Our review of The A&E Adventure Collection, published December 21st, 2008, is also available.
How the greatest general of the Revolution became its worst enemy.
Every American schoolchild grows up knowing the name of Benedict Arnold. However, beyond the vague assertion that he betrayed his country and sold out the Revolution, precious little is ever taught about him. To this day in the US, people know his name, like that of Judas Iscariot, as a synonym for traitor, but few bother to learn how or why he attained such a level of legendary infamy. A&E's miniseries about his career and downfall reveals some long-ignored details about the life and motivations of this once-revered but now universally reviled figure in American history.
Facts of the Case
General Benedict Arnold (Aidan Quinn, Legends of the Fall) is hailed throughout the colonies for his bold military exploits. Sometimes he is successful, earning himself fame as the "Hero of Saratoga." Other times he is less successful, such as during the bold raid on Quebec, but even then his bravery under fire is hailed by his countrymen. All except the ones in Congress, that is, who refuse to pay him for his service and regard him with suspicion. Wounded severely in both pride and body, Arnold resigns his commission and returns home to Connecticut in an attempt to reunite with his young sons and salvage his once impressive personal holdings.
When his old friend George Washington (Kelsey Grammer, Cheers, Frasier, Toy Story II) calls him back to service, he has no choice but to do his duty. Arnold becomes military administrator of Philadelphia, and quickly becomes embroiled in the tensions between the Patriots and the Tories. He also wastes no time in using his new position to benefit himself financially through questionable deals with merchants attempting to supply the colonies with various necessary goods. He soon meets and marries Peggy Shippen (Flora Montgomery), a beautiful young woman and daughter of one of Philadelphia's most prominent Loyalist families. This serves to harm Arnold even further in the eyes of the Revolutionary politicians of the day.
Distrusted and detested by the very countrymen he has fought to liberate, Arnold becomes embittered. Egged on by his new Tory wife, he makes contact with the British army, seeking to switch sides and perhaps regain a measure of his former military stature.
A&E show their usual attention to quality with this DVD release of one of their trademark historical dramas. The video is presented full-frame, as one would expect of a movie made for television. The picture is clear and sharp and is perfectly adequate to the task at hand, Colors are vivid and lifelike across the spectrum, for redcoats and bluecoats alike. There is little evidence of any of the usual litany of digital transfer issues.
The sound is a bit less impressive. It is a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix that does little beyond reproducing the auditory experience of watching Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor on broadcast television. In fact, it may even be a bit worse than that, with a lot of echoing and a generally hollow sound. Dialogue comes through nicely and is easily understandable, but other sounds, such as those found in battle scenes, are disappointing and lack punch.
There are only three extra features on this disc, but what features they are! The main attraction is the Benedict Arnold episode of A&E's award-winning Biography series. After watching the film a lot of the information here will seem repetitive, which is more a credit to the filmmakers than it is an indictment of the Biography episode. This is an excellent feature to include on this DVD, and helps to further illuminate this poorly understood historical figure.
Also included is a "making of" featurette. It runs for twenty-two minutes, giving it more substance than some of the cursory features of this kind on other discs. This featurette provides an interesting look into the making of the movie, including the intense attention to historical accuracy and detail. There are also the usual soundbites from the actors, who discus their characters and experiences in making the film. It is fairly standard information, but its inclusion here is welcome and a good-faith effort on the part of A&E.
The final pieces of extra content are brief biographies of Grammer and Quinn.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It is disappointing that a film about such a fascinating man should fail to resonate with the viewer. Even for a history buff like myself, Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor is more of a chore than a pleasure to watch. The writing is full of exposition and flowery, stilted language that may in fact be historically accurate but in large measure prevents the characters from coming to life. There is also an attempt to create conflict through an ongoing feud with Congressman Reed of Philadelphia, but this subplot comes across as heavy-handed. Again, it may be based on historical fact but it is presented in an unconvincing manner. Also unconvincing are some of the supposedly pivotal battle scenes, which, like the Continental army, suffer from a meager budget.
By far the biggest weakness of this production is the two leading men. It appears that Kelsey Grammer has been playing Frasier Crane for so long that he can no longer separate himself from the character. He struts through the film not so much playing Washington as depicting Frasier's probable interpretation of the part. Quinn fares little better; at times he is able to muster the internal fire necessary for the role, but for the most part he wanders through the role with a look and delivery that seems more inspired by Nyquil than any understanding of American history or the character.
It beats Devlin and Emmerich's The Patriot, but not by much. Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor is especially frustrating in light of some of the excellent period and historical films that A&E has produced over the years, ranging from Longitude to the Horatio Hornblower films to their recent film about the Shackleton expedition. This is a rare misfire for them, but is no less disappointing for that; this is a fascinating historical character that should have made for a much better film. Thankfully, this DVD also includes the Biography episode examining Arnold, which is all the more notable because it shows the quality of which the A&E people are capable. The feature presentation is that much more disappointing by comparison.
Not guilty! It's not a great film, but it's not terrible either, and the Biography portrait of Benedict Arnold definitely redeems the DVD in the eyes of this court.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Benedict Arnold Episode of A&E's Biography
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