Danger, secrets, intrigue and revenge were all part of the Culper spy ring, and the new AMC series “Turn,” premiering April 6 (Sundays 9/8 central), offers a fascinating look into how these intrepid American spies helped win the Revolutionary War. AMC provided Journal of the American Revolution an early screening of the first three episodes.
“Turn” opens in the autumn of 1776 with the British capture of New York City and the surrounding area. In the town of Setauket on Long Island’s north shore, farmer Abraham Woodhull (played by Jamie Bell) is barely making a living for his wife and infant son. Woodhull hopes to stay out of the conflict but British troops occupy Long Island and the king’s soldiers are ever-present. The Revolution forces citizens to consider where their loyalties lie. A minor altercation with a British officer lands Abraham in trouble with Crown authorities, and his father Richard (Kevin R. McNally) lists the Setauket families that support the Rebel cause saying they chose the wrong side. “I wasn’t taking sides,” his son replies, as civilians caught in the middle of a war have throughout time.
Outside of Setauket a bigger problem is brewing. New York City is now a British base and the Americans need spies in the city to report on Crown plans, but as a Continental dragoon commander tells his subordinate, Captain Benjamin Tallmadge, “We have no friends in New York.” The forward-thinking Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) plans to develop a spy ring in the city, and it involves civilians including his boyhood friend, Abraham Woodhull. That’s not an easy task with British officer John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) and the Loyalist Major Robert Rogers (Angus MacFadyen) on the hunt for secret Rebels. Woodhull focuses on providing for his family but circumstances and intelligence operatives force him to choose a side, and the intrigue begins. What follows is a stylish spy story with the heroes, villains, plot twists, tension and coded messages you would expect.
Alexander Rose’s excellent book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, provided the basis for the series and as Executive Producer Barry Josephson explained in a telephone interview, Rose was integral to production. Working with Rose, the production staff strove for historical truthfulness in everything from plot to set details. The series accurately depicts the major factors that brought the Culper Ring together, such as how the Continental Army had to build an intelligence arm from nothing in the midst of the New York campaign and how Tallmadge formed a spy network with people who knew each other in Setauket. The series also shows the tumultuous times of the Revolution, when cosmopolitan New York City was the biggest military target in America and citizens in its surrounding areas harbored secret suspicions and mixed loyalties. Most importantly it shows how Tallmadge’s spies existed in a state of constant fear. These are people who met in the woods at night and spoke in whispers; discovery meant summary execution.
That said, detail-oriented Revolutionary War enthusiasts will spot plenty of historical faux pas. For example, the series plotline has the Culper Ring developing in the autumn of 1776 whereas it actually came together about two years later. The real Woodhull was unmarried and childless at the time. His father was 63 and of a family that supported the Patriot politics, so not really the crafty Loyalist as depicted. The timeline is also a little early for Tallmadge’s unit of Continental dragoons, which wasn’t formed until the end of 1776 and did not operate in Connecticut until the summer of 1778. John André is introduced as the Chief of the British secret service in New York, but in reality he was a prisoner of war for most of 1776. Even after André rose to the Army staff, he was naïve and inexperienced in the spy business, not the master of intelligence as presented in the series. John Graves Simcoe truly detested the Rebels but some of the significant things that happen with him in the series simply did not occur in real life. Most of the language is a fair representation of 18th century styles, but some modern terms sneak in, such as when Woodhull tells another character, “This is a one-time deal.” Actor Angus MacFadyen’s native Scottish burr adds to his portrayal of Robert Rogers as a scoundrel, but may be incongruous with the facts that Rogers was born in America to Irish colonists and grew up in Connecticut. And the white wigs that the British characters wear were out of style during the Revolution so I found them a little distracting. Sharp-eyed viewers may notice other items that raise some questions.
But none of these details significantly detract from the series. The elements I noted above are certainly important to the Culper Ring story but they are not its core. Human interactions were the essence of Revolutionary War spying and that makes “Turn” a character-focused tale. Executive Producer Barry Josephson explained that the series required some minor liberties to support a better narrative arc, to best show how characters developed over time, or to allow situations to illustrate the experiences and emotions of the characters. That’s been a common method in filmmaking for decades and I don’t take issue with it in “Turn.”
And viewers will enjoy that “Turn” is fairly faithful to the history of the Culper Ring. Woodhull is accurately shown as a conflicted man who nevertheless follows a strong moral compass. Benjamin Tallmadge was the intelligence visionary as he’s shown, and went around his commander (who had little interest in clandestine operations) to build a successful spy network. Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall), one of Woodhull’s compatriots, really was a tough and fearless mariner. Anna Strong (Heather Lind) played a key role as presented. The dialogue, plot and production design address some very real factors that were in play during the Revolution. How black marketing, or “the London Trade,” as it was known, applied to the Culper Ring’s formation is one example. Another is that at one point Woodhull has to name some suspected Rebels and he emphasizes them to be Presbyterians, which speaks to how the loyalties of Long Islanders sometimes followed religious lines, with Anglicans and Quakers being more Loyalist-leaning. Robert Rogers and John Graves Simcoe were the bane of Rebels on Long Island, though the series takes some liberties with their roles. The depiction of a British headquarters in a church is a representation of the 1777 occupation and fortification of Setauket’s Presbyterian meeting house (Benjamin Tallmadge’s father was the minister) by the Loyalist commander Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Hewlett. However the placement of a horse stable in the same room as a senior officer’s headquarters seems a bit of a stretch. Overall, the major dynamics of the times and the Culper Ring come together in a style that is both thrilling and accurate – with some artistic allowances for the medium.
