The subject of Benedict Arnold – the most infamous traitor who ever graced the annals of American history – is a fascinating one, if only because his very name has become synonymous with cowardly betrayal. The irony here is that Arnold was many things (including a traitor), but hardly a coward. One could look upon his actions from a revisionist standpoint and conclude that the man was simply a patriot and military hero who was repeatedly screwed over by the United States government, often to a degree of such blazingly arrogant chutzpah that one wonders why Arnold did not become a turncoat earlier in his military career.
Such a conclusion wouldn't be too far off the mark, either. Benedict Arnold was an apothecary, a family man, a smuggler, a close friend of General George Washington, an accomplished duelist, and a proven, successful soldier. He fought in the French and Indian War, and upon receiving word of the battles of Lexington and Concord, requested permission to lead his troops in battle to take Fort Ticonderoga. In battle, however, he was second-guessed, over-ruled, wounded and eventually made a cripple when a musket ball shattered his leg. He faced bankruptcy and ruin time and time again, using his own money to pay his troops and purchase supplies. Arnold had to struggle to get his years worth of promised back pay and expenses reimbursed from an ungrateful Congress. Indian vendors, as it seems, do not give out receipts – a fact that did not go unnoticed by ancestors of future IRS auditors.
Makes you almost feel the sorry for the guy… almost. Despite his shabby and grossly obnoxious treatment by his peers, commanders, and government, Benedict Arnold attempted to give up the fortress at West Point to the British, branding him as a traitor and condemning him in the eyes of American history as a treasonous backstabber the likes of which hardly abide the telling.
Except for it makes for one hell of a story.
In the A&E movie Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor, Aidan Quinn approaches the title role like a tragic Greek figure, a man who loved his country so much that, feeling himself cast aside and unappreciated by the very subject of his fierce patriotism, he turned his back on all in which he believed. Arnold's Loyalist wife, played by the lovely Flora Montgomery, is presented as a Lady Macbeth-type figure, a beautiful but conniving fulcrum who exhorts the hesitant Arnold towards his infamous destiny. Kelsey Grammer cuts a strong, imposing figure as George Washington, Arnold's friend and antithetical legend of the Revolution. Where the film suffers is in its rushed pace, thin and unfleshed characterizations, and lack of historical detail. The film hits all the right notes but the melody is choppy and lacks rhythm. On the other hand, for a television movie Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor is a quick and entertaining 92-minutes of history. While it leaves out a wealth of information that could have provided a plethora of insights into the mind of America's most notorious traitor, Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor nonetheless presents a fascinating, reasonably compelling (if somewhat thin) retelling of an important chapter of American history.
Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor is a made-for-television movie, and is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The resulting video presentation is clean and vibrant, with strong colors and sharp, detailed images. A film based around the American Revolution is inevitably going to feature many scenes of blue and scarlet-coated soldiers prancing about the rich greens of the wilderness, and the resulting picture does not disappoint, although a few times I noticed a slight bit of blooming and oversaturation. Black levels were deep, and darker scenes featured a conspicuous amount of detail. Compression artifacts were non-existent. A note of edge-enhancement was also visible, detracting from the quality of the transfer, but overall this is a pleasing video presentation.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, a standard for most made-for-television movies, and while one could wish for a more enveloping, six-channel digital presentation, the soundtrack here is one of the most pleasing I've ever heard in this format. Dialog is bright and clear, lacking any discernable hiss or distortion. The film is primarily driven by dialog and thus the resulting sound field is focused about the center, but there is a surprisingly strong amount of side and surround activity. The orchestral score is loud and boisterous, with a rich depth of fidelity without overpowering the dialog. Ambient and directional effects were nicely reproduced, although obviously hampered by the limitations of a two-channel presentation.
While the DVD is not overloaded with supplements, the extras that are included enhance the entire package by the quality of its material. First and foremost is a 44-minute episode of A&E's award-winning series Biography entitled Benedict Arnold: Triumph and Treason. Everything that was left out of the actual movie (and many things that should have been included) can be found here. The documentary goes into great detail about Arnold's childhood, pre-Revolution military career, his relationship with his first wife, and explores with more expanded detail the activities that spurred his eventual treason. It's a thrilling and informative piece that makes for a fabulous companion to the movie.
Less informative but still enjoyable is the 22-minute Making of Benedict Arnold. Originally airing on the A&E cable network, this feature features interviews with the cast and crew, including stars Aidan Quinn, Kelsey Grammer, and Fiona Montgomery, as well as director Mikael Salomon and writer William Mastrosimone. The making of the film is discussed in detail, the main focus being that of how does one make a film about a man considered to be one of the most insidious characters of American history. Arnold's story is rich and complex, and it's interesting to see Mastrosimone admit that the story is so fascinating that the film's writer "simply has to show up." Overall the featurette is no EPK fluff-piece, but a strong look into the making of the film.
Finally, the Biographies/Filmographies section features (surprise!) biographies and filmographies for stars Kelsey Grammer and Aidan Quinn. DVD Credits lists all the fine people who made this DVD a reality.
American history buffs could probably find some faults with the film, but I found it to be an enjoyable, insightful look into one of the most conflicted men who had a hand in the creation of the United States of America. While quickly paced, often to the point of feeling rushed, Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor tells a fascinating story without self-indulgence or period-drama stuffiness. Personally, I would have liked to have seen more details about Arnold's life and past history, but overall the movie was entertaining. Thankfully, A&E's inclusion of the Benedict Arnold episode of Biography makes this package even more appealing: facts and details missing from the movie can be found in this companion piece. If your tastes in film include historical dramas, Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor is worth your time.