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.
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 War. This 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.