Tag Archives: Culper Spy Ring

Did the Culper Ring get its due? A review of AMC’s “Turn”

From the poster of AMC's "Turn"

From the poster of AMC’s “Turn”

In the world of espionage, the best recognition is no recognition at all.

The front of the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia have monuments to fallen agents, sculptures on intelligence gathering, and a statue of Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary war spy who got caught and hanged in September of 1776.  The fallen agents went down due to numerous factors (possibly including incompetence), the intelligence gathering is nothing to celebrate, especially lately, and Hale is remembered more for supposed valor at the gallows than any real prowess as a spy.

Yet there is little public fanfare for the first successful spy agency in American history.

For most Americans, the recent debut of the AMC series Turn is their introduction to the Culper Ring, a network of spies and couriers that operated in New York City, Long Island and Connecticut during the Revolution.  For me, and anyone who went to school on Long Island, the Culper Ring was part of our common knowledge.  Part of my American history class was devoted to local history, and the Culper Ring featured prominently–I had to memorize the names and roles of Benjamin Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull, Caleb Brewster and the like.

We even used some of their codes and encryption methods in class–which is especially fun when coding out swear words to your classmates.

Yet beyond the spycraft and 18-century Bond-like gadgetry, the Culper Ring was successful in the quality and quantity of their information (they supposedly discovered the Benedict Arnold betrayal and the British ambush on French troops in Rhode Island) as well as keeping their cover.  The original ring kept their identities hidden to the grave, and most of these identities  weren’t discovered until the 1930s.

This was a story that just begged to be made for the screen, and AMC has done it right, for now, in releasing their story as a series.  Is this new drama worthy of the exploits of the Culper gang?  Two episodes in, the verdict is still out, but the results look promising.

The series is based on Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies and begins in a supposed backwater of the war–Suffolk County, Long Island.  Yet it is here, in the north shore hamlet of Setauket, where the ring begins to take shape.  Benjamin Tallmadge, a Continental major (and Yale classmate of Nathan Hale) recruits his reluctant friend Abraham Woodhull on a mission to transmit information to the rebel base across Long Island Sound in Connecticut.  Woodhull is portrayed as a typical non-committal farmer ala Mel Gibson’s melodramatic Benjamin Martin in The Patriot.  His loyalist (for now) father is the local magistrate and friends with the local commander of the British garrison.  As a struggling farmer, Woodhull just wants to stay out of the way, until events push him towards Tallmadge and rebel espionage.

After two episodes (including a one and a half hour pilot) I can see where the creators are going with this.  It’s great that the show is taking its time in developing the establishment of the spy network.  In real life, establishing confidants, sources and “assets” to “turn” (spyspeak for getting an asset to spy on their side) takes time and dangerous planning.  The show is also accurate in developing the perspectives and loyalties of everyday colonists of the time.  Even among the loyalists, you get a sense that the characters are loyal less out of any sense of connection and more of expediency.  The patriots also seem less like the textbook noble heroes and more human, driven by more tangible needs than simply love of liberty.

Selections from the Culper spy code, courtesy of the Three Village School District.

Selections from the Culper spy code, courtesy of the Three Village School District.

Another fun feature of the show is its interactive features.  The Turn website features an option called Story Sync.  Designed to be used simultaneously with the broadcast, Story Sync features information about the historical characters, quizzes, polls, and little asides designed to enrich the experience.  There are also links to interactive maps, spy materials, and other resources that an educator can use.  I already see how these can create a home Blu-Ray or DVD loaded with surprises.

However, the construction of the basic drama, at least now, seems formulaic.  It establishes a clueless British commander in Major Hewlett, a one-dimensional, wooden villain in Captain Simcoe (who reminds me of Colonel Tavington in The Patriot without the charisma), and a somewhat contrived love triangle between Woodhull, his wife, and Anna Strong, a local tavernkeeper who was once engaged to Woodhull and whose husband is in prison for an attack on a British officer.  I will admit, I didn’t read Rose’s book yet, but I do think this romance is more a creation of the screenwriters and less a development of actual events.

