The truth behind that painting

Television: `The Crossing' brings to life the story of Washington crossing the Delaware.

January 10, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

For most Americans, the sum total of what they know about one of the Revolution's most pivotal battles is that it involved George Washington crossing the Delaware River (while standing in a boat, if Emanuel Leutze's famous painting is to be believed).

A&E's "The Crossing," a movie version of events leading up to and culminating in the Battle of Trenton, aims to change that by both humanizing Washington and emphasizing the desperate odds he and his men overcame. To even take on the feared Hessians, paid German soldiers who had recently decimated the American army during battles in Brooklyn and New York, Washington had to be either a madman or a genius, and "The Crossing" suggests he may have been a little of both.

The movie does exactly what it sets out to do, thanks to a tightly controlled performance from Jeff Daniels as Washington and a script from famed author and screenwriter Howard Fast ("Spartacus") that pays equal attention to the desperation of the American situation and the valor of the men who fought on despite the odds.

"The Crossing," which Fast adapted from his own historical novel, is also pretty darn entertaining. It's a film about underdogs unwilling to accept their status. It's a story of how a great man became great. And it's a story about how the fate of world events often hinges on tiny details.

By December 1776, Washington and his Continental Army had just about had it. Defeated at practically every turn, they had been driven out of New York after suffering tremendous losses.

The Continental Congress, which less than six months earlier had declared its independence from Great Britain, was preparing to abandon Philadelphia for Baltimore, so skeptical were they of Washington's ability to protect the city. Washington, far from being a great military leader, had earned the dubious reputation of being a master of retreat.

A desperate crossing of the Delaware River from east to west had put distance between the American Army and its pursuers. But Washington knew it was only a matter of weeks until the British crossed the river as well. He also knew he was ill-prepared to do anything about it. And while his troops continued to believe in him, many of his officers did not; several had begun speaking openly of surrender.

So Washington decided to gamble everything on a maneuver that seemed not only risky, but foolish. After dark on Christmas Eve, he re-crossed the Delaware, going from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, to launch a surprise attack on the Hessians garrisoned at Trenton.

His initial plan called for troops to march south rapidly enough to arrive at Trenton by dawn, thus enabling them to attack while the enemy was still sleeping. But the crossing took longer than expected, and it was 8 a.m. before his men were ready to attack.

Still, Washington bullheadedly stuck to his plan, gambling that the enemy partied heavily enough the evening before to be ill-prepared for the Christmas Day fight.

Or, perhaps, he was simply determined to settle the matter right there, right now. Either he would turn the tide of war, or die fighting.

Daniels, a master at sublimating himself to his role, is masterly as Washington, a man so mythologized by history that he seems almost unreal. But Daniels puts flesh on Washington's bones, portraying him as a man sure of only one thing: He's the one in charge of this army, and it will do what he asks.

Historians have long debated Washington's reason for ordering the attack on Trenton. Did Washington really think the battle could be won, or did he have a death wish? Much of Daniels' performance suggests the former, as he single-mindedly pushes his officers to share his vision.

But the stunned look on Daniels' face, as the feared Hessians fall and his men seize the day, suggests the latter must have entered Washington's mind more than once.

`The Crossing'

Where: A&E

When: 8-10 tonight; repeats 10 p.m.-midnight, midnight-2 a.m. and 2 a.m.-4 a.m.

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