TURИ, the AMC cable network series that recently finished the 10th episode of its initial season, has been renewed for a second season of ten more episodes. Before the season aired, Michael Schellhammer, who screened the first three episodes, wrote a generally positive review of the series that referred to it as “a fascinating look into how these intrepid American spies helped win the Revolutionary War.” Based on Alexander Rose’s book, Washington’s Spies, The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, the series purports to describe America’s first serious foray into the world of espionage. AMC refers to the story as an historical “thriller” set during the American Revolution. Some viewers might agree on the “thriller” description but others have some trouble with “historical” as a modifier.
One writer, while noting the attention brought to the town of Setauket, asserted that “when a producer and a network advertise a program as ‘a true story,’ and then proceed not only to bend the truth but, on occasion, to break it across their knees, and when ‘real’ characters bear no resemblance to their flesh and blood namesakes, it is time to protest.” Simply put, why can’t we let the real story, as dramatic as any writer’s creation, just tell the facts?
The series, however much it relies on historical fact, is first and foremost an entertainment project so its creators are less concerned about historical accuracy and more concerned about tune-in (i.e. ratings), option pick-ups for additional seasons and advertising revenues. Series like Turn are the audio visual equivalent of historical novels, one of the most popular genres in fiction. The historian is more concerned that facts are accurately presented and that the public doesn’t get a warped view of people, places and events that constitute the history. The push and pull between historical accuracy and dramatic license in film and television is a subject for lively debate as has been commented upon at least one hundred times at the Journal of the American Revolution. There were thirty-seven comments to Schellhammer’s article. Thomas Verenna’s article about the Sleepy Hollow television series provoked twenty-four comments and Hugh T. Harrington’s piece on the top ten American Revolutionary War movies resulted in a whopping forty comments. Even historians love and love to hate the movies and television.
The basic goal of film and television producers and the outlets that distribute them is money. The more entertaining a project, the more eyeballs watch. The more eyeballs that watch, the higher the ratings. The higher the ratings, the greater the advertising revenues. In the world of Hollywood executives and network programmers, a hit series means higher revenues and higher bonuses. As a result, ‘literary license’ is always taken and historical truth is a casualty of war. Examples of this with Revolutionary War films include The Patriot starring Mel Gibson and Revolution starring Al Pacino. In fact, many war films play fast and loose with the truth because they focus on the human interaction of war rather than the events. Private Ryan was never saved but there were families that lost numbers of sons during World War II.
Hollywood’s instinct to change things isn’t limited to history. One of the categories of the Oscars is “Best Adapted Screenplay.” In transferring a book or play to screen, an adaptation can be so ‘adapted’ that the underlying work is barely recognizable. So filmmakers have no particular allegiance to accurate history. An interesting experiment might be to give a writer the ten episodic scripts of Turn and ask for ten new scripts, research permitted. It wouldn’t be surprising if the results were closer to accurate history than not.
For this article, the debate question might be, “Is it better to portray the people, places and events of history in media, fictionalized to some extent, or leave historical accuracy to the historians?”
Taking into account the natural inclination of entertainment creators to make good entertainment and to focus on the lives of the participants in a television drama, let’s take a look at “Turn” now that all ten episodes are available.
As a series, Turn provides cliffhangers galore. Dramatic tension is everywhere in the series: the growing romantic relationship between Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong and his wife’s discovery of it; the political conflict between Woodhull and his father; the leadership philosophies of Major Richard Hewlett and John Graves Simcoe; Loyalist vs Patriot in Setauket, even Benjamin Tallmadge and Woodhull in the early episodes. Most of all, from the first to the tenth episode, Craig Silverstein wrote a compelling drama that should hold any viewer after the pilot episode.
As the episodes are premiered, the storyline builds to climactic moments and future dangers are presaged by current actions. The series excels in capturing the human dimension, vividly conveying the risks and consequences of spying. As General Heath said in referring to Major John André’s ultimate fate, “…it must be remembered that he who consents to become a spy, when he sets out, has by allusion a halter put round his neck, and that… if he be taken, the other end of the halter is speedily made fast to a gallows.” Woodhull notes the punishment that would await him if he were to be revealed as a spy.
