The Scarlet Coat (1955)





Director:     John Sturges.

Starring:     Cornel Wilde (Major John Boulton),  Michael Wilding (Major John Andre),  George Sanders (Dr. Jonathan Odell),  Anne Francis (Sally Cameron),  Robert Douglas (General Benedict Arnold),  John McIntire (General Robert Howe),  Rhys Williams (Peter Andre),  John Dehner (Nathanael Greene),  James Westerfield (Colonel Jameson),  Ashley Cowan (Mr. Brown),  Paul Cavanagh (Sir Henry Clinton),  John Alderson (Mr. Durkin),  John O'Malley (Colonel Winfield),  Bobby Driscoll (Ben Potter).

the man behind the scenes foiling the plans of Benedict Arnold and Major John Andre wanting to grab West Point for the British


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

"The American Secret Service came into being with the celebrated 'Case of Gustavus'.  The identity of Gustavus  --  Benedict Arnold  -- has been know for generations, but the story of how he was unmasked has only been revealed in recent years.  This is that story."

Major John Boulton chases a man and shoots him off his horse.  Boulton jumps off his horse and retrieves a note from the dead man's body. 

The time is 1780.  The place is the Hudson Highlands of the Hudson River Valley area.  It has been a year of gloom for the colonies and a year of celebration for the British.  Red-coated armies hold key points all along the Atlantic seaboard.  Poised at New York City is a powerful land and naval force that plans to strike up the Hudson River and split the new nation.  The only thing that stands in the way of the British is the fort at West Point at the narrows of the Hudson River.

A citizen army holds the fort at West Point.  Benedict Arnold has been given command of West Point.  He speaks with the men at West Point and says that some of the men have served with him before:  at Quebec; the Champlain area; and at Saratoga, New York against Gen. Burgoyne.  And now their task is to stop Sir Henry Clinton from coming up the Hudson River and passing by West Point.  He then says all the men are getting an extra ration of rum in honor of the reunion of old comrades.

Major Boulton is there to hear Arnold's speech.  He and Arnold know each other and after the speech the major talks to the general.  He inquires about Mrs. Arnold and Gen. Benedict says that she remains in Philadelphia.  He says he has heard that Boulton works with a fine group of spies and would like to know the names of some of his associates.  Boulton says he cannot divulge any of the names of these men.  Arnold tries a couple of times more to get the information out of Boulton, but Boulton always tells him he can't reveal the names.  Arnold gives up, gets on his horse and goes. 

Now Boulton speaks with General Robert Howe.  Howe tells him that he has done a good job in getting from the spy at Storm King Tavern the message to James Osbourn in care of Dr. Jonathan Odell, 4 Wall Street.  Boulton comments it's good if you call shooting a man in the back good.  The letter is in code, but it says that General Washington is going to Hartford with an escort of only 50 men.  The message is from this fellow they hear a lot from, named Gustavus.  Gustavus sent a previous message saying that Benedict Arnold would be commanding West Point.

Boulton rides to the Storm King Tavern at night.  The young stable boy named Ben tells him that there is a female Tory from Boston named Sally Cameron in the tavern and she has an escort.  Boulton asks him whose horse is the black one? Ben says that it belongs to Col. Winfield, 2nd Connecticut Light Horse.  Boulton walks into the tavern and speaks with this Col. Winfield.  Winfield is bitter about the war and says the Americans are losing it.  Boulton doesn't agree. 

Boulton says he's going to bed and goes upstairs to his regular room.  He goes into the lady's room and starts searching it.  As he searches, she walks in on him and asks what's he looking for?  Boulton says it's just a normal part of his business to find out about things.  She tells him:  "Get out!"  Before he goes, she shows him the pass from Gen. Parsons she got to go through the American lines.  Boulton goes to his room which is just next-door.  A little later Sally comes in to say that she is only on this trip for very personal reasons, not political ones. 

