Captain Simcoe wasn't such an asshole irl


As elaborated on in my review of the premiere episode of Turn this morning, the British army is not exactly portrayed in a positive light. Though there needs to be an antagonist in the series, I believe the production went too far in trying to vilify the British, and one character in particular, Lieutenant John Simcoe. This man was the main villain in the opening episode, seen as bloodthirsty, threatening, and adulterous; someone who will try to get whatever he wants by any means necessary. In reality, there did exist a John Graves Simcoe, however, he was radically different, and almost the antithesis of what was presented on AMC Sunday night. The term used to classify taking a real person in history and then having their portrayal starkly inaccurate is called “character assassination”.

We see it all the time in films, when dramatic license is taken to show a character in a certain light to fit the plot, or, quite frankly, to make it easier for the writer. The fact is, the real John Simcoe was a man so distinguished that he would eventually become the Lt. Governor of Upper Canada, someone responsible for the establishment of courts, trial by jury, and most importantly, leading an abolitionist movement that sought to banish slavery from Canada. This is a far cry from the wigged buffoon presented in Turn, who has murderous revenge on his mind when dealing with the main character.

Was John Simcoe a soldier who led men into battle, and in turn, killed other men? Yes, but how is that any different from any other soldier, on both sides, in any war ever fought? That does not mean his character (and I mean personal, real character) should be stripped of all its dignity to be portrayed in the worst way possible just because a “bad guy” is needed. Roland Emmerich did nearly the same thing in The Patriot, taking British Dragoon officer Banastre Tarleton, changing his name to William Tavington (possibly to avoid criticism such as this), and turning him into a mass murderer who orders his men to burn down a church packed with innocent civilians, including women and children. The creators of Turn have done something much worse, though, and that is keeping Simcoe’s name, and turning him into something that did not exist.

I understand this is a work of historical fiction, which is a blending of fact, exaggeration, and fiction when needed, but they would have been better served creating a character out of thin air and inserting him into the plot along with people who really did exist, because that would still classify it in the same genre and we could then say, “Well, someone like that might have existed”. From a historical standpoint, some of the most accurate films in history have had fictional characters intermixed with real ones, such as Buster Kilrain in Gettysburg. No one complained about that.

The real John Simcoe was a brilliant strategist who did specialize in surprise attacks, but as a member of the Queen’s Rangers, that would have been a part of the job description, and part of a new style of guerrilla warfare that was developing in the colonies. The American website focusing mainly on the War of 1812, The Silent Canoe, says of Simcoe, “[He] showed great wisdom as a military strategist. He directed the Queen’s Rangers to be outfitted in green, the first British Regiment to use uniforms as camouflage. He personally trained many soldiers in surprise attacks, speed and close combat, all necessary tactics in the wilderness conditions of North America.”

Of his character, this same website claims, “Referred to as ‘brave, humane and honest’ by the Duke of Northumberland, John Graves Simcoe was known as chivalrous and compassionate to enemy soldiers. He did not see a need to kill, unless it was justified. But this does not mean that he was not a fierce leader. Rumor had it that John Graves Simcoe once had a soldier killed in Britain because he stepped out of line.” Did I mention this was an American website? As for executing a soldier for stepping out of line, such an action was not uncommon at that time period, especially for an army as disciplined as Britain’s. After all, George Washington had men executed for desertion, and many other offenses.

As to his political views, here is a complete and total shocker: “Governor Simcoe recognized that most of the province’s first settlers had grown up or lived a good part of their lives in the United States, and would not be happy unless there was some form of democracy. Simcoe was certain that the limited powers of the Town Councils would be enough to appease the republican-minded Americans.”

The point of this article is not to glorify Simcoe, but to add some balance to what was a very much-watched opening episode, where people with little to no knowledge of the American Revolution will get the wrong idea of the British army, or the “losers” in any war as a whole, because the winner gets to write the textbook. Their depiction in Turn is akin to any negative, stereotypical depiction in the history of Hollywood or mass media. The enemy is always seen as evil. When the Americans win, it was a battle. When the enemy wins, it was a massacre or slaughter. Thus is the type of feeling we get toward the British here, something that is unfair to history, especially if young, impressionable eyes are watching.

Expected? Yes. Disappointing? Absolutely.

Source: Historian Greg Caggiano