As the series continues, Woodhull becomes increasingly involved in clandestine activity, passing information to Caleb Brewster who sails it across Long Island Sound to Connecticut, travelling to and from British-occupied New York for first-hand information and making a narrow escape by a militia man-turned highwayman. At the series’ conclusion, Woodhull’s wife discovers his code book but we’re not certain what she’ll do. The series is also at its best in depicting neighbor against neighbor in the little village, supporting the view of certain scholars that the Revolution was America’s first civil war.
Woodhull’s anxiety is well portrayed by Jamie Bell. The nefarious John Graves Simcoe played by Samuel Roukin also deserves special mention as the putative villain. In fact, one could hardly dispute the able casting that vividly colors the characters in the persons of Anna Strong (Heather Lind), Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall), Richard Woodhull (Kevin McNally), Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich), John André (J. J. Feild), Robert Rogers (Angus MacFadyen), Major Hewlett (Burn Gorman) and even George Washington (Ian Kahn). Each episode has a main story (e.g. Woodhull’s recruitment, Simcoe’s capture, Washington’s engagement of Tallmadge to form the spy ring, etc.) while the other actions in an episode continue to propel the story forward. As far as setting, locations and costumes, the series creates a realistic picture of what Setauket, (New) York Island and their environs may have looked like. Likewise, the use of the gravestones as a barricade, conditions on a prison ship and the lavish life that high-ranking British officers experienced are accurately portrayed. On a macro level, the series succeeds as well written, directed, acted and produced television entertainment, worthy of a second season.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Notwithstanding the entertaining television, certain historians (professional and amateur) make their points about the historical accuracy of the series. Some blunders are worse than others, such as suggesting that the spy effort contributed to Washington’s success at Trenton or that John André was the British spymaster in 1776 (and wore a peculiar white braid) or that British regulars and a British commander manned the Setauket garrison. Criticisms can be made about the historical accuracy of the series, from errors in nit-picky details to inexcusable whoppers, and the questionable conjecture woven in throughout the story line. Whether or not the Woodhull baby wore knickers or the wine glass Major Hewlett used was incorrect are legitimate gripes, but they surely belong at the nit-picking extreme. Anna Strong’s role, on the other hand, is one of those whoppers that the creators implemented because they wanted an historical character who was Woodhull’s contemporary and a Patriot ready to help enlist Woodhull in espionage. But that’s about where the accuracy ends. She was ten years older than Woodhull (age 36 in 1776), married to a judge, not a tavern owner, and mother to six children. Turn obviously wanted a simmering to boiling over love interest with a married man to provide another incentive to spy besides sympathy for the Cause. Turn makes her a noteworthy cougar of the American Revolution. But, hey, someone had to hang up those black petticoats as signals for the Patriots. Also inaccurate is Robert Rogers’ role in freeing Anna’s husband from prison instead of the historical fact of Anna managing it. Why they put her husband on a prison ship rather than in an old sugar warehouse where he actually was held prisoner seems like a gratuitous (but nit-picking) inaccuracy. Another whopper would have to be the role of Richard Woodhull. Contrary to his Loyalist leaning and economic well-being in the series, he lived a modest life and remained a Patriot, even being beaten at one point by the British. Finally, the young Woodhull remained unmarried until 1781 so Mary’s role is completely fabricated.