A message comes for a Mr. Moody.  The messenger says that a book seller asked him to deliver this book to Moody.  Winfield comes over and says he will take the package to Mr. Moody, because he will be eating with him tomorrow evening.  Winfield goes up to his room with the package.  Boulton comes in and tells Winfield to give the package to him.  The Colonel starts fighting with Boulton and in the fight Boulton's pistol goes off killing Winfield.  Boulton with the package starts to run out of the tavern, but Sally calls out to stop that man  -- he just shot Col. Winfield.  Two men grab Boulton and hold him.  Boulton now has to inform them to get in contact with his superior officer because the general will have jurisdiction in this matter. 

Boutlton reports to Gen. Robert Howe at West Point.  Howe tells him that he shot the right man.  This Col. Winfield's real name was Moody.  And in the package there is a letter from Gustavus to James Osborn in care of Odell again.  Gustavus says that he is anxious to get started on their project and they will have to meet at a discreet place. 

Howe suggests to Boulton that he escape from his custody and go over to the British side.  To help him, he can give the most recent letter to Odell. 

Boulton heads for New York City.  He has to pass a check point and the head of the guard there lets him pass.  After Boulton is gone, the head of the guards tells the guards that he is going to follow this Mr. Moody because Moody just came through here the other day and this man is not Moody. 

Boulton reaches Dr. Odell's place.  He knocks on the door and tells the servant that he would like to see Dr. Odell.  Boulton says he is working for James Osborn.  The servant himself wants to take the message to Dr. Odell, but Moody (Boulton) says he must deliver the message personally to the doctor.  Boulton as Moody gets to deliver his message in person to the doctor.  The doctor grows suspicious of Moody and pulls a knife on him.  Boulton gets the upper hand on the doctor, but is stopped by the head of guards who is holding al pistol on Moody (Boulton).  Dr. Odell claims that this Moody fellow is a spy.  Just then British Major John Andre comes into the room.  Andre is a very nice chap and he says he wants to talk to this Moody fellow.  Boulton gives Andre the story Howe told him to tell the British.  And then he offers his services to Major Andre.  The doctor doesn't like it and says the man's story is just too neat.  Andre asks him what was his occupation and Boulton says he was once a school teacher.  Andre says that he was an accountant, but enjoys being a soldier more.  Against the wishes of Odell, Andre says he will continue with this fellow.  He tells Boulton to go to Fraunces Tavern.  There will be a party there.  He adds that Odell will have Boulton watched. 

Boulton goes over to the tavern.  Major Andre is there with some guests.  He greets Boulton warmly and introduces him to some people.  He even introduces him to Sally Cameron.  Sally says they met before at Storm King Tavern.  Sally says she thinks they are not on the same side, but Andre says they both wear the same colors:  Loyalist ones.  Sally says the incident in which Col. Winfield was killed was an regrettable accident and Andre agrees.  With Sally vouching for Boulton, Andre more fully accepts the man.

Andre and Boulton go to meet with Dr. Odell and his two henchmen, Mr Brown and Mr. Durkin.  Boulton will be going on assignment with the two men.  The assignment is to go to Stony Point (which is across from Verplanck) where the West Point engineers have put up a chain across the river to stop British ships from sailing up the Hudson River.  They are to fix the cable so that it will come undone at the slightest pressure from a ship.  Boulton says they will replace the iron pins with rope that will rot and break easily.  Andre gives Boulton a message to give to a Mr. Emily. 

The three men wait for the British diversionary tactic to start before they row over to Stony Point.  When the attack begins, the men row over to Stony Point.  There Boulton gets into the water and starts hammering to loosen the pins.  Ben at the Storm King Tavern wants to go down by the river to see what's happening.  His employer says he will absolutely not go down to the river.  So Ben has to sneak out a window and go.  With him he takes a pistol. 

Boulton pulls the small Mr. Brown out of the row boat and into the water and drowns him.  Then Mr. Durkin comes and asks what's happened to Brown?  Boulton says he doesn't know what happened to Brown.  Durkin pulls his pistol on Boulton and tells him to give him the letter Andre gave Boulton.  This confrontation is stopped when Ben arrives and holds his pistol on both men.  He tells Boulton that he can't trust him because he knows he deserted from the American army.  Durkin grabs for Ben's pistol and Boulton jumps over to try and stop Durkin from getting the pistol.   The two men begin a long struggle against each other.  After awhile, the larger Mr. Durkin defeats Boulton and is about to kill him with a piece or iron when Ben shoots Durkin dead. 

