“Turn” and Character Assassination: Meet the Real John Simcoe

453px-ColonelSimcoe

As elaborated on in my review of the premiere episode of Turn this morning, the British army is not exactly portrayed in a positive light. Though there needs to be an antagonist in the series, I believe the production went too far in trying to vilify the British, and one character in particular, Lieutenant John Simcoe. This man was the main villain in the opening episode, seen as bloodthirsty, threatening, and adulterous; someone who will try to get whatever he wants by any means necessary. In reality, there did exist a John Graves Simcoe, however, he was radically different, and almost the antithesis of what was presented on AMC Sunday night. The term used to classify taking a real person in history and then having their portrayal starkly inaccurate is called “character assassination”. We see it all the time in films, when dramatic license is taken to show a character in a certain light to fit the plot, or, quite frankly, to make it easier for the writer. The fact is, the real John Simcoe was a man so distinguished that he would eventually become the Lt. Governor of Upper Canada, someone responsible for the establishment of courts, trial by jury, and most importantly, leading an abolitionist movement that sought to banish slavery from Canada. This is a far cry from the wigged buffoon presented in Turn, who has murderous revenge on his mind when dealing with the main character.

Was John Simcoe a soldier who led men into battle, and in turn, killed other men? Yes, but how is that any different from any other soldier, on both sides, in any war ever fought? That does not mean his character (and I mean personal, real character) should be stripped of all its dignity to be portrayed in the worst way possible just because a “bad guy” is needed. Roland Emmerich did nearly the same thing in The Patriot, taking British Dragoon officer Banastre Tarleton, changing his name to William Tavington (possibly to avoid criticism such as this), and turning him into a mass murderer who orders his men to burn down a church packed with innocent civilians, including women and children. The creators of Turn have done something much worse, though, and that is keeping Simcoe’s name, and turning him into something that did not exist.

I understand this is a work of historical fiction, which is a blending of fact, exaggeration, and fiction when needed, but they would have been better served creating a character out of thin air and inserting him into the plot along with people who really did exist, because that would still classify it in the same genre and we could then say, “Well, someone like that might have existed”. From a historical standpoint, some of the most accurate films in history have had fictional characters intermixed with real ones, such as Buster Kilrain in Gettysburg. No one complained about that.

The real John Simcoe was a brilliant strategist who did specialize in surprise attacks, but as a member of the Queen’s Rangers, that would have been a part of the job description, and part of a new style of guerrilla warfare that was developing in the colonies. The American website focusing mainly on the War of 1812, The Silent Canoe, says of Simcoe, “[He] showed great wisdom as a military strategist. He directed the Queen’s Rangers to be outfitted in green, the first British Regiment to use uniforms as camouflage. He personally trained many soldiers in surprise attacks, speed and close combat, all necessary tactics in the wilderness conditions of North America.”

Of his character, this same website claims, “Referred to as ‘brave, humane and honest’ by the Duke of Northumberland, John Graves Simcoe was known as chivalrous and compassionate to enemy soldiers. He did not see a need to kill, unless it was justified. But this does not mean that he was not a fierce leader. Rumor had it that John Graves Simcoe once had a soldier killed in Britain because he stepped out of line.” Did I mention this was an American website? As for executing a soldier for stepping out of line, such an action was not uncommon at that time period, especially for an army as disciplined as Britain’s. After all, George Washington had men executed for desertion, and many other offenses.

As to his political views, here is a complete and total shocker: “Governor Simcoe recognized that most of the province’s first settlers had grown up or lived a good part of their lives in the United States, and would not be happy unless there was some form of democracy. Simcoe was certain that the limited powers of the Town Councils would be enough to appease the republican-minded Americans.”

