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In 1780 Major John Boulton is recruited by Colonial intelligence as a counterspy who will feign desertion to the British forces. His mission is to discover the identity of an American traitor with the code name Gustavus. Although prominent Tory Dr. Odell suspects Boulton of being a double agent, the spy wins the friendship and respect of British spymaster Major John Andre and, in doing so, discovers that the traitor is none other than American hero, General Benedict Arnold, who is planning to surrender the key colonial position of West Point to the English. Written by
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Complex character study worth your attention. Contains spoilers.
At the film's beginning, a card tells us this is to be about Benedict Arnold's unmasking as a traitor. So, I expected the usual historical action film, depicting the heroic Americans and the villainous British. And, at first, the film seemed to be going this way.
But then, it became richer as it focused not so much on Benedict Arnold as on Major John Andre, the British Adjutant General, and Major John Boulton, an American secret agent. The essential plot point is that Boulton will pretend to desert the American forces and go over to the British, his object being to learn who the mysterious Gustavus is. Gustavus is a pseudonym for an American (Arnold, of course) who is revealing secrets of the American forces to the British.
But once Boulton has "defected," he encounters two very interesting men. One is Dr. Jonathan Odell, who never trusts Boulton, thinking from start to finish that Boulton is an American agent. The other is Major John Andre, who accepts Boulton as a true defector. In his guise as defector, Boulton appears to be a man without ideals, someone interested in making money for the information that he can carry.
As the film develops, Boulton and Andre come to respect each other, tho they are men on opposite sides. Andre always claims that Boulton has ideals, and so it proves to be. And Andre comes across as a loyal British subject, a man of integrity. It was amazing to see the story line develop in this way: both sides in the Revolutionary War (and every war) have fine people, people of honor and integrity, loyal to their country and its ideals. Were it not for the war, these people might be good friends and work together.
In the climatic scene, Andre is found guilty of enticing Arnold to betray his country, even to offering Arnold money for information. As Andre makes clear, that is his job, and there are Americans who are trying to do the same thing with British officers as well. Andre is sentenced to death.
Boulton so respects Andre he goes to George Washington in an attempt to get a reprieve from the death penalty for Andre. And Washington does provide a solution: If Andre will sign the papers, he will be exchanged for Arnold, who has deserted to the British and is among their troops. But Andre refuses. As Andre explains, from his position as a British officer, he sees Arnold as having "seen the light," i.e., that the British position is correct and the Colonists are wrong for rebelling. Andre rises to heroic status in this scene, a man to be respected, and a true British patriot, willing to sacrifice his life for his ideals. And so he does. He was executed October 2, 1780.
The film is beautiful. I saw a pristine Cinemascope print. A note in the credits (read carefully) indicates that much of this film was shot at the Sleepy Hollow Restoration on the Hudson where many of the original events took place. It was shot in the autumn with the color of the leaves at their full beauty. The costumes rival the colors of nature, particularly the scarlet coats of the British officers. But color is well used (symbolically) throughout the film. For example, Odell is usually dressed in brown or gray. And Boulton is often in blue, sometimes a very vibrant blue. The film makes fine use of the Cinemascope aspect ratio.
My only objection to the sets is this: Everything looks new, as if the furniture had just been purchased at a local store, as if the painters had just left yesterday, the lawn crews had just finished mowing the grass and tending the flower beds. Of course, the trees at the Sleepy Hollow Restoration have almost 175 years on them from what they looked like in 1780. The roughness of the true colonial days isn't here.
Cornel Wilde and Michael Wilding do fine jobs with their roles. A lot of critics wrote off Wilding as a lightweight actor. But here his British demeanor and accent are perfectly correct for Andre, and Wilde's rougher looks are correct for the American he plays.
Sanders is also satisfactory in a good part of the suspicious doctor. And Bobby Driscoll--remember him from "Song of the South"?--has a small supporting part as a teenager anxious to join the Revolutionary forces.
Anne Francis is window dressing as Sally Cameron, whom both Andre and Boulton are in love with. At his end, Andre asks Boulton to look to Sally, for, should the Colonists win the war, she will probably be treated as a traitor because of her late husband's British sympathies.
The script was written by Karl Tunberg, who'd done the script for "Beau Brummel" just before this. Earlier (1945), he'd written "Kitty." "The Scarlet Coat" is finer than either of these.
There was only one line that was false, a storybook line: Andre says, "I must go to my rendezvous with history." But, apparently, Andre actually said this line or legend has attributed it to him. It is on his tomb in Westminster Abbey.
This film is well worth your attention.
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