As television, this is good watching. All of the actors deliver strong performances and it’s a pleasure to watch them bring the characters to life. Playing Woodhull, Jamie Bell conveys the apprehensiveness of someone feeling his way through uncharted territory. In one scene, Woodhull learns some information that jeopardizes his friends and you can sense his panic. Daniel Henshall plays Caleb Brewster with relish, as does MacFayden as Rogers and Samuel Roukin as Simcoe. Heather Lind is a forceful Anna Strong. The actors portraying Americans capture a sense of being normal people caught in desperate circumstances beyond anything they ever imagined, which is one of the most important things to understand about the Culper Ring.
And therein lies the best reason to watch “Turn.” The spies that made up the Culper Ring did so not for money (they barely received compensation for their expenses), or recognition (most never spoke of their activities), or personal gain (spying was frowned upon at the time). They did it for a cause and put their lives in constant risk, and “Turn” richly and creatively depicts their journeys. So take a few steps back, watch how the story unfolds, then check out Washington’s Spies or the original Culper correspondence that still exists in the George Washington Papers, The Writings of George Washington, and other document collections. Read up on Rogers and Simcoe; fascinating characters whose exploits illustrate the turmoil that took place on Long Island during its occupation.
As Woodhull’s father says to him, “Legacy is everything.” There’s nothing else like “Turn” on television, and it keeps the legacy of the Culper Ring alive in grand style. And just as Disney’s “Johnny Tremain” and “The Swamp Fox” helped usher in a new generation of American Revolution enthusiasts and historians, a successful TV series like “Turn” has the potential to spark a whole new generation of buffs.
It appears as though this production will be fodder for the reenactors given its glaring inaccuracies. I, for one, subscribe to the theory that anything, well almost anything Patriot was a stretch, that brings people to the Rev War table can’t be all bad. I will watch anxiously and with an open mind.
Historical faux pas? Major Hewlett says that they’ve abolished slavery in Great Britain in episode 4. It’s 1776 in the show bro. The Slave Trade Act of 1807 wasn’t passed for 31 years in England. And that only pertained to the slave trade aspect of it, as slavery wasn’t fully abolished in Britain until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Dude. The show is highly entertaining, but that’s just COMPLETELY ERRONEOUS!
There is a very good argument that slaves reaching England were able to win their freedom. The Lord Chief Justice of England ruled in 1772 in the Somerset case:
“The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves it’s force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: It’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”
This helps to explain Samuel Johnson’s 1775 question: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
The sad truth is the opposite. The 1772 Somerset case proves how difficult it was for a successful manumission suit to succeed. Somersett’s situation was championed by none other than Granville Sharp who went on to become one of Britain’s leading abolitionists. Sharp hired five of the most distinguished London barristers to present the case. The case was a civil suit and therefore did not carry the weight of law, and in the end Mansfield ruled that there was no law defining the rights of a colonial planter to transport a human being from the country against his will, and since there was no law defining the situation, Somersett could not be forced to return to Jamaica. The case is remarkable as the first court decision regarding transportation of slaves. This was important because by the mid 1770’s British vessels were the main vehicle of slave transportation to support Caribbean sugar plantations and the original “Devil’s Triangle: barter goods to coastal Africa — slaves to the Caribbean — sugar, molasses and rum to Europe. But the Parliament’s Transportation Act, prohibiting British registered vessels from carrying slaves, was not made permanent until 1807 (a year before the US passed its version and three years before Spain, Holland and France passed theirs). Britain did not abolish slavery until the culmination of a series of Parliamentary acts passed between 1833-1838.
As a result the Somerset case did free any slaves in Britain, although it did signal the start of abolitionist activism. The Scottish courts heard a similar transportation case in 1778. Again, an abolitionist protagonist hired a team of prominent barristers to argue that a specific enslaved man (Joseph Knight) should not be forced to depart Scotland with his owner. The court made reference to Mansfield’s 1772 Somerset decision and by a margin of one justice denied Knights’s transportation. In 1782 Mansfield again was Chief justice of the court hearing an appeal case, where a slave ship (the Zong) had filed for insurance benefits for loss of cargo. The ship had missed its landfall for a watering stop and fearful of running out of water the captain ordered 138 slaves thrown overboard. The ship’s owners claimed their insurance benefits. In this case Mansfield found for the owners and granted the insurance claim, famously writing that “Though it shocks me very much to say so, the case of the slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.” Only these two specific men were freed by the British court system and only then because they caught the attention of wealthy abolitionists who had the money necessary to hire a stable of prominent lawyers and thought the circumstances favorable to win in court. So Somersett is a poor example to cite in example of slaves being freed.
The rest of the British track record is pro and con. Lord Dunmore’s (Virginia) famous proclamation started a chain of similar proclamations by Royal Governours throughout the 13 American colonies promising freedom to slaves who left their masters to fight for the British. However, the rewards were carefully doled out. First, only men could fight, so that left women and children who fled to British lines incapable of earning their freedom. Next, some governors carefully construed the terms of the promise as having been fulfilled only if the slaves actually “fought” – digging fortifications or providing a labor force did not always merit manumission. For example, Dunmore himself fielded an “Ethiopian” regiment of former-slave soldiers, many of whom endured actual fighting at Great Bridge and Gwynn’s Island only to be sold back into slavery onto Barbados and Jamaican sugar plantations; into conditions far worse than those they likely endured in Virginia. Some did achieve freedom. As an example, some who made it inside the British occupation of New York City and served, perhaps around 2,000 people, were offered transportation to Canada at the end of the war along with other Loyalists who departed New York City in 1783. Some were possibly taken to Great Britain although I’m not aware of any accounting.
