I have finally reached the end of Stephen Brumwell's fascinating biography of Benedict Arnold, the infamous American traitor/famous British patriot - you choose! One question leaps to mind - why the hell hasn't Hollywood or Netflix or even the BBC retold this story? I suspect that a film would not provide enough time to cover the subtleties inherent in this tale of war, espionage and treachery and the vagaries of human nature but one of those 'yuuuuuuge' 12-part TV series would just about cover it. Of course, central to the story is the character of the 'hero', Benedict Arnold, a man of high virtue and low vice, the sort of man that Shakespeare would have seized upon to create a truly great play with his usual elements of low comedy and high tragedy.
Alas, I cannot summarise this story in detail. Suffice to say that Benedict Arnold was an American patriot who fought for the new republic with truly heroic devotion and quite remarkable military skill which, in one battle, cost him severe injuries to one of his legs which plagued him for the rest of his life. Despite this painful outcome he continued to fight for the cause until … until … the fault lines in his character, something that Shakespeare would well have understood, finally broke his resolve and he decided to change sides.
There then ensued a period of high-level espionage which John le Carré would relish. He has often shown us the danger and technical difficulties involved in actually passing secret information from spy to controller in places like cold war Berlin. In this all too real tale of similar activities, agents and couriers had to pass surreptitiously through the wild countryside of north east America dodging the soldiery of both sides plus the native red Indians. It was exciting stuff with tragic results because the young but very bright and exceedingly brave British officer who was the main courier for Arnold and his activities was eventually captured and executed by the Americans.
The great question, of course, was what made Arnold defect? Difficult to decide exactly but mostly, I guess, the usual mixture of human weakness and vanity and greed. It is ironic, as well as tragic, that had this supremely courageous, able and accomplished man stayed true to his cause he would have had statues erected in Washington to which modern Americans would pay respect. As it is, he is universally reviled 'over there' and almost totally forgotten 'over here'. How Shakespeare would have relished the irony!