FILM REVIEW: Benedict Arnold: Hero Betrayed. Directed by Chris Stearns. Executive Producers James Kirby Martin and Ray Raymond. (Talon Films Production, 2021)
One of the most hated men in American history receives a different image in the Talon Films production Benedict Arnold: Hero Betrayed. Based on the book Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered by executive producer James Kirby Martin, the documentary portrays a man who seemed to have been forced into betraying his country because of his values, and his belief that they were being constantly trodden upon. The viewer is left with an impression that Arnold, a true American hero, should receive more sympathy than odium.
The movie starts with a picturesque opening of a cannon at West Point overlooking the Hudson River. Arnold, played by the actor Peter O’Meara (from HBO’s Band of Brothers), is running towards a rowboat in an effort to escape the American forces who had just learned of his betrayal. Arnold’s early life in Connecticut and his career as an apothecary are examined briefly. When he joins the Revolution, Arnold is a talented strategist and a natural leader. His value to the revolutionary cause is demonstrated time and time again, from his efforts to conquer Quebec to his campaign on Valcour Island in Lake Champlain. The chance for advancement is blocked by politicians in Congress, who listen to Arnold’s detractors instead of his biggest defender, Gen. George Washington. Arnold is passed over for promotion and ends serving under Horatio Gates (played by David Bunce) in the crucial battle at Saratoga, where the wounded Arnold is surely the real hero of the engagement.
Arnold’s betrayal of the American cause is presented as the only choice he has due to his constant disappointments and financial struggles. Arnold was enthusiastic at the start of the Revolution because he believed that his performance would lead to advancement, unlike the political ladder-climbing that made up British society—but he soon saw the American Congress and military leaders using politics to determine who would be properly rewarded. Congress was no different from the British political system, much to Arnold’s anger and disappointment. Added to this was his engagement and marriage to the young Peggy Shippen, whose social appetites were more than Arnold could afford. What choice did Arnold have but to join the British military (for a price)? His performance as a British officer brought death and destruction to his native Connecticut. After the war, Arnold was unwelcome both in Europe and America.
The documentary is certainly valuable. If I was still teaching, I would use it as a teaching resource. The use of real locations and Revolutionary War re-enactors gives the story some authenticity. Maps and computer graphics are also useful in the narrative. Several famous historians add their commentary at many points throughout, such as Carol Berkin, Thomas Fleming, Mark Lender, and Don Higginbotham, to name a few. The choice of Martin Sheen as the narrator gives the production some integrity. However, a few of the scenes are overly melodramatic. Peter O’Meara said very little in the movie, but he rather intensely stared at the camera for many moments. The actor who portrayed Gates made him look like the nickname given to him decades after the war, “Granny Gates.” And the choice of David M. Rawlin to play George Washington did not match up with His Excellency’s appearance.
The documentary really comes across as a justification for changing the view that people have had about Benedict Arnold over the past two centuries. It makes him out to be a misunderstood hero who was constantly spurned. It ignores Arnold’s duplicity and the role his young wife played. The reaction of Washington is barely mentioned. Washington was so angry about the betrayal that he actively sought Arnold’s head. And when Arnold joined the other side, his tactics were more violent than they had been previously. Why? Was he trying to prove something, or was he simply acknowledging his true feelings about the Revolution? Still, the documentary is worthwhile in many respects, no matter what one’s opinion of Arnold is.
Benedict Arnold: Hero Betrayed is available on Apple TV, You Tube, VIMEO, Vudu, and Amazon.
(If you choose to watch or purchase this film on Amazon by using this link, as an Amazon Associate, JAR earns from qualifying purchases. This helps toward providing our content free of charge.)