Revolutionary War spy ring dramatized in AMC’s ‘Turn’

McClatchy Washington BureauApril 2, 2014 

War is nasty and brutish. It has been that way since the beginning of time.

AMC’s new series “Turn,” premiering 9 p.m. EDT Sunday, makes the point bluntly when a soldier of the British-affiliated Queen’s Rangers goes through the dead and dying of an ambushed Colonial patrol, bayoneting the wounded and dead one by one.

The American Revolution was more than just army versus army. It split the colonists between “loyalists” to the British crown and “rebels” against the crown.

Then there were those in between, torn in their loyalties — the farmers, businessmen, tavern owners and smugglers just trying to survive.

Jamie Bell plays Abraham Woodhull, a real-life farmer who led the first American spy ring. “He was very paranoid. He took great risks. He was an ordinary man who did something extraordinary, and saved this country from the English,” says Bell.

In 1778, Woodhull and his group became the Culper spy ring, centered on Long Island outside of British-occupied New York. Gen. George Washington was desperate for information about what was happening inside the city; when an officer, Benjamin Tallmadge, came to him with a plan for using Woodhull’s group, Washington agreed.

Seth Numrich plays Tallmadge, an actual officer in the Revolution. “(He) was sort of responsible for the instigation of the Culper Ring, set everything into motion and oversaw the activities of the spies throughout the duration of the war,” he says. “He was an incredibly driven guy, very passionate about the cause.”

“Remember that the Revolutionary war, in a way, was the first civil war,” says veteran actor Kevin McNally, who plays Abraham’s father, Richard Woodhull, a judge on the side of the British. “People were very decided whether they would split, whether it was ideologically or they just wanted to be on the right side. We’ll never know but we try to explore that, and find the roots of how on earth we lost you as a colony.”

The British troops quartered in the small towns didn’t exactly win hearts and minds among the Colonials. In fact, their behavior spurred some loyalists to join the rebellion, as happened with the ambivalent Abraham Woodhull.

The Culper Ring spies were never caught. “The reason we know about Nathan Hale is because he was caught and hanged; not a very good spy. Abraham Woodhull was a good spy; he didn’t get caught,” says Bell.

The Culper spy ring faded into history until former journalist Alexander Rose discovered the correspondence between Washington and Woodhull while researching a book on Benedict Arnold. It resulted in “Washington’s Spies,” which is the basis for “Turn.”

“Turn’s” cast did their research on the period in books, film and on the Internet.

“I knew I was playing a real guy and I sort of crammed as much as I could to find out as much as I could about him,” says Samuel Roukin, who plays an unpleasantly ruthless British officer, Capt. John Simcoe.

Heather Lind, who plays Anna Strong, Simcoe’s landlady, says she’s “learned a lot about how to beat your own laundry, how to cook over a fire, how to make a bed. Those are not easy tasks in the colonial period.”

The actors hadn’t planned on the sweep of polar vortexes that hit the East Coast during their filming in Richmond, Va. Unlike in the colonial period, they didn’t have the option of stopping their “war” during the winter.

Bell says that their period shoes had “no insulation,” adding that the Colonists’ feet must have been “freezing.”

However, Angus MacFadyen (playing Robert Rogers of the Queen’s Rangers) said about the polar temperatures, “It depends on your definition of cold. I’m from Scotland, so …”

Bell sums it up: “It was just a harsh life back then, a different life … We got it very easy these days, but, for back then, it was a hard life.”

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