Meanwhile, Arnold is yelling at Howe.  He says that Sir Henry Clinton might attack but just wonders where will the attack take place?  Arnold says he may have to replace Howe with someone else.  Arnold leaves Howe, but now runs into Ben who tells Arnold that he must see Gen. Howe on an urgent matter.  Arnold asks Ben to tell him the message, but Ben will only tell it to Howe.  Arnold laughs and dismisses Ben who now goes in to see Gen. Howe.  He tells him to meet Boulton at the old Calhoun Barn just south of Verplanck.  And Ben needs to get a copy of that last letter from Gustavus.  Oh, and he needs one of those eye glasses, the French type, with a long handle.  (Boulton had seen in Odell's office how they deciphered the real message from the letter by placing the stem of the French eye glass on the signature and then reading what was exposed in the two lenses of the glasses.) 

Howe and Boulton meet at the old Calhoun Barn.  Boulton takes a copy of the letter and places the eye glasses just so.  Now he reads the highlighted words.  Chain, Verplanck, midnight, change (meaning they will strike at Verplank at midnight during the change of the guard).  They they could cut the chain.   Howe and Boulton agree that they must remove all troops from Verplanck.  Boulton now asks who has the authority to remove the garrison from Verplanck?  Howe says he does, but he hopes Boulton doesn't see him as a spy.  No.  Boulton says they know that the British will meet with Osborn. Howr says the spy may be Odell or Andre or a certain charming lady.  Boulton says he will go back to New York City and that maybe Durkin go through with he message.  And Boulton says the Americans will meet and fight the British when they come to Verplanck. 

When Boulton is back with Andre and Odell he admits that his mission was a failure.  And he doesn't know if Durkin got through with his message.  Odell insists to Andre that the man  is lying, but Andre says he trusts the man.  Boulton now shows Andre a message he took from a rebel courier.  The message is that Howe is sending troops from Verplanck to Hartford to protect Washington.  Boulton warns Andre of a possible ambush to be set up by the Americans.  Andre dismisses that concern and gleefully proclaims that Durkin got through with his message! 

Andre and Boulton go to pay a visit to Miss Cameron who is having a big get-together for the British big-wigs.  So Boulton is there when the officers plan their attack on Verplanck at dawn.  Andre then has Captain Delaney write up the report on the battle plan.  Boulton asks for 500 pounds for his bringing in the all  important dispatch from the rebel courier.  They are interrupted by an important dispatch from Dr. Odell.  Andre reads it and says he will go away with the attack on Verplanck.  He adds that Odell thinks the war will be over in another month. 

Andre says to Boulton that as soon as Delaney finishes with his report on the battle plan, Boulton will take it back to New York City and give it personally to Sir Henry Clinton.  Boulton now goes up to see Sally Cameron.  She tells him that he is little more than a hired assassin.  Andre gets the report from Delaney and then hands it over to Boulton.  Boulton is to leave immediately.  When he goes Andre and Sally kiss. 

Sally spies on Boulton who hasn't actually left yet.  Boulton goes into Andre's room to read Odell's message.  Sally comes into the room, shocking Boulton.  She tells him the message is false.  It is a test of Boulton devised by Odell.  Boulton will be searched and the message will be found on him.  She suggests that he leave immediately.  But first, Boulton pushes her into a room, closes the door and kisses Sally.  He tells her that she is trying to play both sides and she will have to choose one day.  She says she has already chosen  --  the Loyalists.  But that doesn't mean she won't help Boulton. 

Boulton starts to leave, but is stopped by British troops.  Odell has him searched, but nothing is found on him.  Andre feels relieved and apologizes to Boulton.  So off goes Boulton to take the battle plan to Sir Henry Clinton. 