Word of advice should you want your posts to be taken seriously….Refrain from referring to a fellow poster as “Bro”
I figured they were a lot of Hollywood liberties taken with the series but you know I love the series. We are two more episodes left and I am sad that it is ending. It would be nice if all four seasons were put on Netflix to avoid the commercials. The biggest discrepancy I found was that Captain Simco is represented much differently in the series than he apparently was represented in Canada where he ended up going. There some kind of holiday named after him which I read about in Wikipedia and there is a lake named after him and we see the sign for that while we’re driving through Canada. I can’t find so far anything that he was is brutal Real life as he was in the series, but I loved how he presented it; he is one of my most adored actors in the show to not like! I wish they had this series when I was in high school because I would’ve been a lot more interested in the Revolutionary war. And the faux pas details could’ve been discussed as part of a class.
Thanks for the review, Michael. It will probably be superior to Variety’s. I agree with Don. Television, for the most part, is a wasteland so when the networks take the risk (hey, after all, they need advertisers), applause is in order. If it provokes curiosity in the times, the War and our founding, that’s a double; if it sells more books on the subject, that’s a triple. More readers of JATR would, of course, be a home run. It will be very interesting to see the series rating. Sunday at 9 used to be the sweet spot in television, not so much today. But it should be a great way to end the weekend. I’m very much looking forward to the series.
You’re absolutely right, Don and SPM. Historians will have no problem picking this show apart just like they do every other film, show, book or magazine article. There simply aren’t enough big and small screen productions about the Revolutionary War, so I give “Turn” a standing ovation for tackling the era. I also watched the first three episodes with Mike for this article and I thoroughly enjoyed the show–not only for the entertainment, but also for the flood of research and discovery it inspired. Sure there are plenty of inaccuracies, but I was Googling people, places and events during and after each episode. I also bought a few books. Now multiple that research by tens of thousands of viewers and we have an exciting new generation of RevWar enthusiasts, which is nice.
By the way, if the spirit moves any readers after watching one or more episodes of the series, write to AMC. Use Twitter, Facebook, etc. or, best, make a comment on the show’s website. It may sound corny, but cable channels respond to fan mail by ordering more episodes. My guess is the reviews will be positive, educational and historical organizations will be supportive and viewers will watch.
Yes Todd, lets hope that at least the show will inspire the uninitiated to seek further information about the spy networks and the Rev War in general. At the recent seminar in Williamsburg I purchased some books by John Nagy on the spy networks to have on hand if I desire clarification or more information. And along with Mr. Mark I also will be curious to see what ratings “Turn” can muster.
@SPM From your tiny profile picture, it looks like you could be a stunt double for Robert Rogers! Just trim and dye your beard. 🙂
As a reenactor myself, I have often found that many reenactors seem to think that they own the history that they reenact as opposed to the general public. Yes, there will be those whose only enjoyment will be watching the program to pick apart the inaccuracies, however minor. Yet, reenacting also has it share of flaws and inaccuracies too.
Whenever history meets Hollywood, the truth, to a certain degree, is a causality, because drama triumphs a history lesson. This is, after all, a drama, and it should be viewed as such.
Remembering my historiography seminar from college. methinks historians can get it wrong, too.
First spy ring? What about the espionage out of occupied Boston?
While Iove a good show about the revolution, I wince at the fact that once again the British any anyone who support them are the “bad guys” (see the sexualy threatening redcoat, described as a “psycho” as the only British character mentioned [though… they’re all British in a sense]).
I don’t know why everyone who writes fiction seems to think it’s more interesting to have cardboard villains instead of dealing with the moral grey area and the moral ambiguity of the birth of America.
You bring up a good point Daud.
The Culper Ring was not America’s first, or only spy operation in the Revolution. As you mention, the Patriots in New England conducted intelligence activities before and after hostilities began. When the various riders departed Boston on the night of April 18, 1775, they were essentially on an intelligence mission. The Rebel government of New York operated effective intelligence and counterintelligence operations, from which Washington and Tallmadge learned lessons that they applied to establishing the Culper Ring. And Washington, as well as several of his subordinates, employed spies with varying levels of success throughout the Revolution; some of these other Continental spies operated in New York at the same time as the Culper Ring.
I’m only guessing, but perhaps Alexander Rose chose the term “America’s First Spy Ring” for his book title because the Culper Gang (as it has also been called) was the first organization recruited, organized, and managed to provide intelligence. They used aliases, specially-designed codes, disappearing ink, and dedicated couriers. Most importantly for an intelligence organization, they worked for their army commander. They didn’t just collect tidbits of information; Washington sent them detailed questions and they responded with detailed answers. All those matters combined, and more, make them one of the most important building blocks of American military intelligence.
As for the British characters, I can only recommend you watch the series and see if and how they develop beyond what’s shown in the previews.
Thanks for your comment and good watching!
Even though I can recognize the historical inaccuracies in a film I don’t let them bother me anymore if it’s otherwise entertaining cinema or tv.
Primary examples for me include Sleepy Hollow (which even if you buy into the premise still leaves a great deal to be desired in it’s historical accuracy), the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven, HBO’s John Adams (the Join or Die episode is particularly bad, but there are errors throughout), Gladiator, and many more which make for excellent tv or movies but poor history.
I’ve long ago come to the realization that there will never be a faithfully made movie or television show about historical events. It’s just too hard to do in that sort of medium. Characters have to be condensed, timelines shortened or moved around, etc. to tell an entertaining story in that medium. I wish that directors could do for shows what Bernard Cornwell does for his books, which is to put a copious afterword explaining exactly what was changed and why.