As to events portrayed in the series like the appointment of John André as spymaster for the British, Caleb Brewster’s Long Island Sound whale boating or Abraham’s initiation into espionage, none occurred in 1776. The only noteworthy spy-related event that year was the capture and summary hanging of Nathan Hale. Simcoe wasn’t captured in 1776 Connecticut either, the Culper Ring wasn’t even formed until later and the Battle of Setauket in 1777 pitted the Continental troops (not led by Tallmadge) against Loyalist defenders led by Major Hewlett, an American Loyalist. There were no redcoats in sight. Perhaps more than the ersatz events, the characterizations of the principal characters can make a history student cringe. Simcoe is just one example. There is no evidence that Simcoe even served in Setauket, yet the producers needed a name to go with the sardonic character. The real Simcoe, a British regular, not a Provincial, was a successful officer who later rose to become the Governor of Upper Canada. André is more subtle a mischaracterization. He’s shown to be a well-educated, literary fellow—a polished officer and a gentleman—consistent with the facts, but he wasn’t in New York in 1776. If he was practicing his literary and drawing skills at the time it was as a prisoner of war in Pennsylvania. As to his little white braid, one would have to query the producers—no graphic images show it and no text describes it. He wasn’t appointed his spymaster role until April 1779, just in time to begin the conspiracy that would eventually seal his fate. So with all the inaccuracy, is the series worth the effort? The answer would have to be ‘yes.’ Even critics of the series’ accuracy acknowledge that “if the national audience reached by the program becomes “turned” on to the American Revolution and learns of the role played by Setauket and its Patriots to achieve victory, it seems churlish to quibble.”. This same critic also pointed out the weaknesses in the best-selling book, George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution. Nevertheless, the critic went on to write “we should be grateful to Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger for writing and promoting a book that will capture the public’s imagination while bringing the story of the Culper Spy Ring to a nationwide audience.” This sentiment is also echoed by some of those commenting on the Journal of the American Revolution and elsewhere.
There will, in the end, be two types of viewers of Turn: those that seek more information about series content and those who don’t. As to the latter, should we be concerned? They’re either already expert in the subject matter or are content in being entertained in the same way that any other movie or series entertains. The other is the viewer whose curiosity is stimulated by the series and begins or continues an interest in the American Revolution. In the process, those inaccuracies will fade as a true knowledge of people, place and events supplants them
As Walt Disney asserted at the end of one of his movies, “curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” That’s the role of historians as it pertains to the past. The never ending quest for undiscovered or unread primary sources, new interpretations of previous events or events not well covered, the exploration into the strengths and weaknesses of notable historical figures, the debunking of myths and a greater sensitivity to those who did not write the first works (African Americans and women, to name just two) keep publishers, big and small, active in making new works available.
It’s likely that films such as Amistad and 12 Years a Slave heightened interest in the institution of slavery in America in the same way that Flags of Our Fathers and Saving Private Ryan rekindled interest in World War II. All were based upon or inspired by real events, but all were fictionalized. That’s what keeps them from being referred to as documentaries. It’s also been announced that a new dramatic mini-series entitled Sons of Liberty will be shooting this summer and airing on History Channel.
If Turn’s enjoyable presentation, accurate or not, provokes curiosity to know more about the people, places and events from responsible historical books, articles and documentaries, isn’t that a win-win for all?
 Michael Schellhammer, “AMC’s ‘Turn’: Everything Historians Need To Know,” April 1, 2014, Journal of the American Revolution, http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/04/amc-turn-everything-historians-need-to-know/  Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan, “AMC’s ‘Turn’: Lively Fiction, But Tenuous Connections to Fact.” The NY History Blog, June 5, 2014. http://newyorkhistoryblog.org/2014/06/05/amcs-turn-lively-fiction-but-tenuous-connections-to-fact/, accessed June 14, 2014  Borgstrum Brothers of Salt Lake City, UT and the Sullivan Brothers of Waterloo, IA lost four and five brothers, respectively.  Heath’s Memoirs of the American War, Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed. (New York: A. Wessels Company, 1904), reprinted from William Heath, Memoirs of Major-General Heath, (Boston: I. Thomas and A. T. Andrés, 1798), 270.  Kaplan, Turn.  Kaplan, Turn.  For a well-written blog about the series, see Rachel Smith’s “TURИ to a Historian” http://spycurious.wordpress.com/. Ms. Smith is an historical consultant at the Office of the Connecticut State Historian at the University of Connecticut  Kaplan, Turn.  Brian Kilmeade is a co-anchor of Fox and Friends on Fox News Channel, appears on other Fox News Channel shows as a pundit and has his own talk-radio show.  Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan, “Fact And Fiction In Brian Kilmeade’s ‘Secret Six’,” The New York History Blog, June 14, 2014, http://newyorkhistoryblog.org/2014/06/14/fact-and-fiction-in-brian-kilmeades-secret-six/ accessed June 14, 2014.