The point of this article is not to glorify Simcoe, but to add some balance to what was a very much-watched opening episode, where people with little to no knowledge of the American Revolution will get the wrong idea of the British army, or the “losers” in any war as a whole, because the winner gets to write the textbook. Their depiction in Turn is akin to any negative, stereotypical depiction in the history of Hollywood or mass media. The enemy is always seen as evil. When the Americans win, it was a battle. When the enemy wins, it was a massacre or slaughter. Thus is the type of feeling we get toward the British here, something that is unfair to history, especially if young, impressionable eyes are watching.

Expected? Yes. Disappointing? Absolutely.

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26 thoughts on ““Turn” and Character Assassination: Meet the Real John Simcoe

  1. Chris Evans

    Excellent review of Simcoe. I’m tired of the psychotic British officer portrayal. Looks like John Andre will be getting the full womanizer pretty terrible guy treatment too.

    I totally agree about Tarleton and ‘The Patriot’. The wonderful website at http://home.golden.net/~marg/bansite/btintro.html really separates fact from fiction about him and other aspects of the American Revolution.

    Chris

    1. Banister Tarton enjoyed killing. Now, whether or not the Church burning was contrived he thoroughly enjoyed his job and the soldiers that served with him agreed and even feared he was crossing lines.

  2. Rob

    Thanks for your comments. I agree wholeheartedly, to the point that I thought that the character in question may have been intended as a “different” Simcoe. After it was clear that it was indeed John Graves Simcoe, I had to really wonder why they wouldn’t have simply chosen a fictional name for their lead antagonist.

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  4. Doug

    Thanks Greg. Your piece on Simcoe should be required reading for every student in America, who after seeing TURN, will no doubt want to sever relations with Britain. Here we are only a little more than two centuries after the revolution and the accounts of it have become pure fiction. It was especially galling to see the portrayal of John Graves Simcoe, a man in real life of high principal and so important in the development of Canada. I had quit watching TURN after a couple of episodes but rejoined the series during the marathon last Sunday. It’s painful but I guess I will stick it out. PBS did a wonderful coverage of the war at:

  5. Mike

    In the interest of balance, Major Simcoe did lead the rangers in the Hancock House massacre which was ruthless and lacking restraint by the war conventions of the day.

    …but it would have been better if they made up a non-historical figure if they needed a sociopath. He does play a great sociopath.

  6. Thanks for this post. I’m halfway through watching the second season online. I had looked up info on the series to see how much of it was historically accurate. I quickly found that Simcoe didn’t fit the show’s description.

  7. Sheeva

    I enjoy the dramatization in general of TURN. However, I too was initially confused and now disappointed at the extreme character assassination of Lord John Graves Simcoe. We all know history is always rewritten by the victors but to portray Simcoe to such an extent as a blatant sociopath must have staggered the show’s writer’s imagination. Renaming the character would have been the simpler and ethical route.

    1. A Harris

      LOL you all must be Brits or Kuncks !!! I never heard such cry n when Mel Gibson made the great movie Patriot, where British burned a church full of worshipers !! Get over it guys, fact is both sides especially the British took liberty with vile killing during our revolution. Good thing they did, or we may be suffering the invasion of savages you all are going through now…..

      1. Nell

        LOL you must be one of them thar yanks with an inferior education. What’s a Kunck by the way? Aside from the fact that Simcoe is very much revered in Canada, streets, towns, counties, schools and holidays named after him, what you are forgetting is that he was a soldier, doing what soldiers do – including, and even especially, your own, US bred soldiers. Washington is portrayed on Turn as a fine-looking, rational, gentle fellow. He was just as barbaric by modern standards as you are making Simcoe out to be. And a nose-picking ugly old coot, not the handsome actor portraying him in Turn. Britain was defending its Empire, its colonies, and not all colonists wanted to become a Republic. By the way, an American once told me that he considered the “founding fathers” a bunch of dirty old farts – womanizers, barbarians, adulterers, hypocrites.