Great article with great points. The inaccuracies should be overlooked and credit is due to bring the Rev War to TV. This will also present a great opportunity to get people interested in the Rev War and we at the Fort Plain Museum will embrace the opportunity. What books do you recommend on the Spy Ring? I am currently reading Washington’s Spies and just bought Mr. Nagy’s books. Any others? Thank you,
You can get a copy of Carl Van Doren’s book,”Secret History of the American Revolution,” While it focuses primarily on the Arnold/Andre conspiracy, it offers other material on intelligence and spying. It also offers an appendix that includes the full text of numerous letters that went back and forth between the two,
Great suggestion, SPM. You can also check out Pennypacker’s “General Washington’s Spies on Long Island and in New York” and Bakeless’s “Turncoats, Traitors, and Heroes: Espionage in the American Revolution.” However both of those are a bit long in the tooth now, and the authors were a little too willing to include less-than-verifiable information along with the documented facts of the intelligence activities, so I recommend you compare the information on both of those books to other sources. But both are good, interesting reads and are useful as pointers for further research. And please allow me to recommend, with all due humility, my own book, “George Washington and the Final British Campaign for the Hudson, 1779,” which discusses how mutiple intelligence sources from the tactical to the operational levels came together in the 1779 campaign. There is also an article on the topic in the Journal of the American Revolution special hardcopy edition. Thanks and good reading!
Michael’s too modest. His book is a thorough look at Wayne’s Midnight assault which I used for my own research.
Sir, I am honored.
Great to see AMC promoting the daylights out of this series. It means they’re betting the farm on its success. Hope everyone reading this will tune in tonight @9 (EDT) on AMC to watch. The higher the ratings the better the chance the series will have a good life.
I finally was able to watch it and let me say that within five minutes I was completely hooked. I loved it! I cannot wait for the next episode.
And for those who may have missed it, you can watch the first episode for FREE on Amazon (at least until next Sunday).
I fully agree with Anna. If it wasn’t history, Hollywood would call it a ‘thriller.’ It’s a real edge-of-the-seat drama which I recommend to all Journal of the American Revolution subscribers. It’s dark, intriguing and well produced and the historical inaccuracies didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment.
I was also hooked within 5 minutes. I wish it was not on against Game of Thrones but I will watch both anyways.
I had a good first episode ratings. 2.1 million. http://www.deadline.com/2014/04/amcs-revolutionary-war-spy-drama-turn-unfurls-with-2-1-million-viewers-watching/
I am very glad to see the JAR readers behind the show! I’m very interested to see how this season develops. Other reviews say that it takes too long to get to the spying part, but if that’s so, historians should take heart – the Culper Ring was slow to come about and if that’s reflected in the show, then that’s great in my book. I think there will be enough of the thriller-stuff (as SPM so aptly put it) to keep audiences engaged. At least I hope so.
I haven’t watched TURN yet, so hopefully this issue doesn’t apply, but a lot of AMC shows tend to drag on without really getting anywhere. I stopped watching The Walking Dead, which, being about zombies should be a sure thing, right? Problem is, there’s a whole lot of talking and people not really doing anything or going anywhere and precious little zombie activity. They’re more interested in turgid character study that simply entertaining. I stopped watching Mad Men for a lot of the same reasons (the lack of anything happening, not because I expected zombies). Their last show about intelligence, Rubicon, was dreadfully boring and was canceled after a season.
There aren’t a lot of AMC shows I enjoy, so I hope they don’t screw up what should be an interesting topic. You can still entertain without going off the reservation with the history like Sleepy Hollow did.
Of course, Walking Dead and Mad Men are very successful, so that shows what I know.
In the first few seconds of the show my wife saw breeches on a baby and asked me if I was going to be able to keep my mouth shut or point out everything wrong with the clothing. I agreed to silence and enjoyed it without groaning more than a handful of times.
Now you have me wondering if breeches on babies is the Revolution’s equivalent to The Fonz “jumping the shark”?
Are we really concerned about breeches on babies? TURN is television, not a sophisticated history treatise, which should not be lost in the viewing. While it’s admirable to show our knowledge and ability to pick apart TURN’s accuracy, consider for a moment the artists who painted scenes from the time and got it wrong too–Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (http://edsitement.neh.gov/emanuel-leutzes-symbolic-scene-washington-crossing-delaware) or Turnbull’s Signing of the Declaration of Independence (http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/Winter11/painting.cfm) Do the errors make these paintings less heroic, iconic or entertaining? I for one enjoy the series rather than watching Duck Dynasty or The Good Wife in the same time period, neither of which have historical accuracy to worry about. One last point: babies are babies so if the costume designer chose to clothe the baby in breeches as opposed to a diaper-like “costume” maybe it was because the actor-baby was already toilet-trained and didn’t need a diaper. “Breeching” may have been for slightly older children, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to see the Woodhulls, rural farmers, having potty-trained their child early. Producers don’t like ruined shots and a baby pooping or peeing in his breeches on camera means waiting for a cleaning and change, another take and lost time, all of which relate to spending more money.
Paul, thanks for mentioning the breeches on the baby. I was about ready to change the channel when I saw that. I stayed watching because this was a story that I grew up with, having lived on Long Island from birth and visited Raynham Hall,Townsend’s family home, toooo many times to count. I heard of the Culper spy ring, Simcoe and Andre on those many visits. I’m looking forward to seeing how they will show that portion of the story.