Andre is suspicious that his girl Sally likes this Boulton character.  Bad news arrives for Andre.  The British attack on Verplanck has been crushed by an ambush.  Mr. Boulton is put under arrest and is to be executed.  This so alarms Sally that she drops her tea cup.  In private she asks for Andre's help to save Boulton.  And Andre does speak out on behalf of Boulton.  Boulton gets off. 

Andre and Boulton meet.  Andre wants Boulton to be there at the meeting where Gustavus and Osborn will be present.  It will be at Teller's Point.  Osborn and Gustavus will show Boulton the weak points of the American lines.  Just then Joshua Hett Smith comes in to give Andre a message from Gustavus.  Smith says they must all come to his house to meet. 

Andre starts changing into civilian clothing.  Boulton begs him not to get into civilian clothing.  If he is caught by the Americans, he could be shot as a spy.  After Andre leaves to go ashore, Boulton starts signaling the Americans on shore.  The Americans signal back.  Odell sees the signal and wonders if the Americans are responding to a signal possibly form Boulton.  Odell goes to Boulton's room and knocks on the door.  Boulton tells him to wait a second until he can unlock the door.  This further arouses Odell's suspicions. He comes into the room and says it's funny because Boulton's bunk has not been disturbed and the lantern is quite hot even though it is not lit.  Boulton decides to take action.   He knocks out Odell and then signals again.  The Americans signal back and a British sailor spots a signal coming from Boulton's window.  Boulton hears this, rushes up the stairs, pushes the sailors out of his way and jumps overboard. 

When Boulton reaches shore he is taken to Col. Jameson.  The problem is that Jameson doesn't believe Boulton's story.  He is going to put Boulton under his oem custody until he can check his story.  Word arrives that Boulton is alright.  Jameson lets Boulton rush over to Smith's place with some American soldiers. They break a window and go in.  The house is completely empty.  Boulton finds one of Arnold's military coats in a closet.  He rushes back to see Jameson.  There a message comes in that three skinners (cowboys) have captured Mr. Osborn over in Tarrytown.  And this Osborn had in his possession a pass from none other than Benedict Arnold.  Boulton calls Jameson an idiot because he doesn't by now know that Arnold is a traitor.  Jameson says he sent Osborn to Arnold not more than an hour ago.  Boulton rushes out to try to get to Arnold.  Jameson decides to send a message to Arnold about their having caught Osborn. 

Boulton runs into Andre in the custody of American soldiers.  He demands to know from Andre why is he now dressed in civilian clothes?  Andre replies that Arnold ordered him to change into civilian clothes.  He adds that Benedict Arnold has already gone down river to the British ship the Vulture

Andre is put on trial before the American military.  The judges declare that Andre has to found to be a spy and must suffer death.  Boulton speaks up for Andre.  He tells the judges that Benedict Arnold made him change into civilian clothes. 

Boulton comes to talk with Andre.  The execution is set for 12 tomorrow morning.  Andre says:  "They're in a bit of a rush, aren't they?"  He then tells Boulton that Sally will be in a great need of his protection. 

Boulton tries to arrange a stay of execution for Andre.  Then he could be paroled from that status.  Andre will be exchanged for Benedict Arnold.  Andre says he cannot sign the document.  If he did, Sir Henry Clinton would have to dishonor his words to Benedict Arnold.

Andre thinks he will face a firing squad.  He doesn't know that he is to be hanged.  Andre walks with Boulton and his servant to the place of execution.  He has to gulp hard when he sees the gallows.  The date is October 2, 1780.  Andre says:  "I pray you all bear witness I die like a gentleman."  He shakes hands with Boulton and goes to his death. 

Andre is later buried in Westminster Abby.  Some of the words on the tomb are:  "Sacred to the memory of Major John Andre, universally beloved and esteemed even by the army in which he served and lamented even by his foes.  . . . His Gracious Sovereign, King George III, has caused this monument to be erected."


Interesting and engaging film.  One really big problem.  There was no super hero like the one in the movie, John Boulton.  It's a shame they didn't opt for the real story.  It's a complex story, but a good story and could have been an even more interesting film than this one.  A lot of characters in the film are also in the historical record.  You may want to compare the real story with the fictional one. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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