        Leaving aside Iraq, Afghanistan and all modern theatres of US-led illegal wars, I would just point out the Moros massacre perpetrated in the Philippines by the Americans. Speaking of ruthless – the so-called Hancock House “massacre” pales by comparison.

        By the way – do you seriously swallow your BS that Patton saved the world in WW2? Do you not realize you have been taught garbage with you at the centre and core of all heroics? Did you learn history from Saving Private Ryan? Monument Men? US self-aggrandizement so idiotic; trying to knock your pompous false glory out of your heads is like smashing oneself repeatedly against the proverbial cement wall.

        History is rewritten by the victors? That must be why there is so much false history in the US, i.e. the perception that you are always the “winners.” In which sense were the British “the vanquished”? They lost the colony that became the US, but went on over the next two centuries to grow the Empire, and kept their presence in Canada, which is still part of the British Commonwealth (and not alone in being so). Whether the US wins or not, or shows up late (WW2) or right at the end (WW1), the US always claims a thousand times more than it ever accomplished. Oh – and I don’t dislike Americans, but I do dislike when they are willfully ignorant, think they are learning history when they are sitting in front of a TV watching adulterated history, read only American textbooks, and make claims to a grandeur that exists only in their minds.

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  9. Sally Miller

    Major Simcoe was almost as bad as portrayed. Read up on the Hancock House Massacre and about his time in Haddonfield, NJ. My ancestor was one of the lucky ones not to have been killed at the massacre at the Hancock house, but the innocent Hancock’s were not as lucky. My ancestor was captured and imprisoned in Philadelphia and then left to rot in prison when the British abandoned Philadelphia. The Hancock house was not the only massacre that occurred at the hands of Simcoe. In my opinion, I’m glad they show the two polar opposites of British officers. There were brutal ones like Simcoe and then gentlemen like Major Hewlett.

  10. Jason Kroll

    You say he’s portrayed as a “buffoon”. I couldn’t disagree more with your statement. Ruthless, shrewd, relentless, cruel, skilled, etc. But not buffoon. To the contrary, Simcoe in Turn is quite articulate and thoughtful, while at the same time a ruthless practitioner of violence. This contrast is what makes his character so compelling to me. I love it. He’s the best character in Turn in my opinion.

  11. I wouldn’t go as far as painting Simcoe as a Saint but the least the producers could have done was replace his real name with a fake name as the average person would not have none the difference or cared anyway Also this Man went on to a great career after the war. Of course a Man in his position would not have the compassion of an ordinary Man. What would we have done without men like General Patten in World War Two? Who would you like to have in Command during a war, a Captain Simcoe who would give you a better chance at survival or a Major Hewlett who was in my opinion a wimp if his portrayal is true

  12. Betty Knowlton

    How about “mad King George”? True he became insane later but at the time he was considered personable, if stubborn. Yes, books, plays, and especially film will take whatever license they feel like, for ratings, $$ or whatever. Was Abraham Woodhull really an adulterer? Did Washington really know about Charles Lee? For that matter was Washington really the saint he is portrayed to be? I have done a great deal of reading about Washington and the era. Actually imo he was 🙂

    1. Grumpycat

      King George III was not ill until the late 1770s, and recovered (and relapsed later), and he was very much missed by Parliamentarians when he was out of action.

      It isn’t really the same question anyway: Simcoe is very much revered in Eastern Canada and a lot is known about him. You might say he was the architect of Upper Canada. It’s not a matter of an unknown detail like the possible romantic affair of a fairly minor historical personage. Perhaps the producers thought they might get away with the assassination of Simcoe because, after all, it’s “only Canada”. Artistic licence is not the same as sheer fabrication and the destruction of a person’s legacy.

      As someone else said, the producers should have changed his name. But, really, Hollywood is the dregs, so we might as well bear in mind the old cliché that where something comes from is important to how seriously we take something. Sadly, too many Americans will believe the rubbish on television.