As a “TURN” background cast member I’m thrilled to see these JAR comments. This audience is the most well versed in the factual “history” yet also most painfully familiar with the dearth of American interest in our formative era. Several of us “historians”, “re-enactors”, and “site interpreters” (Yorktown for me) who appear in the show wrestled with the inevitable compromises inherent in a TV production. The debate must recognize the various factors of time and audience that impose presentation conundrums. By acknowledging that TURN is “based” on Alexander Rose’s book, the producers challenge us to separate historical fact from historically based fiction. I think as “historians” we lose respect if we don’t address inaccuracies even as we recognize that “proper” 18th century personal traits and characteristics would bore a 21st century audience, and we should acknowledge the place in TV for poetic license as a necessary evil and, when done right, a means to a worthy end.
A “just the facts” show would be boring; adding interpersonal relationships adds enticing honey and spice. But little is known of the Culpers private lives, which must be created for the show. As in any TV presentation, the rich tapestry of human interaction must be condensed into discreet characters who become composites of the whole. Without that the audience would be lost. For the historical perfectionist seeking the actual allegiance of Richard Woodhull, or descendants interested in Abe Woodhull’s genealogy, Rose’s book and the actual source documents get those facts straight and TURN is fictional in regard. But; those compromised facts allow inclusion of real pertinent history that might otherwise be missed. For example, Judge Richard Woodhull is mis-presented as a Loyalist, but that enables TURN to tell the harsh reality of the many families torn asunder by divergent views on American independence from Britain. Richard’s undermining of Abe and Anna’s fictional engagement and pressuring Abe into marrying a girl whose family leaned more to his political liking is exactly on target in presenting the patriarchal dominion of that time. Major John Andre probably wasn’t the smooth operator portrayed in episode two, but that allows for the factual juxtaposition of trained British espionage practitioners versus neophyte rebels. The story line leverages these examples to teach us about the generational differences betwixt “colonists” who were dependent upon the Crown, and an emerging generation of “Americans” who saw that dependence as a shackle upon personal and national growth. Good history. Then there’s the question of bias: how to portray the full scope of characters like Robert Rogers – cunning yet ruthless, vicious yet a playwright, F&I hero, revwar villain; or someone like John Graves Simcoe – reviled in America for his conduct as a member of the Queen’s Rangers and his complicity in Arnold’s pillage/plunder tactics in Virginia; or revered for his post-war career in Canada, launched amongst fellow trans-planted Loyalists who viewed his wartime behavior as justifiable. Historical bias doth play, and Simcoe spun his well; which version should out?
Given the sad state of our national historical awareness, if a slightly tainted but compelling story line earns viewer investment; leading intelligent people to post 600 comments on the fan site within two days; debating historical Revolutionary facts in chat rooms and coffee shops, then we historians can be offended yet elated simultaneously. Verily, once people are interested, once they invest mentally in the story, hopefully they’ll read some books and visit our sites, where we can correct the details.
Interesting article, thanks for writing it. My family had a home in Setauket for 30 years. i am familiar with all of these characters, the places and their stories. It was always said that, in fact, the British brought horses into The Presbyterian Church they used as headquarters was a way to defile the church. They also pulled up gravestones and used them to fashion ovens–or at least so we were always taught. For those interested, all the characters in the story are buried in and around Setauket–many in that Presbyterian church’s very graveyard.
I wondered at finding this article on a history site–then noted the date it was posted. Of course–April Fools!
Oddly, the well written fantasy of Sleepy Hollow encouraged me to begin brushing up on the Revolution. I’ve devoured a dozen books on the era in the last few months. How can even an informed layman (laywoman? layperson?) watch this show & just “ignore” the historical inaccuracies–which were detailed quite neatly in the article? In the 3rd episode, we saw the intrepid Long Islanders discover the Hessians were headed to Trenton–no doubt the news will inspire Washington’s Crossing in the strangely warm & sunny winter of 1776. In the real world, the disposition of occupying troops in Darkest New Jersey was hardly secret….
The show’s position opposite Game of Thrones will reduce its audience–I watched On Demand. Not everybody shells out for HBO, but the dodgy CGI & incoherent plot will probably not tempt a casual audience. There are some interesting performances–Burn Gorman’s slightly sympathetic Brit & J J Feild’s dashing John André stand out. And I’ll tune in to snark. (Why do so many of the colonists with no Irish roots sound Irish? Why are there so many beards? Why is the CGI so laughable?) And I’ll continue to read about the real thing. And wait for the loony return of Sleepy Hollow….
KM, you obviously know enough about the American Revolution to spot the inaccuracies in “Turn.” As you can read above, many others of us do as well. However I don’t ignore the inaccuracies – I just choose to focus on ther aspects of the show that are more subtle and completly accurate.
I also winced a bit during the scene when Woodhull learned about the Hessians going to Trenton; of course no such exchange occurred in real life, and there are other similar wince-inducing scenes.
But, I also noticed other things: how Woodhull had to wear a red cockade in his hat in New York City to show his allegience – as real Loyalists did in NYC. This points to what a city of mixed loyalties and mistrust New York was at the time. And before the scene with the Hessians I enjoyed how Woodhull wanted to enter King’s College but found his way blocked by soldiers, which I think speaks to the strain of the war (although alas, the real Woodhull did not attend King’s College as far as I know). I especially liked how Woodhull leveraged the selling of his farm goods into a conversation with the Hessians and ended up picking up a valuable piece of intelligence – which is exactly how the real Woodhull operated.
