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International Culture and Movie Salon Message Board › Movie "The Conspirator" - Historical discrepancies (by Anthony S.

Movie "The Conspirator" - Historical discrepancies (by Anthony S. Pitch)

A former member
Post #: 17
Review of "The Conspirator"
By Anthony S. Pitch

Near the end of the film, when all but a handful of die-hards stay to read
the final lines of seemingly inexhaustible credits, a disclaimer appears
to state that it is based on actual events. That’s license enough to drift
off into a world of make-believe.

Clearly, Hollywood has once again re-written the historical record to meet
the demands of the box office. The errors are legion. Fiction is
plentiful. It is almost as if creative imagination has been overtaken by
hallucination in a script so wide of the mark.

Mary Surratt is notoriously embedded in the narrative of our nation’s
history as the first woman hanged by order of the Federal government,
following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and her conviction for
conspiring with others to murder the president. Then and now, many believe
she was the innocent victim of a kangaroo court, lacking legality even in
the eyes of Edward Bates, Lincoln’s first attorney general, who was out of
office at the time of the controversial military trial. One eyewitness at
the simultaneous hangings of Surratt and three male co-conspirators on the
grounds of what is now Fort McNair in southwest Washington, D.C., cried
out in disbelief just before the traps were sprung on the gallows: “This
is murder! Can you stand and see it done!”

However, Redford and his creative team have shredded, ignored or perhaps
been negligently unaware of the existence of reports of contemporaneous
eyewitnesses and court stenographers who were actually inside the
courtroom every day of the seven-week-long trial.

Not a single surviving written report, diary entry, letter, official
government document, or memoir, mentions an outburst during the trial,
either by Mary Surratt or from any of her seven co-accused males.
Undeterred, Redford induces visceral sympathy for Mary Surratt , who rises
indignantly to protest incriminatory testimony against her. The cameras
also focus on her co-conspirators who thump and bellow in their own show
of righteous anger. These are the most risible digressions from reality,
with Redford apparently unable to provoke an outpouring of empathy had he
shown them for what they were – a cowed, frightened, intimidated and
crushed cabal, with the exception of the smiling nonchalance of Lewis
Payne and the intermittent lecherous gaze of David Herold when transfixed
by an attractive female in the courtroom.

There were ample opportunities, without veering off into fiction, for
Redford and his crew to cinematographically expose the brutalities and
torture inflicted on the conspirators during their long solitary
confinement. Each of the accused was sealed in a cell only three and a
half feet wide by seven feet long. In deference to her gender, Mary
Surratt did not have the canvas hood, with a single slit to eat and
breathe, tied tightly with cords around the necks of six of the seven
males, pressing the padded cotton painfully hard against their eye sockets
and ears immediately they returned to their cells from the courtroom.
Weeks of deprivation and solitude within the squashed area of numbered
cells had taken a toll on their moods. Idle monotony had begun to affect
their sanity. The medical officer doing his daily rounds recoiled at the
sight of a suffocating hood, which he condemned as a ”sweating bath to the
head.” They were removed only after he warned that the secretary of war
would soon have “a lot of lunatics on his hands.”

Shying away from recorded fact, Redford offers a drab scene of the
victimized Mary Surratt languishing in her lofty cell with a metal ball
and chain gripped to her leg. Nothing of the kind happened. In fact, she
was pandered to only because of her gender, being given a less restricted
diet than the men and even being allowed to have a rocking chair brought
into her cramped cell from her boarding house on H Street NW. But such
preferential treatment would have undercut Redford’s portrayal of a woman
shown no mercy.

The moviemaker would have us believe that her son, John Surratt, also
suffered under harsh conditions during confinement after being captured
and repatriated from Rome, where he had fled after the assassination.
Adherance to the actual outcome would not have accorded with Redford’s
agenda because John Surratt was almost pampered by contemporary
conditions. His relatives and friends brought him delicacies to eat while
locked in the city jail. He was allowed to smoke his pipe, read anything
he selected, and licensed to roam the main corridor. After ambling from
the jail to the courtroom he cheerfully told his lawyers that he wished it
could be a regular stroll, a comment that contrasted so vividly with the
plight of his mother and co-accused. On the opening day of their trial
they were paraded into court with their anonymity secured by identical
black linen hoods pulled down over each of their heads. Only their mouths
and noses could be glimpsed through the punctured cloth. All were
shackled, except Mary Surratt. One of the military judges, inured to
carnage on the bloodiest of the Civil War battlefields, shuddered at the
spectacle, writing that it was “so much of what my imagination pictured
the Inquisition to have been, that I was quite impressed with it’s
impropriety in this age.”

The procession of the quartet to the scaffold is one of the most egregious
departures from reality. Redford has Mary Surratt walking upright and
defiant, as if propelled by unflinching belief in her innocence.
Eyewitnesses recorded a markedly different scene with a frail, broken
woman barely able to advance as she shuffled at the pace of a funeral
cortege. She faltered at the base of the steps up to the platform, lowered
her head and looked down. She had to be assisted up and appeared to
collapse into the chair next to the noose.

Lewis Payne, who attempted to slash to death the secretary of state at the
same moment Lincoln was shot, is miscast as a man of average height, with
a blank personality, unshaven face, and surly countenance, almost
traumatized by the imminent hangings. In truth, court spectators were
riveted by this enigmatic, tall, clean-shaven, handsome and muscular
brute, transparently unmoved by his inevitable execution. Clover Hooper,
who would later become the wife of historian Henry Adams, attended the
trial only to look at the accused and concluded, “Payne is handsome but
utterly brutal, and sits there a head higher than all the others …. It is
a sad, impressive sight.” All who attended court were fascinated by his
puzzling aloofness and indifference to the outcome. “Payne is amusing
himself by returning stare for stare of all given him so abundantly by the
lady visitors,” wrote one observant reporter. Manacled at his wrists and
ankles when led to the gallows, Payne remained straight and upright,
cheerfully dismissive of the macabre finale. To one observer he looked
“much like a clean-faced, well developed Jack-tar,” sporting a straw hat
with ribbon on his head and a matching sailor-blue color for his shirt and
long-legged pants.

Moviegoers may well delight in the period dresses and uniforms, glimpses
of nineteenth century social etiquette, and the street scenes on location
in the ageless beauty of Savannah, Georgia. But beware. The movie is
fanciful and notably at fault. It is misleading and grossly distorted.
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