Defending Benedict Arnold
"I wouldn't mind if he got a statue," says Ann Arbor filmmaker Chris Stearns.
by John A. Woods
From the January, 2022 issue
Stearns thinks that Arnold, the Revolutionary War general turned traitor, deserves historical rehabilitation. Though his may seem like a voice crying in the wilderness, he believes that "people are starting to come around to Arnold's contributions. I would like him to get a fair shake, understand the war from his point of view."
Stearns aims to do with his new documentary, Benedict Arnold: Hero Betrayed. Released in November on a variety of video-on-demand platforms, it's narrated by actor Martin Sheen and stars Peter O'Meara as Arnold. Stearns directed and cowrote it based on historian James Kirby Martin's 1997 book Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered (Kirby is an executive producer).
A graduate of Boston's Emerson College film school, Stearns began his career in New York, making online commercials for Pfizer and Dannon. He and his wife Joey, a Michigan native, moved to Ann Arbor in 2014. The Arnold movie percolated in the background while he produced TV episodes (his page at imdb.com lists more than 100 credits) and worked a day job as an apprentice building contractor.
Anthony Vertucci, a cowriter and executive producer on the film, grew up in upstate New York near the site of the historic 1777 victory over the British at the Battle of Saratoga. Arnold was a hero of the battle, which changed the course of the war. "So we've always had a slightly different point of view of Arnold because of the events that took place in the upstate region," Vertucci says in video promoting the film. "We all played on that battlefield when we were kids."
Stearns raised the $1 million-plus budget with the aid of friends, neighbors, and credit cards. The Adirondack Trust Community Bank in Saratoga Springs also contributed. "The original owner of the bank was a big Benedict Arnold fan" says Stearns. Which is something you don't hear every day.
The filmmakers' admittedly ambitious goal is to reinvent Arnold as a hero, disillusioned by
the hubris of the Continental Army's leadership and betrayed by a corrupt Continental Congress that reneged on its promise to financially support soldiers and their families. One of the reasons Arnold was so vilified by politicians and military leaders, they argue, was to discourage likeminded officers from also switching sides.
While not denying Arnold's treason, the film portrays him as a flawed, complicated, misunderstood, yet ultimately heroic figure. Though the British officer he conspired with was caught and executed, Arnold escaped to lead a Loyalist army against his former compatriots. He lived his last years in London and is buried at St. Mary's Battersea, the family church of Princess Diana Spencer.
"It became very clear that comparing the impact of what he did for the country versus what he did against it, I think one outweighs the other significantly," says Stearns.
"There's the fairy tale everyone wants, and then there's the reality."
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