In terms of dramatic license, there needs to be some slack given.  Until recently, there was little evidence as to the existence of the ring at all, let alone their day-to-day operations.  So we can forgive the writers somewhat in their zeal to fill in the blanks.

In that vein, Robert Rogers offers a fun way to develop the story.  Rogers, a hero of the French and Indian War and a founder of modern military rangers, had serious legal issues in Britain and returned to America as an erratic alcoholic during the Revolution.  He offered his services to whoever would pay him: first Washington, who (wisely it seems) didn’t trust him, and then the British.  He created another Ranger unit that helped capture Nathan Hale, but Rogers’ behavior got him dismissed the next year, so he probably didn’t have as much involvement in the Culper spy network as the series would like him us to believe.

However, I think Rogers can become the most interesting character in the whole show.

In the series, he is portrayed as a colonial has-been with a hair-trigger temper and a sixth sense for treachery, one who’ll sell his mother for a few guineas.  Of all, I see Rogers as developing into an Al Swearengen type of character: a son of a bitch so ruthless and witty you just have to love him.  The problem with the show right now is that the British are all universally one-dimensional bad guys.  The best villains are those who have something likable about them, and Rogers is definitely someone I would have a drink with.  If Rogers emerges as the main antagonist, this might become a really fun show.

In terms of history, Turn is doing its best with the information it has.  Again, I didn’t read the source material, and once I do, I can make a more informed judgement.  However, as a television show, this has the potential to be fun, exciting and a good starting point in studying espionage in the American Revolution.

If only the show can get away from the cookie cutter formulas, it just might  do justice to an important set of patriots in our history.  Let’s hope the history wins out.


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Hollywood History: Possible Scripts to Pitch in LA

I’ve heard that everyone in Los Angeles either walks around with a headshot or a screenplay. So, when in Rome… (or West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Malibu, etc.)

Next week, I will be in the sunny confines of southern California, home of the proverbial swimming pools and movie stars. Since Mr. D is just too ravishingly handsome for the screen, he should probably have some sort of treatment with him in case he gets discovered…you never know.

In researching possible script ideas, I’ve noticed that many incredible stories from history have not gotten their proper Hollywood treatment. Some, such as Giuseppe Garibaldi and Enrico Fermi, I’ve discussed before. On this trip, however, let’s look at other stories that have been overlooked—as well as some interesting casting ideas.

1. Andrew Jackson

Why? – The guy, like so many characters in history, is custom-designed for great moviemaking. Orphaned at a young age, wounded in the Revolution as a teenager, taking revenge on the British, the Seminoles, the Creeks, the Cherokee and anyone who slandered his two-timing wife—Jackson can make up a miniseries, let alone a multi-reeler.

The Lead? – tough, but I have in mind Jon Hamm and Nick Nolte: Hamm as the younger Jackson through 1815, and Nolte as the presidential figure. Either of them could take a pistol shot and whip a man into oblivion, a necessary trait for the role.

2. DeWitt Clinton

Why? – Clinton is the complicated hero-politician that has been so overlooked by Hollywood, largely because of location. Clinton is a New York guy, doing New York things that affected the whole country. He also had an outsized reputation: any man called “Magnus Apollo” in his lifetime deserves a treatment.

The Lead? – Colin Firth, no question. Firth has the gravitas to build the Erie Canal, the height that matched Clinton’s stature, and he already did a splendid turn in Regency attire in Pride and Prejudice. He almost matches the paintings.

3. William Johnson

Why?Dances with Wolves meets Last of the Mohicans. There’s something about Europeans going native that drives moviegoers into theaters. Furthermore, Johnson’s exploits with his Iroquois army are legendary, including Crown Point, Fort Niagara and the siege of Montreal. The subplot of his Irishness helping him win friends with the natives can also guarantee an Oscar nod.

The Lead? – At first, I thought Liam Neeson, but in retrospect it doesn’t really work with the historical Johnson. A better choice would be the crazy Irishman from Braveheart, David O’Hara. I’ve seen him in other roles, and he has a toughness and a stature that could make this a breakout role for him. Being Irish also helps.

