Here’s a heads-up for Turn viewers who are a few episodes behind–this post contains spoilers. Ye be warned.
Gen. Charles Lee’s capture is one of the most dramatic and humorous episodes of the American Revolution. Lee was one of the war’s most colorful figures, an eccentric and unkempt British veteran who was habitually accompanied by a pack of pet dogs. On the eve of the war he hung up his red coat and adopted America as his home country, fired with a commitment to Whiggish principles. Lee’s experience got him a commission in the Continental Army, where (like his fellow expatriate Horatio Gates) he became one of Washington’s critics.
Despite his commander-in-chief’s entreaties, Lee dithered while the rest of the army retreated across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania in 1776. On December 12 he stopped for the night at a tavern in Basking Ridge, NJ. British dragoons found him there the next morning, still undressed and several miles from the safety of his troops. Women inside the tavern offered to hide him, but Lee gave himself up when the British threatened to set fire to the building. (Incidentally, one of the dragoons who captured him was Banastre Tarleton, who went on to make a name for himself in the Southern Campaign.) The troublesome general spent the next sixteen months in captivity, offering advice to the British on how to defeat his former compatriots.
Last week’s episode of Turn depicted Lee’s capture, but changed the circumstances. The show has Lee falling into the hands of John André while playing hide-and-seek with a young woman who, unknown to him, is a British operative.
It’s an amusing scene. But it’s no more amusing than the actual circumstances of Lee’s capture. Why the change to the historical record?
I don’t have a problem with dramatic license. People who adapt history have to compress events, get inside the characters’ heads, and combine historic figures into composites.
If the story is told well, I can forgive all manner of distortions. I liked 300. I liked The Patriot, for crying out loud. In fact, the grand scheme of things, The Patriot‘s distortions are much more substantial than the liberties Turn took with Lee’s capture, but they don’t irk me as much because I can see the rationale behind them. Modern audiences wouldn’t be comfortable with a slaveowner protagonist, so you make his field hands free men. People want the villain to get what’s coming to him, so instead of having Tarleton/Tavington escape from the field at Cowpens, you have Mel Gibson shove a bayonet in his throat. I get that.
What I don’t get are these little departures that don’t really amount to any improvement over what actually happened. Would a straightforward depiction of Lee’s capture in his nightgown at a Basking Ridge tavern have been any less entertaining than the “Marco Polo” scene? I don’t think so. Nor do I think the notion of Lee passing information to the British before his capture adds anything in terms of entertainment value.
I don’t really intend this to be a criticism of the show. I’ve been enjoying it; in fact, it’s getting better with each episode, especially now that major players like Washington and Cornwallis are putting in appearances. I just get puzzled and irritated when filmmakers sacrifice accuracy for no apparent payoff.