Review: The Premiere Episode of “Turn”

The main characters of "Turn".
The main characters of “Turn”.

Within minutes, I knew this production was going to suffer from something known as “American History Textbook Syndrome”. While this series, and any like it, needs a villain to match with the obvious protagonists, the depiction of British soldiers in AMC’s Turn was in the light of evil, bloodthirsty, and out of control—another reviewer for a major entertainment site used the word “sadistic”. Every time the British are on-screen, we feel scared at what horror they might do, from bayoneting dead soldiers just to make sure, to wrongly and knowingly accusing someone of a crime they did not commit, to having an unquenchable thirst for an already married woman. Skipping right to the character of Major Hewlett, played by Burn Gorman, he apparently is the only soldier in the King’s Army with any sense of decency, and no doubt was only inserted to keep the entire army from being seen as animals.

There were a few observations that could have begun this first episode review of Turn, but my strongest feelings were that of how the British soldiers were represented. I expected them to be seen in a negative light because, after all, this is an American show, but I do believe the series went too far in trying to shove them in the viewer’s face as the unquestioned “bad guys”. It is safe to say that both sides had their moments of extreme brutality, which we will probably see in all its digitized, bloody glory in the remaining episodes, but the opening scene of Rogers’ Rangers, and later on, when a brawl ensued in a local tavern, just went way over-the-top for me. That actually explains my feeling on the acting as a whole, despite two really good performances, which I will get to later. This show featured a lot of relatively unknown actors in key roles, which is usually fine if the quality of production can support them. Unfortunately, even with a decent production value that includes seemingly accurate uniforms and authentic sets, the acting is rather dull and the American characters are too modern—performances, on both sides, range from too much to too little, or simply not convincing enough.

What is worth watching, however, are the performances of Angus Macfadyen and Kevin McNally, who portray Robert Rogers and the main character’s father, Richard Woodhull, respectively. Both bring this series to the highest level it can hope to achieve, whenever they are on-screen. McNally does a great job in portraying a father who is a loyalist, yet has a son who seems to be on the verge of getting involved with the patriot cause. He does everything he can to protect him from his actions, until finally, he cannot take it anymore. As for Macfadyen, his character will be a source of controversy among historians. He plays the part very well, and I always thought he was an underrated actor. However, his character is rather hefty for a solider in the 1700’s. I spoke to my friend about this, a co-author of a book on Rogers, and asked what he thought. Surprisingly, he said the character’s weight might not be inaccurate, since a 1775 newspaper referred to him as “strong, robust, and bold”. I still think he is a little too robust, especially for a soldier like a ranger constantly on the move; there is no way he would be pushing 280. What definitely is inaccurate, though, is his beard, which Rogers (and to my knowledge, any soldiers in the British army) never sported. Also, every picture I have ever seen of his company has them wearing green uniforms. While I cannot be completely sure if they dressed the same in the Seven Years War and American Revolution, I have never seen them wearing anything else—in this series, they are wearing brown, almost looking like militia.

Alas, Robert Rogers and his Rangers always seem to be involved in something controversial. In Turn, they are bloodthirsty “mercenaries”, a highly inaccurate term. While they were not part of the regular army, they still were British soldiers, labelled “provincial irregulars”, which is a far cry from Hessian soldiers used by the British who were mercenaries in the truest sense of the word. Even as far back as 1940, this group could not get a fair shake. In Northwest Passage, they are led by (again), a bearded Spencer Tracy, in one of the most racist films against Indians that Hollywood could ever crank out. It was a sign of the times, though, and not many seemed to be bothered by the depiction of those “red devil” Indians. Strangely enough, that film too suffered from American History Textbook Syndrome.

There are still some bright spots in accuracy: the depiction of a heavy loyalist sentiment in New York and New Jersey is very important, because it shows how divided we truly were as a soon-to-be nation, and how the textbooks are usually wrong in showing every colonist as a patriot (so there, they got that right!). Another subtlety which I liked was showing New York farmers owning slaves. This is something else that has been done wrong over the years, and that is always wanting to lambast the south for slavery, while ignoring that northerners owned many themselves. While hardly any mention is given to it in this first episode, they are seen working the fields.

All in all, the premiere of Turn is bipolar. It has moments of greatness, such as the uniforms and sets, and even the gritty realism of the small skirmish in the end. The dialogue is also wonderful, but it comes across as uninspired because of the acting behind it. The first episode does plod through in a very dull manner, with generally poor acting performances, but I will give it leeway in the hopes that it is just setting up the rest of the series. I need to see more to fully gauge how I feel, but for now, the rating I will give it is a 6.5 out of 10. The remaining episodes need more balance, and need to show the brutality that both sides exhibited, not just laying it all on the British and making the Americans look like action heroes. The end of the first show was definitely the high-point of excitement, and we see where the spy ring is beginning to form, so it will keep me watching, but I am certainly expecting more from episode two.

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5 thoughts on “Review: The Premiere Episode of “Turn”

  1. I thought Burn Gorman’s performance in the film was the worst of the lot. Way too over-the-top to be believable. Only problem I had with Angus MacFayden was he had so little to do in this episode. A great actor wasted, IMHO.

  2. Ken

    Just curious, have you read Alexander Rose’s “Washington’s Spies”, in particular Chapter 5? Seems to me that the British portrayal in ‘Turn’, while not entirely historically accurate (i.e. Col. Simcoe was in Oyster Bay and not in Setauket), was a fairly good indication of how the people of Long Island were, at times, inhumanly treated even though most were Loyalists.

    1. No, I have not. But I have greatly studied the Revolutionary War in the NY/NJ area, mainly because for four years, I worked at the mansion home (now museum) of Royal Gov. William Franklin. I’m sure people were mistreated, by various factions, but that does not mean character assassination needs to be committed on a man like Lt. Simcoe. Please see my follow-up article regarding that.

  3. Chris Evans

    Excellent review. I think the series might be a golden missed opportunity on the American Revolution.

    I wish the American Revolution (in a series not named ‘John Adams’ and ‘George Washington’) could be portrayed one time as the British not being the forerunners to the Third Reich.

    I was thrilled to see the British depicted as quartering horse in a church. I only thought that was a Southern legend about the infernal Yankees.

    I think it would be interesting to see both sides depicted with flaws and virtues.

    Chris

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