4. James Michael Curley

Why? – Curley is the kind of outsized, megalomaniacal, controversial political kingpin that audiences love. As mayor of Boston, Congressman, governor of Massachusetts, and convicted felon, Curley was the father of modern ethnic politics. Taking cues from New York’s Tammany Hall, he created a similar apparatus in Massachusetts, mobilizing the Irish—much to the disdain of the Boston Brahmins that dominated the state until that point.

The Lead? – I really wish he got his shit together, because Tom Sizemore would be perfect to play Curley. The guy just oozes Boston tough guy, but with just enough polish that could make him give respectable speeches to demure New England citizens.

5. Victoria Woodhull

Why? – Many forget that Woodhull was the first American woman to run for President in 1872. On top of that, she was incredibly controversial, even among women suffragists—free love, labor reform (of the quasi-Marxist kind), eugenics and spiritualism were also on Woodhull’s agenda. That was enough to make Susan B. Anthony soil her bloomers.

The Lead? – Not really sure, could use some help from the Neighborhood on this one. Most of the actresses in mind are pretty long in the tooth for this role, but any ideas are welcome.

6. Al Smith

Why? – Smith was a run-of-the-mill Tammany hack until March 25, 1911. After the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he became a driving force for workplace and social reform in New York—the true father of the New Deal. The climax could be his 1928 presidential run, where he faced anti-Catholic and anti-Irish prejudice in a humiliating defeat.

The Lead?J. K. Simmons. I first saw him in the HBO series Oz, as the neo-Nazi Vernon Schillinger. Yet even then I saw a command of the screen, coupled with a human touch, that would be just right for the role of the Happy Warrior.

7. The Healys (Patrick, Michael, and James)

Why? – The subplot alone is compelling: an Irish planter takes a mulatto enslaved woman as his common law wife. They have three sons illegally, as interracial marriage is forbidden in antebellum Georgia. To educate them, the three are sent to Catholic schools in the north, as education for blacks is forbidden. Each of the Healys is light enough to pass as white: another conflict as their exploits are shown.

The Lead? – I’m really confused here. Because the Healy boys were so light-skinned, I’m not sure whether to use white talent or Black. I’m not even sure which actors would really fit well. Again, some help from the Neighborhood would help.

8. The Culper Spy Ring

Why? – looking for a great espionage thriller, full of sex, intrigue, double-crossing, violence and plot twists? Look no further than the Culper Ring, a ring of spies in New York and Long Island that spied on the British for George Washington—even as many posed as loyal Tories. They are the ancestors of the modern CIA, and their exploits probably make them more successful, on average.

The Lead? – We have little, if any, information on the true identities, let alone the appearances, of the members of the ring: their identities were not divulged until the 1930s. Casting, then, is wide open to traditional leading men, leading ladies, action heroes, you name it.

9. Robert Moses

Why? – The Power Broker himself: for a half a century, Moses was the most powerful man in New York State without holding a single elected office. He rammed highways, bridges, tunnels, parks, beaches and housing projects all over the state—and didn’t care who got in the way. That is, until Jane Jacobs, Nelson Rockefeller, Joseph Papp and a slew of New Yorkers finally turned their pitchforks on the Master Builder.

The Lead? – If I could find an actor that’s a composite of Michael Gambon’s size and Paul Giamatti’s grit, that would be perfect. Headshots, anyone?

10. H. L. Mencken

Why? – apart from being one of my all-time favorite authors, the Sage of Baltimore’s whit and biting cynicism covered most of the first half of the 20th century. He was cosmopolitan and provincial at the same time: a thinker who fancied himself above the “booboisie” while still able to mix in the dives and gin joints of the Baltimore waterfront. Why Barry Levinson isn’t all over this I have no idea.

The Lead? – It has to be someone intelligent who can play a real asshole. Sam Neill might work, or maybe even Eddie Izzard—I’m leaning more towards the latter.

As always, these ideas are not nearly exhaustive—nor do I really have scripts ready. If anyone has any other ideas, or if they have treatments ready that I can pitch, please let me know.

Don’t worry, you’ll receive due credit—minus my percentage, which we can negotiate later.

This is Hollywood, after all 😉

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