, the gallant young British officer Major John André. Washington’s resourceful aide (and man of the moment) Colonel Alexander Hamilton is another key player, while Arnold’s young bride, the beautiful Peggy Shippen (who was heavily involved in the conspiracy), adds a strong female character.

But who should play the enigmatic Arnold, the brave, handsome, headstrong, charismatic but conflicted veteran, constantly simmering with resentment against his detractors? The role could provide an Oscar-worthy opportunity for many actors, but one comes to mind: fans of The Revenant, Peaky Blinders and Legend will appreciate Tom Hardy’s ability to deliver powerful and convincing performances. He’d make a perfect Arnold.

Arnold’s treason would be a gift to any director, but I’d love to see the Australian-born Bruce Beresford take this on. His acclaimed Boer War drama Breaker Morant (1980) was beautifully paced, with a wonderfully convincing sense of time and place. A decade later, the same unflinching authenticity characterised Black Robe, about the Jesuit missionaries among the warring First Nations of New France. More recently, his TV mini-series Bonnie and Clyde (2013), was no less atmospheric. I’ve no doubt that Mr Beresford would transform Turncoat into a memorable movie. And if he needs a historical consultant, I might just be available….
Visit Stephen Brumwell's website.

--Marshal Zeringue