The Scarlet Coat
The Scarlet Coat is loosely based on Benedict Arnold’s attempt to turn over the plans of the American fortifications at West Point, a betrayal which made his name synonymous with treason. The film depicts a wholly fictional American Secret Service which attempts to expose Arnold’s accessory, British Major John Andre, as a spy and through him reveal the traitorous Arnold.
In real life, Andre was an aide to the senior British commanders and was more or less a patsy in Arnold’s correspondence with British General Henry Clinton. Andre protested being forced to travel between the opposing armies in civilian dress, preferring to operate under a flag of truce while carrying verbal messages. Arnold was determined however to provide his opponents with written evidence of his willingness to betray his country in order to justify his demands for money and a commission in the British Army.
When Andre was caught largely by accident by militia intent on robbing him, the materials Arnold had burdened him with were sufficient to condemn the Major as a spy and justify hanging him. Arnold escaped and later led raids against his former comrades in arms on Long Island and in Virginia.
As in most movies about the Revolution, the reality of history takes a back seat to the demands for drama, and the film ignores Arnold’s true motive (primarily revenge and money) as well as Andre’s lengthy and careful correspondence to the American general, calculated to induce him to change sides. Arnold’s reputation as America’s best field general – which was what made his treason so shocking in the first place – is also largely ignored. At the time of his treason, Arnold was the hero of America’s greatest victory, a point missing from the film.