I was all prepared to give Benedict Arnold a fair airing. One doesn’t go from war hero to traitor overnight, and I was sure something in his history would pique my sympathy, an episode from his chaotic childhood or the loss of his wife perhaps. There’s still a good movie to be mined from that, but it’s just not this one. If anything, A Question of Honor hardens your opinion against him, assuming you’ve taken the winning side of all this.
The Benedict Arnold we get in this movie is an arrogant, aggrieved social climber completely lacking in humility. Some of that is down to his true character and much, I’m sure, is equally due to Aidan Quinn’s overacting. The man seems incapable of using his indoor voice, and his bellicose Arnold relishes in fighting anyone who even looks at him the wrong way. The general who changed the fate of the American colonies during the Revolutionary War may well have been wronged by fellow officers and by the Continental Congress, but it was also his stubbornness brought about his own downfall.
The film begins with the Battle of Saratoga, which seems to be the catalyst for most of Arnold’s grievances. Although he leads the Continental Army to a decisive victory and is shot in the process, another general claims the credit while he just gets a few months recovery and a set of wicked gold epaulettes. This wrong is further compounded, so he thinks, by Congress’s failure to recognize his heroics with greater financial compensation, adding to his debt and the burden of losing his business.
About the only time Arnold isn’t a bitter, howling mess is when he is with Peggy Shippen (Flora Montgomery), the daughter of a Loyalist family – and paramour of Britain’s number one spy, John André (John Light). I’m not one to judge romance in a time of war, but Arnold’s courtship of and eventual marriage to Peggy sounds like bad fucking news. He has no thoughts of joining the ranks of the British, whom he’s basically tried to murder for the last five years, until Peggy feeds the idea into his angry head.
She’s the missing link in all of this, the one who connects Arnold and André, which is all sorts of awkward. Needless to say, she does not come off well. Though not the political or military mastermind, she’s a skillful manipulator. Montgomery doesn’t play Peggy as a Mata Hari or the kind who schemes because she’s a bored, unhappy housewife. No, she’s loyal and wide-eyed, expertly tending to all the right parts of her husband’s bruised ego so that he’ll take the side most likely to uphold her family’s good fortunes.
The men, on the other hand, are the real drama queens. If this movie’s anything to go by, these petty divas managed to defeat the British and found a country all while backstabbing and plotting against their own leaders and officers. George Washington (Kelsey Grammer) of course stays above the fray. Grammer is no Chris Jackson (of Hamilton fame), but he’s as tempered as one imagines the first president to be. Arnold, however, brings out the worst instincts in other rebel leaders, both military and government. A portrait of this jealous, sneering lot probably helps our understanding of the American Revolution on balance, but Quinn tips the scale with his caricature of the nation’s most misguided hero. He eschews nuance, preferring instead to shout his way through the film and only taking a break to grunt poetry to win over Peggy.
There’s enough in Question of Honor to plug in the bigger gaps in one’s U.S. history education. Those looking for a quality dramatization need to wait it out or try AMC’s Turn though. This A&E production might capture the suspense of Arnold’s flight, but it misses much of the context. You’d hardly know he and Washington were fighting a war of independence since the film doesn’t shed much light on their underlying motivations. There are occasional nods to grievances over representation, but it’s hard to understand the gravity of Arnold’s betrayal when the cause he’s betraying is mere background noise. A British officer comes in with a late save, noting to Arnold’s face that his single act has unified the rebels and strengthened their resolve, all but ensuring their victory. It’s profound but not quite as rousing as it might have been.
Dir: Mikael Salomon
Writer: William Mastrosimone
Cast: Aidan Quinn, Kelsey Grammer, Flora Montgomery, John Light, Steve Hogan, Tom Murphy, John Kavanagh, Nick Dunning
Time: 100 min
Country: United States