Yes, parts do make me cringe at times, and to enjoy this show one definitely has to allow the writers to take their liberties. But unlike Sleepy Hollow, where the writers enjoy not having ANY limitations to how they create their story line, the writers of “Turn” faced the daunting task of creating a compelling drama within the actual constraints of the events of the Revolution and the Culper Ring story. That could not have been easy.
And the real Culper Ring story did not develop in a way that suits an interesting narrative; the Culpers worked for months and discovered things that were certainly valuable to Washington such troop strengths, unit locations, Loyalist activities, naval movements, and political developments. Some of their notable successes, after about 7 months of operating, supported the 1779 campaign (an underappreciated campaign and time period) and concerned things like the departure of expeditions, intelligence of planned British raids in Connecticut, more naval movements, and Crown plans to make counterfeit Continental currency. That was all very valuable for the Americans but maybe not so easily presented on TV or things that would resonate with viewers. I suspect the insertion of the Trenton scene is to illustrate the type of information Woodhull gained while providing a touchstone to viewers. Historically inaccurate? Yes. Does it show a viewer how Woodhull operated and illustrate the value of his information? Also yes.
Some of this may be an issue with these first few episodes – the Culper story was slow to develop, so we may be seeing more set up here with some more interesting points to follow. I’m looking forward to where the series is going.
Could the writers have done a better job of meshing the facts with the fiction? Possibly. Would the average viewer have trouble discriminating between the fact and fiction? Absolutely. Could the CGI be better? I don’t actually care – I watch the show because I enjoy seeing the how the show portrays the dynamics and struggle of the Revolution, and it gets those dynamics correct.
And I’m glad to see that you’re reading the real Culper story. I’m sure you’ll find it fascinating, as I have.
Thanks for reading and commenting!
Comments noted, KM. If I may comment upon your comment, you obviously were intrigued enough to read more about the history. For me, this is a goal probably unintended by the producers. I’ve worked in television for 40 years and continue to do so. Talk about navigating a world of intrigue, betrayal and insipidity. Period (read: historical) pieces are tough to sell in film and nearly impossible for TV series. Even if every visual was poorly done or incorrect, if one curious viewer gets interested in the period, we all win. If I may quote that great social commentator, Groucho, “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”
Just caught the pilot on AMC and was very impressed. All inaccuracies aside, I haven’t seen a series or movie that got across to me on an emotional level what it was like to be in that time, caught between each side. The closest I’ve found to that experience is reading letters from the early years of the war, and yet even they didn’t make me fear for someone’s life, or feel that turn of the gut that Abraham felt so deeply.
To my eyes, the production was top notch in gritty realism, with a bit of cinematic flair at times, and the dialogue very well done, as when Tallmadge came to recruit Abraham, and Abraham catches on, angry to be put in such a position. Looking forward to catching up on all the episodes since.
I showed the pilot to my 25 seventh graders who are studying the Revolution. They loved it.
I saw many of the inaccuracies (I read Bakeless’s SPIES OF THE REVOLUTION when I was in 5th grade in 1969, and still own that battered Scholastic paperback in my collection of more serious Revolutionary War volumes) but did not mention any of them to the students.
I am interested that no one else has mentioned my major peeve: that so many Americans are played by British actors. I could not understand this decision at all, and found the all-over-the-map accents extremely distracting. Jamie Bell does a good job, but for many other characters I had to interpret for my students because, due to the accents, they could not follow the dialogue. Interestingly, this complaint is the leading review of the show on IMDb.
Robert Rogers, from Connecticut, a Scotsman? (with a beard!?) Caleb Brewster, from Long Island, an Aussie? (also bearded?)
Of course I know that there WERE many accents in America in 1776, but these Americans were natives. Were there no American actors available? When you read British letters of the period you frequently run across complaints about the impenetrability of the horrid Yankee accent.
I found this decision by the casting director FAR more vexing (because it made the show more difficult to grasp and seemed so completely unnecessary) than the time shifts, distortions of historical people, etc. that others might complain of.
Still, it is a good show and with me lining out the difficult dialogue, my students were completely engrossed and clamoring for more. For a teacher, this level of engagement is priceless.
First off I must say that I do not represent AMC or Stalwart Films; that this is not an official response from AMC or Stalwart Films; and that the views and opinions expressed here are my own.
Next; thanks for your comment. I really appreciate the context and want to provide you with answers and background.
I believe what drove the producers to adopt British linguistics was that until 1783, when the treaty of Paris was signed that both ended the Rev War and fulfilled the hope and intent of the Declaration of Independence, those who were living in the British colonies of North America were British. Those North Americans undoutedly sounded far more like Britains than they would sound like modern Americans. Thus the empahasis on British linguistic is actually an attempt at accuracy – a reminder that these folk weren’t yet “Americans” and not that far removed from the home country. I’d like to present that as a possible teaching point. There is certainly historical evidence of the “unintelligibility of the Yankee accent”; just as there is also the same regarding York, Welsh, and Cornish accents – and having lived in Britain, those complaints continue today.
(IMO, a justifiable complaint is that the accents aren’t consistent; Jaimie and Heather (Abe and Anna) sound Irish-ish, yet Abe’s father, Richard (played by Kevin) is the most American sounding of the primary characters. Robert Rogers’ parents were Scot but they were scalped in New Hampshire when Rogers was about 14; would he have retained the accent? Perhaps not, but as an artifice of the show it communicates that the Roger’s character is an outsider to both the Continentals and British alike.)
