If not for General Benedict Arnold’s victory at the Battle of Saratoga during the Revolutionary War we all may have had to bend the knee to King George. That is the conceit of a local filmmaker Tom Mercer and his partners, director Chris Stearns and co-producer Anthony Vertucci, for their film “Benedict Arnold, Hero Betrayed.” A local epic documentary conceived in 2001. “We are all self-professed history nerds and walking in the woods we started to talk about the much-maligned Benedict Arnold and his heroics and thought that it would make for a great movie,” said Mercer. They started principal photography at the 225th anniversary of the Battle of Saratoga re-enactment in 2002. The revolutionary war lasted seven years and so far “Hero Betrayed” has gone ten years longer.
Other heroes from our nation’s infancy are on our money or chiseled on mountains.
Arnold’s name has become an adjective for traitor, scoundrel, and villain. Most of that is due to George Washington, who called for all of Arnold’s accomplishments to be stricken from history. “I sometimes think that I have been cursed by George Washington,” said Mercer. Financial woes, technical snafus, and even death have been some of the obstacles the team has had to overcome.
With a cast of thousands used in reenactments and tall wooden ships for battle scenes, the movie has cost more than $1 million. “There was one incredibly expensive scene with Clipper ships and dozens of costumed extras at Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. That morning there was a suicide off a nearby bridge. The entire area was commandeered. Police boats swarming the scene had recovered the body and laid it on the dock in front of our ship. We were not allowed to do anything until the authorities were finished. We had dozens of actors and crew waiting. Money was gushing out like a firehose. Ironically the name of the ship was “Providence” Mercer said.
George Washington’s hex might have gone high tech. Computer animated segments were central to the story but achieving them became a nightmare. ”Costs spiraled and we had to delay finishing another CGI battle scene to raise more money to pay the digital artists. By the time we got the funds raised, we contacted them and the files had corrupted” Mercer said.
Every curse can be lifted and this one might be by the unmistakable voice of Martin Sheen. Mercer contacted Sheen who accepted the role of narrator and said that he was always attracted to the story of the underdog. “He was so incredible. His interpretation and emotion of each moment had so much gravitas. The three of us were Skyping with him while he did the performance in Los Angeles but he did not need much direction,” Mercer said.
Sheen has had his own experience with curses having starred in the three years of hell it took to make “Apocalypse Now” where he suffered a heart attack. Maybe it is “providence” that he come on board this production.
The team is entering the last push to finish the film. To see this original take on history completed will be a culmination of almost two decades of effort. ”We are just trying to restore a little bit of balance to the story,” Mercer said.
On his deathbed, Arnold said, “Let me die in this uniform where I fought for battles for freedom. God forgive me for putting on another.” Stearns, Vertucci, Mercer, and now Sheen are trying to bring a touch of that redemption to Arnold’s legacy. To follow this saga or make a contribution go to benedictarnoldherobetrayed.com.
Jon Russell Cring is a director and producer, most recently known for “Darcy” (2017) and “More Than Words” (2018).