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television: Traitor's Tale

A&E starts off the new year with a laughable dud.

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But it is.

The A&E Network starts off the new year with a resounding dud, a dreadful bomb, an appalling turkey titled "Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor." Aidan Quinn plays the traitor America loves to hate, and — believe it or don't — Grammer plays his old pal and fellow revolutionary, George Washington.

There's next to nothing that could remotely be called redeeming in this travesty about treachery. Except perhaps for Quinn. He's vaguely credible, which is probably quite an accomplishment given the writing, the direction and the "personalities" he's playing against. I won't call them actors. Not after enduring two hours of this, I won't.

We all know the story — or at least we know the sketchy outlines of the facts behind the name that has meant turncoat to Americans for 222 years. Benedict Arnold was a hero of the Revolution. Washington called him a "most active and courageous patriot," a man who did "everything that honor and love of country suggest." Of course that was in 1776, after Arnold's victory against the British at Saratoga. Four years later, Arnold cooked up a plan to surrender West Point to the British for 20,000 pounds. The deal fell through when his accomplice, a British major named John André, was captured. Arnold fled to England. André was hanged.

Every kid learns most of this in school. What we don't hear much about is motivation. Why did a man treasured by no less a man than Washington for his dignity and honor turn traitor? If you believe William Mastrosimone's script, he did it because nobody else loved him — except for a lovely 19-year-old Loyalist from Philadelphia named Peggy Shippen. And she doesn't really love him. She just has this thing for powerful men.

And speaking of Mastrosimone's script, it's execrable. Truly awful, in fact. Nobody ever did, does or ever will talk the way he writes. Take, for example, Arnold's first attempt at courting Miss Shippen: "My leg wound is but a scratch compared with that with which Cupid inflicted my heart when I beheld your incomparable countenance." Arghh. That speech is almost as disgusting as the leg wound that plagued Arnold for the rest of his life.

Then there's Mikael Salomon's wooden direction. The battle scenes are so amateurish that they give you the feeling that you're watching a bunch of weekend re-enactors in Colonial drag playing with smoke bombs in the woods.

There's a real story to be told about Arnold and why he betrayed his young nation. But this isn't it.

"Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor" is a travesty. The whole lot of those involved with this absurd production could be said to deserve Maj. André's fate.

But they don't stand a chance, really. André is buried in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey, and the box his corpse was shipped home in is in the Abbey's attic. Curiously, Arnold's London home is now an ophthalmologist's office.

Unlike Mastrosimone's script, that's interesting stuff. S



"Benedict Arnold" debuts Monday, Jan. 13, at 8 p.m. on A&E.

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