As for beards…
You’re correct: proper, conventional British citizens of the time were clean shaven (customs were different among Spanish, German folk). There was a standing army order requiring men to shave at least once every three days (which did not pertain to Hessians, among whom beards were a source of pride). However, there were a number of “unconventional” people who didn’t adhere to “proper” standards, whether they were of low class status, eshewed social convention, or were in circumstance (refugee, displaced, penury) which precluded proper personal grooming. The writers, directors and cast are very conscious of the implications of having a beard in this period; such that beards are intended as a hint to viewers to question the status or motivation of unshaven characters. There are actually very few characters in the show with beards. In the background ranks, only those portraying fishermen, whalers or refugees are unshaven. Among the primary characters only Robert Rogers (Angus) and Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) are bearded. As noted in script, Caleb is on special assignment masquerading as a whaleboatman, a class of men who frequently didn’t shave. Additionally, “spies” of the 18th century attempted to blend into the background by associating with a class of citizen unworthy of consideration. As for Rogers… the historical character was as unconventional as could be; a true conumndrum. There is much indication that reverence for his F&I conduct is misplaced. He could equally be viewed as a cut-throat who once tracked a pair of Frenchmen 30 miles or more through the forest to catch and scalp them alive within full view of a French fort; persisting, if not setting off, the heinous trade in scalps that persisted on the frontier throughout the F&I war. Yet he was a successful author and playright. Rogers’ creditors sent him to debtors prison between the wars and there he became an alcoholic. In 1776, released from debtor’s prison, he notoriously played off the British and Continental armies in attempts to obtain the most silver for his services. The script references Rogers mercenary nature several times (just a few minutes into episode 1 writers set this stage by having Rogers note that Washington could have had the services of the Rangers if he “hadn’t been so tight with his purse-strings).
There were historically savvy people on set and we tried to keep the presentation accurate within the bounds of audience understanding and “portrayability” (which usually comes down to “cost”). Many historical teasers within the show were thoroughly investigated before their inclusion (“Marco Polo”, for one). We weren’t perfect (we didn’t make a convincing case against bananas in episode 2, but you won’t see those 19th century imports again), but, like beards, we want our audience to notice discrepancies from the historical norm and query why that might be. Hopefully that adds depth to the show.
I hope that provides some points to consider and adds to you – and the class’ – viewing experience.
Best Regards, YMO&HS
I’m enjoying this discussion. As SPM mentioned, I can tell you from my interview with Executive Producer Barry Josephson that these types of exchanges are something that the producers hoped to inspire. Thanks for the insights, Jim.
Seldon – I don’t know if it fits with your students or lesson plans, but the AMC site for “Turn” offers an interactive map that contains some interesting explanations about the events depicted in each episode: http://www.amctv.com/shows/turn/interactive-map
Thanks to all for commenting!
I’m not sure why I did not see these comments until today, when I was prompted by the new review of TURN’s first season to look back at my earlier post.
Jim, thank you for your lengthy explanation. (By the way, my first name is Selden, and I’m female. Blame my Southern ancestors!)
I guessed most of these reasons. I still disagree with the decision to make Americans sound British. I understand the thinking — that American accents today are further from British accents than they were then — but those accents were still markedly different in the 1770s and that difference was commented on frequently, with complaints from both sides. Muddying that difference to me seemed pointless. More importantly to me as a teacher, the accents made the ornate language of the time even more difficult for my 7th graders to follow. I literally translated some of the dialogue as we watched.
I also guessed the reason behind the beards with Caleb Brewster and Robert Rogers. However, in my opinion the social prohibition against beards was so strong that what would have made far more sense would have been to have them “unshaven” rather than bearded. Respectable men shaved whenever possible. The trimmed, full beards of these two were jarring to me.
On the failings of Robert Rogers: having read Kenneth Roberts’ NORTHWEST PASSAGE at age 12 (and since) I am fully aware of Rogers’ strengths and his appalling weaknesses. I don’t recall the scalping alive of Frenchmen — perhaps I’ve forgotten, perhaps Roberts didn’t know of it, perhaps it’s a calumny. But anyone who researches guerrilla warfare at ANY time period reads of terrible savagery.
All quibbles aside, as a vehicle for exciting my students in history, the pilot of TURN was terrific. As we’d earlier spent a day studying and experimenting with various 18th century spying methods (laundry on the line, paper masks over letters, invisible ink) the children were jubilant to see the petticoat, etc. and “know” all about it.
As I am not a television watcher, I have not seen the rest of the series, but my younger sister followed it avidly. At one point she told me breathlessly about a young, sexy British officer. I guessed it was John André, and teased: “Do you want to know what happens to him?” “No! No spoilers!”
That audiences as disparate as squirrelly 7th graders and my middle-aged sister with zero interest in history were so passionately involved in a story about the American Revolution proved to me the show’s worth.
I just finished Kilmeade’s George Washington’s Secret Six and relished it after enjoying the first season of Turn. Just wondering what this forums’s take is on the total absence of Robert Townsend’s role in the spy ring. It’s possible that the series, which is based on a different book on the topic, was conceived after Kilmeade’s book came out. And apparently the link to Townsend was only recently discovered through a handwriting comparison that IDs him as Cupler Jr. It also dismisses the idea that Anna Strong was the one female in the ring. I have no problem with the producers consolidating characters and information, but Townsend was a key figure in the ring according Kilmeade’s research. Perhaps he will factor into Season 2?
The show ended last season with the purported “Battle of Setauket”, which historically took place in August 1777 (The “Year of the Hangman”). Mr Townsend was not yet recruited and did not join the Culper Ring until 1779. His first dispatch was dated June 19, 1779. Thus, the show’s time line does not YET include the admirable Mr. Townsend.
