AMC’s “TURN”: Reviews are Out

If you were like me at nine o’clock last night, then you were probably watching AMC’s new series “TURN.” It is a dramatized television series based on Alexander Rose’s Washington Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring.  I say “based on” because the series draws on the book for inspiration but deviates from historical accounts. The same is suggested by J. L. Bell, the owner and operator of the Boston 1775 blog. In his recent review of the new show, Bell points out that

the creators took names and basic circumstances from that history and went off in their own direction to find drama. For example, the show begins in “Autumn 1776,” two years before the spy ring got organized. (And I’m not sure why.)

Adding to the historical inaccuracies Bell points out that,

 the real Abraham Woodhull wasn’t being tugged in different directions within his family; his father was a Patriot, but the show turned him into a Loyalist for drama. The real Abraham Woodhull was only ten years old when Anna Smith married, and there’s no evidence he carried a torch for her. The show is not only driven by their unfulfilled relationship, but it gives him a wife and baby boy for more drama.

Bell includes links to his more comprehensive review (here) and Michael Schellhammer’s recent review for the Journal of the American Revolution, where he states that

The timeline [of TURN] 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.

Despite the historical inaccuracies, I agree with both Bell and Schellhammer in saying that TURN  is a form of entertainment to be enjoyed. And, as Schellhammer points out, these inaccuracies do not detract from the core element of historical significance, the human interactions that were the “essence of Revolutionary War spying.”

What intrigues me the most about the series premier is the inclusion of a character I am all too familiar with, Robert Rogers. Rogers is a noted American Colonial frontiersman who fought on the side of the British in the French and Indian and American Revolutionary Wars. Rogers is somewhat of a patriarch to American special forces (i.e. Army Rangers). He led his “Rangers” into battle and used unorthodox tactics, more Native American in nature, against European and Indian foes. This is probably what excites me more than anything. In what little battle scenes will be depicted in this series, I hope the filmmakers focus more on what John Grenier calls, The First War of WarThis was somewhat accurately portrayed in Rogers introductory scene revealing a brutal “total” way of war.

Although I am still on the fence in regards to whether or not the show is bad, okay, good or great, so far I am entertained and will more than likely be watching again next Sunday. If you haven’t already, make sure you follow Boston 1775 and the Journal of the American Revolution. They are both worth the read.


One comment

  1. I have to say that I did not watch the show. I was watching Game of Thrones. While I appreciate AMC making a series with the Revolution as the setting, I only have so much time to watch TV. Therefore Turn is going to have to be a DVD show. As I teach a class on American History on film, I think two ways of movies set in the past. One, for the most part they are inaccurate. The stories are almost always distorted or changed in order to present a watchable and entertaining show.
    On the other hand, these shows get people’s attention and they start asking questions. So they do serve as teachable moments which is great. It is plainly obvious from the attendance figures at NPS sites that people are interested in the past. Most people know that TV and movies are not going to be completely accurate, but there are some who are too lazy to actually open a book and do believe what they see on TV. I do not think we will reach these people too well.
    Personally, I think the American Revolution was an awesome time in our nation’s history. It could have gone either way on many occasions. I would love to get Ken Burns or his crew to work a documentary on the Revolution. I really enjoy teaching about this period of time more than any other one. Students just do not know many of the details of this period and it is a lot of fun to see them discover things from this era that explain why later events occurred as they did.
    And yes, The Journal of the American Revolution is a great website along with J.L.’s. I have been fortunate enough to have a few articles published on the site and hope to have more over time. The information being distributed through that site is simply outstanding.

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