  13. Kellie

    I appreciate that Greg took the time to point out (yet another) historical inaccuracy in a television show; and clearly he felt very passionately about the need to do so. As a historian myself, I understand and respect the sentiment.

    Where I take issue however, is the emphasis devoted to criticizing “American” entertainment, “American” websites, and “American” leanings towards their wars and conflicts. Because, you see, I loathe hypocritical buffoonery a lot more than historically inaccurate movies or television shows.

    First and foremost, intelligent people don’t confuse entertainment with education. As a Medieval historian, the movie Braveheart is essentially 178 minutes of irritation for me. I could certainly blog my outrage, especially over 13th-century Scotsmen running around the countryside in kilts, or I could just remind myself: it’s only a movie. I choose the latter.

    That aside, to single-out the United States, or any country, for “rewriting” their histories, or slanting their historical events is ludicrous. Aside from the understanding that two groups can perceive the same event in entirely different ways; intelligent people understand that every country is guilty of this. Every country. Yes, even yours. In fact, if you live in a country older than the United States, you’ve been doing it longer. Thousands of specific examples abound.

    Historians study bias so we’re able to recognize it, understand it, and avoid it. It’s not called “character assassination” either; stop being so dramatic. Portraying a person or event inaccurately is called “Historical Negationism”; and it’s usually employed for far more malevolent reasons than increasing the entertainment value of a television show.

    The United States is no more bias toward their history than the British, or Canadians, or French … or anyone else for that matter. To suggest otherwise is doltish. Ask someone from Ireland to give you a history lesson and see if it matches up with England’s version of those same events. Ask a Canadian about the Alaska Boundary Dispute, or a Russian, and see if that matches the way England and the United States saw the situation. Was Napoleon a tyrant or a visonary? Let’s ask the French; while we’re at it, let’s ask the Brits and Italians and Germans what they thought too; I’m sure their accounts of his actions and character will all be identical – right? It’s all nonsense. Most times people within a single nation can’t come to any consensus about these things.

    No single country is any more, or less, guilty than another of revising history. This show painted several characters more negatively than probably deserved; Benedict Arnold for one, King George III for another; they didn’t even get Paul Revere’s famous ride entirely correct. Oh yeah, and what about poor little Nathan Hale? His ONLY claim to fame was that he said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose… ” and this show charged that he NEVER said it. They negated the only thing he was revered for. Talk about diminishing someone’s character! They also showed several examples of patriot troops manipulating, laming, raping and profiting off their own people; so I would sincerely disagree that this is a “good guy”/”bad guy” type of show.

    If you’re outraged ANY television drama or movie isn’t historically accurate, when it never claims to be, you’re foolish. If you’re convinced it’s only Americans doing such things you’re an idiot. We’re all taught patriotism and nationalism from a very young age – and that’s good. But allowing your sense of patriotism or nationalism to color your view of the world is never good. People of almost all tertiary nations are more similar than not – it’s probably best to try and remember that and stop inflating your outrage over TV. Or, if you honestly can’t help yourself, be even-handed about it; acknowledge the times your entertainment outlets have been guilty of the same. I watch the BBC, CBC, and CTV quote a lot as I’ve mentioned, and I promise you’ll have no trouble finding examples.

    1. Grumpycat

      Considering that “negationism” (revisionism in my day) is a criminal offence in certain countries (Germany comes to mind), it is not such an innocent activity. If an entire series were devoted to Holocaust denial, I’m fairly certain more than a few people would be upset. Does it matter whether the intent is malevolent or just entertainment, or does the possible effect not matter? Does being a filmmaker mean that you have no constraints?

      Alternative history is a different story: where filmmakers purport to be making a historical film, they have a certain responsibility. Where they are exploring a “possible world” where such a thing might not have occurred (Napoleon was nobody, Hitler was never born, the Allies lost WW1 or 2 etc.), they may have more leeway as long as there are no internal contradictions. But Turn is not alternative history.

