Saturday, May 24, 2014

TURNed Off

"There are only a couple of things I have a problem with--the story and the dialogue."
-- Michael Burgess (played by Alan Alda) in Sweet Liberty

Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull--one thing "Turn" did right
What a difference a month makes. The last time I posted here, I was struggling with the prospect of writing a bad review. Now here I am, about to give one.

As a historical fiction writer and a college professor who has slogged through the archives of Long Island's Revolutionary War history for personal and professional reasons, I had the highest hopes for AMC's Turn. For too long, Long Island's history of British Occupation and the covert role that Long Islanders played in helping our young country win the war has been side-stepped by American history textbooks and teachers alike. Turn, I believed, would begin to educate the public about what really happened on Long Island during the American Revolution. Or so I'd hoped.

In the first episode of Turn, Abraham Woodhull is "turned" by childhood friend Benjamin Tallmadge against the loyalist leanings of his family and the greater Setauket community. He secretly pines for Anna Smith Strong, his ex-fiancé, who runs Strong Tavern in her arrested husband's absence (Selah Strong has been incarcerated for accidentally assaulting a British officer during a tavern brawl, leaving Anna to fend for herself), and Woodhull convinces her to pitch in by hanging her black petticoat on her clothesline as a signal when he has intelligence to share. Woodhull then takes an oath of loyalty to the crown in a Setauket public square to solidify his cover before getting down to the business of surreptitiously changing young America's fortune in the War for American Independence.

This all sounds exciting and fantastic. What it lacks is historical accuracy. First of all, Abraham Woodhull was not a Tory. He served on the Committee of Public Safety in Brookhaven Town, he was a lieutenant in the local militia, and he signed an oath of loyalty to support the Continental Congress prior to the occupation. When Tallmadge suggested spying for the cause, Woodhull would have had no problem with the request. In fact, it might even have been Woodhull's idea.

Second, Woodhull was 26 in 1776 and was single for the first five years of the war; he didn't marry Mary Smith until 1781, a time at which the British were beginning to redirect Long Island-based troops to support to their flailing South Carolina campaign. Abraham and Mary never had a son named Thomas, nor did Abraham have a predeceased brother by that name who was held up as a shining example of who Abraham should be in order to please his demanding father Richard.

This romance never happened.
Third, no engagement to Anna Smith Strong ever existed, and no arranged marriage brokered by Woodhull's father and Obadiah Smith ever thwarted his intentions to marry her. Anna (Nancy) Smith married Selah Strong in 1760, when Woodhull was just ten years old, and she birthed her first child in 1761. By age 36 in 1776, she was pregnant with her seventh child, a boy born in December of that year. Despite this large brood, "Annie" is portrayed as childless in Turn; the Strong children have been written out to smooth the way for the imaginary romance. Yes, Selah Strong was arrested and sent to the notorious prison ship Jersey, but for the crime of espionage. Strong didn't even own a tavern in Setauket; he was a farmer. The real Setauket tavern owner in the spy ring was Captain Austin Roe, a patriot who for whatever reason has yet to make an appearance in the series.

In summary, a sizeable chunk of this true story has been completely fabricated.

My problem with Turn stems from this belief: Historical fiction has an obligation at least to try to get the facts right, and especially so when using the names of real historical figures. Consider HBO's excellent John Adams series, based on David McCullough's masterful book. The scriptwriters didn't have John Adams lusting after another woman, nor did they feign his ideology or write in/out family members to match an altered story line. In John Adams, the historical record remains largely in tact. Imagined scenes, such as the conversation John holds with cousin Sam Adams prior to a public tarring-and-feathering, are present solely to develop characters further. There's no need to "sex up" John Adams' story by adding fictional elements. It's "sexy" enough as is.

The same truth holds for Long Island's history. After the American loss at the Battle of Long Island, British soldiers subjected the island's inhabitants to numerous documented abuses. Twenty two thousand British soldiers and Hessian mercenaries were stationed there, matching the adult population in number. Martial law was imposed. Ports were closed, and travel off Long Island became impossible without British permission. Beatings, robberies, rapes, murders and other crimes were committed by the British with impunity. Although the island became a safe haven for Tory refugees, loyalists living there still carried "papers of protection" in case they got into a scrape with the soldiery. One can easily reason that it was a desperate time for residents of colonial Long Island.

Yet these remarkable circumstances somehow failed to create a compelling enough backdrop for Turn. Illicit romance and exaggerated loyalist sympathies are introduced to make Abraham Woodhull not only a spy, but a married man living on the edge, torn between his "true love" and his wife, always in danger of being caught by a Tory neighbor. Apparently, the potential threat of torture and execution upon discovery of his spy work wasn't considered enough to keep the viewing public intrigued. The story needed additional fictional elements to be made more appealing.

In 1986, Alan Alda starred in Sweet Liberty, a movie about a history professor who watches in horror as the movie adaptation of his ancestor's Revolutionary War diary deviates from the original true story to a fictional one of illicit romance between his ancestor and a British officer. In the film, changes are justified by movie-makers as a way to make history "more interesting" for young people. The parallel between the plot of Sweet Liberty and what's happened in Turn causes more than a little déjà vu. [Watch the trailer here.]

Turn also engages in what I call McHistory--that is, the oversimplification of complex historical situations so as to avoid any bothersome critical thinking. The scholar-debunked idea that Long Island was "mostly Tory" persists in character dialogue; the first episode emphasizes in an almost cartoonish way that Whigs will find "no friends in New York." Richard Woodhull, a judge, is portrayed as a staunch loyalist. Never mind that this is the same man whose father's and grandfather's graves were "desecrated" by British soldiers*--an act that Turn portrays as orchestrated by said Woodhull on British behalf. Young Abraham "turning" against the imagined Tory ideology of his community is far more dramatic than the reality: The island contained a minority of die-hard loyalists in 1776 and was rabidly patriotic by the end of the British occupation (a fact supported by the island-wide "Tory purge" of 1783 in which loyalists were forced to flee by ship to Nova Scotia immediately following the signing of the Treaty of Paris).

All of this goes to show that one can't get his/her history from a television show. Despite the televised endorsements of historical societies and "historians," Turn is not the true story of Long Island's first spy ring. It's Long Island's very own version of Sweet Liberty, brought to life by attractive and talented actors (the only reason to watch) who likely have no idea that the "history" they're portraying is more creative license than fact, the product of a scriptwriting arrogance that oversimplifies and "improves" real history for entertainment purposes.

I just hope that the people who brought John Adams to life for HBO will get around to making a true version of the Culper Spy Ring story someday. That would be worth watching.


* as per the notes of Morton Pennypacker, on file at the East Hampton Library's Long Island Collection.

No comments:

Post a Comment