Benedict Arnold (2003)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

   

After Judas, one name stands above all as a traitor. Benedict Arnold, a man who betrayed Washington to become loyal to the British during the American war for independence. Just who was this man? What was his side of the story? In a lavish production by A&E, the company responsible for many of my favorite films, we learn of the man behind the legend. The film opens in the throes of war. The Colonies have sought war against the British over unfair taxation, desiring to be a nation of their own. The peoples are evenly divided... a third is Patriot, a third Loyalist, and a third Neutral. After a long occupation, Pennsylvania has been recaptured under Patriot rule. In the meantime war is fought on several fronts. 

 

Major-General Benedict Arnold (Aidan Quinn), a close friend and sympathizer of George Washington (Kelsey Grammer), is leading his armies to battle against the advice of his superior officer. In the skirmish Arnold is wounded in the leg, but refuses amputation. It leaves him with a limp and a sore view of war. He returns home to his two children and older sister to find his wife has died of the fever. Deciding he will 'spill no more blood for this country,' Arnold attempts to return to a normal lifestyle, but his fortune has been spent and he is no longer capable of strenuous work. Washington is able to pull some strings and sends him to Pennsylvania as his representative. The city is overthrown with retribution toward the Loyalists -- and under the leadership of a hard-nosed disloyal patriot whose hatred of Arnold runs deep.

 

While here, Arnold attempts to breach the gulf if indifference and bring the Patriots and Loyalists together... and he meets the lovely Miss Peggy Shippen (Flora Montgomery). From a well-respected Loyalist family and an ardent supporter of England, Peggy is drawn to this American hero known for his fearless courage in battle. Despite her father's warnings they indulge in a swift romance. As they press for marriage, Arnold's character comes into question. He has been using military wagons to make a profit off tradesman desiring to sell luxuries to the Colonies. He wants a trial but Washington has been told if he is not found guilty, the Pennsylvania militia will not further aid them in war. Once they are married, Arnold will be out of his hands forever. If you can watch this film purely as fiction and not fully trust in its historical accuracy, you might find Benedict Arnold a beautiful glimpse into the past.

 

Being the stickler I am for history, I cannot help but notice the many contrasts between actual characters and actions and those taken by A&E for the sake of the script. Thus said, as long as you don't accept it for "God's truth," you probably won't be terribly run aground. Most of the facts are correct, but many of the characters aren't. You have to give A&E credit for trying, but their inaccuracy in the production only proves their minute grasp of American history. Many of the facts are correct, but large portions of Arnold's history -- which involve desertion of the army, theft, and violence -- are conveniently left out. If anything, they do not portray him as a hero -- because he was not. Arnold is a hot-headed man run by pride who goes so far as to challenge an entire tribunal to a duel for insulting him. While Peggy remains his 'partner in crime' (in the film, it is she who pressures him to contact the British with an offer) she is much downplayed as the inundator of the marriage itself.

 

Here, Arnold pursues her -- historically, it was the other way around. They also made her a little nicer in the film than she actually was (instead of trying to waylay Washington and his men by appearing in a nearly-sheer nightgown, she is hysterically crying over the fact that they might kill her child). The biggest disservice they have done is to George Washington. The actor chosen for his role not only looks nothing like him but is overweight (all the soldiers were literally starving at this point in time -- I doubt even the officers were portly), far too old (history pins Washington in his early forties during the Revolution), and overly callous. It implies he hangs men without a fair tribunal on several occasions when in fact those involved in treason were each given a fair trial. He is also the only actor involved to use strong profanity -- an obvious discredit to history, which proves Washington loathed 'common' speech so much he once chastised an entire table full of gentlemen for profanity, as well as placed a ban on vulgar language among his troops.

 

They also cloud the issue by leaving out key facts -- such as the British officer Andre being captured by the Americans on his way to New York. In the film they persecuted him for having documents bearing Arnold's signature; historically he wore a Colonialist uniform which lead to his being hung as a spy. Visually it's a very lovely film to look at. The costuming is breathtaking and the lavish homes, scenes and horses are virtual eye-candy. This is one area in which the film excels. Unfortunately, even overlooking the historical inaccuracies, the film is very difficult to follow through the first forty minutes and the dialogue is often spoken so swiftly that it's sometimes missed entirely. There's also some implied sexual content, violence, and mild language. Some innuendo that will go over most people's heads pops up in a discussion between Washington and Arnold over the women of Pennsylvania.

 

Washington uses profanity on several occasions, once railing 'god--n' and using 'son of a...' In the opening scenes many men are mowed down by gunfire and a few struck with bayonets. The violence itself isn't gory -- but the aftermath is. We cringe in disgust as we hear a man's leg being sawed off; then see it removed and dumped into a basket containing other severed body parts. The doctor also graphically digs for a bullet in Arnold's leg. Many men are shown being hung. Passionate kissing intrudes on occasion. Peggy and Arnold are shown bare-shouldered snuggling in bed on their wedding night. I would have been impressed with this restraint on the part of the director had not an unanticipated and embarrassing love scene come up suddenly in the final hour. After sending Andre off with the discriminating agreement to capture Washington and turn him over to the British, Arnold returns home to make love to his wife. They remove their shirts (her bare back is seen) and hold a brief dialogue before the scene fades out. There is also cleavage on the part of the Colonial-era ladies.

 

If the film is worth anything, it's to show us how close we came to disaster. There were many times when had not God intervened, the American Revolution would have failed. Arnold and Peggy hold that 'Providence' is on their side guarding them against evil. But their actions and traitorous choices lead them into exile, while America becomes stronger and more united because of it. Had not Arnold's men fired on a British ship, we might have lost General Washington forever. We Americans should be forever grateful that for every traitor there is a thousand strong who will defend our nation with their life.


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