      Historians would be the first to say that bias is not avoidable. And you go on to say the same thing when you claim that people cannot come to a consensus about historical events and figures. Obviously some consensus is possible, especially where there are ample records (as with Simcoe).

      You say that we are all “taught patriotism”: now, if you knew anything about Canada and its history, you would know that is not the case. In the last 10 years or so, perhaps a kind of national pride is being instilled in young people but in the past, the whole notion of “patriotism” – essentially, making a fuss about how great one’s country is – was alien and repulsive to both the Canadians and the British. We considered it doltish to fly flags on our houses (it’s now more common). Rightly or wrongly, like it or not, Canada’s approach to its own history has been completely different from the US approach to its history. You can’t paint everyone with the same brush to make your point.

      As to people distinguishing between history and entertainment, I’m sorry to say that even intelligent people may not do so. Many people are not intellectually curious enough, though they may be clever, to look up the facts about a man like Simcoe either because he is not relevant to their experience or because they are too lazy. Simcoe is woven especially into Ontario’s daily life – you can’t avoid him (counties, towns, streets, statues, schools, parks and history classes). Perhaps for that reason you might be a bit more sensitive to how Canadians feel about him and how stupidly and badly we feel he is portrayed in Turn. The simplest solution to all this? They should have chosen a made-up name for their made-up character.

      1. directly corrector

        Simcoe was brutal in America, he acted differently in Canada, where he ruled over a sea of loyalists. Plus the much of the “ample records” you speak of were written by Simcoe himself. Just because you don’t like the history doesn’t make it true.

  14. Frank Fedarko

    I have enjoyed watching TURN as it brought that petiod in history to life in a quite entertaining way. While I expected some dramatic license in its handling of historical events and figures, I confess to being disappointed by the excess in depicting characters like Simcoe to further the storyline. I agree his name should not have beeen used. I think the producers should have acknowledged their historical alterations for dramatic effect with a preamble to the episodes, advising the viewer that such liberties were taken and preventing those liberties from being taken for historical fact. In any case, I have enjoyed. TURN as TV dramatized history, not a historically accurate review.

  15. Robert

    I am glad you wrote this since my ancestor Elnathan Appleby served under Simcoe as a Sergeant in the Queens Rangers. I watch Turn, and just treat it as nothing but fiction. Maybe they need a disclaimer at the beginning of the show.

  16. Patricia Emerick

    I’m enjoying TURN, but as a viewer and an amateur historian I wish AMC hadn’t been so lose with the truth. This will be the only exploration of the American revolution that many viewers will have, and they will come away with a false understanding of what happened. When producers tackle historical subjects they have assumed a responsibility to educate as well as to entertain, whether they like it or not.

    1. Frank Fedarko

      Producers/directors are out to create a bankable product. In that light they are prone to doing what they think will sell their product. I can appreciate how TURN was created. And I always hope that the creators of such shows won’t overstep their dramatic license. But I also would hope that the viewing public is aware enough not to mistake an entertaining historical drama for a fact-based historical documentary. Human nature, especially in times of conflict, is more mundane and ugly than the drama and social interactions such programs portray.

  17. Jenn Hoff

    I agree with Kellie. Character assassination for entertainment is unconscionable. But we should be blaming the producers and script writers of shows that do this, not Americans in general. That’s oversimplifying it a TAD.
    One thing that always strikes me about war is that it is basically the same kinds of men and women on each side. Rarely are soldiers truly fighting because of an ideology they agree with, with the exception of revolutions. They are just people who are fighting because they need money, were ordered to do so, didn’t know what else to do, are patriotic, think it will be glorious, or some other reason. So I find it much more interesting when soldiers on opposing sides are portrayed as good and decent human beings, because most of them are. I’ve liked Capt. Andre in TURN for that reason. He’s such a gentle soul. (I’m only on season 2). That’s more compelling than Simcoe’s portrayed character anyway.

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