I would add that Mr Kilmeade’s lack of source annotation leads to some circumspection regarding his theories, as without documenting sources for his conjecture it remains simply that, at best.
Nor should one construe “Turn” as an historical gospel. The show is entertainment, advertised as “based” upon Alexander Rose’s book, and the show-runner, Craig Silverstein has openly admitted to “invention”, particiularly regarding the personal lives for the various charachters (see http://insidetv.ew.com/2014/07/04/turn-season-2-craig-silverstein/ ). What TURN does well is to capture the general sense and feel of the times, the juxtaposition twixt those who supported Crown and Congress, and the schism that occurred within families and neighbors as they chose sides – and the consequences of choosing sides (as indicated by today’s JAR Article regarding the Demarests of Bergen County). The show is not a factual resource, nor is it intended to be, regarding the individual histories of the named primary characters. Their portrayals represent composite depictions of what was happening to the general population of that time and the various factors influencing their lives and actions, be they Loyalist, Congresssional, or uncommitted colonials simply seeking to survive as the vagaries of war ebbed and flowed around them. The show is also good at pointing out the difference between the established British intelligence apparatus and its methodologies and the American attempt to form a nascent inftelligence collection capability from scratch, with virtually no experience to draw upon. And its fun – I sincerely hope you continue to enjoy it and that such enjoyment triggers you to research factual histories of the people and events depicted – they are truly fascinating!
Forgive my coming late to this party–I just watched the pilot this AM: did I hear correctly, that Anna Strong identified Simcoe as “that Welsh officer”? I only “know” what I heard (or think I heard) his character say & what I’ve read on Wikipedia (so far) but he’s not portrayed as having a Welsh accent, and “Simcoe” is apparently Cornish in origin. None of these disqualifies anyone from being Welsh, of course, just as having the surname “Jones” doesn’t oblige one to be of Welsh ancestry (John Paul [Jones]’ assumption of the name being a good example). The Cornish and the Welsh are closely related, so there could well be mannerisms, idioms, etc., which might “mark” him as Brythonic, but I’m still wondering about Anna’s comment.
I found the exact quote, at the 43-minute mark of the Pilot: Anna to Abe, “Simcoe. The Welshman. The one who put a pistol to your head.”
As a non-historian, I can offer myself as anecdotal evidence that Turn generates interest in the Revolutionary War. I had heard about Washington’s Spies and put it on my lengthy to-read list, but had not actually read it. Now, because of Turn, there is no question I will buy it and related titles (after the show ends, because of spoilers). I knew nothing about Revolutionary-era spycraft, but I’m looking forward to learning more. I’m sure there are many fans who love the show but realize it may not be completely accurate, and go searching for more information. Thank you for the fascinating article.
Just as it is important to consider the war from the British perspective at the time, it is also interesting to see how they look at the war today.
This recent article addressing TURN’s portrayal of British generals as criminals has greatly angered English historians and it, together with the accompanying comments, are worth considering when we discuss the validity, and intellectual damage, that contemporary Hollywood-based fiction inflicts on this contest:
Actually, that article is addressing the portrayal of the British in The History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty” limited series — not TURN, although a few other titles are mentioned in some of the comments. TURN is by no means perfect, and for some inexplicable reason seems intent on veering from history when the real events and chronology would often be more intense, interesting and suspenseful. The writers have done a better job than most, though, of crafting sympathetic, intelligent characters on BOTH sides of the conflict, as well as depicting the murky motivations at play, all around.
As far as how they see the war today — the comments certainly were interesting. It’s been my understanding from a handful of British friends, and via internet chatter, that the American Revolution is but a blip in their scholastic sequence. Subsequent historical events and Hollywood treatment of such, definitely seems to have had an affect on the way the war is viewed outside the states.
So I say this as a curious ignorant, I am fully intrigued by Turn and will continue to watch. I love history and enjoy learning about it but have little time to truly research it and watching it peaked my interest enough that I am here. Reading and trying to decipher all of your quotes and information. I am hoping that at this time in our nation, others are intrigued enough to end up here and keep digging, so they too can understand the true birth of our nation.
Re: Major Robert Rogers. After an initial introduction to the Major in “North West Passage” I managed to persuade Professor P.D.G. Thomas of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth (an authority on the “American Revolution” as he termed it) to let me make Robert Rogers the subject of a dissertation I submitted as a student studying a History Degree. My source material included the Journals written by the Major, correspondence of General John Stark and the works by J.R Cuneo an B.G. Loescher on Rogers Rangers.
It may only be anecdotal, but I recall it being mentioned that Rogers was the only man Washington was afraid of.
Rogers was a remarkable man, treated shamefully by the British……….he deserved better. London has numerous statues of soldiers. There should be one for Rogers.
His life story would prove an exciting and action packed drama for a mini-series.
We just finished watching the series tonight, streaming it a few nights every week. Watching it as the pandemic news and anarchy unfolds every night, finishing now as two virtual political conventions conclude. We don’t seem to remember where our country came from or suspect that enemies foreign and domestic are at work.
One unfortunate feature of many films that have been made over the decades is that script writers inject the culture of their time into period films, ignoring the culture of the period being portrayed. I’d like your assessment as to what degree this has occurred in “Turn: Washington’s Spies”. I have two questions. 1. In this series, are the words spoken by Washington what he really said, or are the words in the series the invention of the script writers – do we even know for sure what Washington said aside from public addresses? 2. In Episode 307, “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary”, Mary Woodhull is portrayed firing a musket at a Queen’s Ranger on the upper floor of a house – did this actually happen?