Vexatious Vexillology

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Talk about mixed messages: One of Hollywood’s most vexing — and most easily avoidable — vexillology anachronisms has shown up again in the TURN universe.

The “King’s Colours,” adopted 1707.
The “Union Jack,” adopted 1801.






As you can see by the dates posted above, the flag pictured at left is the only British standard that’s appropriate to use for any sort of recreation of the American Revolution.  Information on the Union Jack is fairly easy to come by, but for those who prefer more authoritative sources, you can check out this BBC News article, or this page from the British Monarchy’s official website.

We’ve already pointed out the appearance of the 19th century Union Jack in the cover of the TURN: Origins online comic, along with some other Hollywood examples. (There sure are a lot of them!) Early in TURN’s premiere episode, however, as the camera pans across a scene of occupied Setauket, the most prominently featured British flag flying is the correct one for the late 18th century. It’s the visual focal point in a striking scene:

TURNscreencap - kings colors

A very encouraging sign!  (Especially if you’re a loyalist.)  However, the eagle-eyed viewer might have spotted a couple of curious inconsistencies elsewhere in the pilot episode.  Fast-forward to the dockside scene in Brooklyn Harbor:

TURN01 - Brooklyn Harbor flag(circled)

I spy not one, but two 19th century flags — though they are admittedly easy to miss in this epic and visually busy spectacle.  Granted, this particular anachronism is a small detail that is (like little Thomas’ baby couture) not hugely integral to the larger storyline of TURN.  But I’m a bit surprised by the internal inconsistency regarding — to paraphrase Major Hewlett — the British “beacon of authority.”  Since the footage of the King’s Colours in Setauket was used during the promotions leading up to the premiere, I wasn’t expecting to see Union Jacks appear anywhere in the show footage.  That said, the harbor scene above didn’t surprise me as much as the theme song, after taking a second look at it:

Obviously the theme song is a heavily stylized artistic rendering, but would it have been that difficult to include the correct British flag? What do you think, readers — does the Union Jack in the theme song get a free pass because of artistic license? (For the record, I’m a big fan of the “two-sided flag” concept — just one of many very clever visual transformations that take place in the opening theme.)

For many historians keeping an eye on TURN, including myself, it’s difficult to resist falling into the tempting trap of focusing on details that aren’t major enough to impact the show’s main storyline.  In general, we’ll focus on historical topics of greater consequence here — but the anachronistic Union Jack is admittedly a bit of a pet peeve.  It’s almost ubiquitous in historical Hollywood productions, despite an abundance of easily-obtainable and widely known information. However, there ARE bigger and better things to be said for what we’ve seen in the show so far — including the debut of an ancient (and very cool) form of spycraft.  We’ll be discussing that soon, along with what might be considered a shocking exposé of the REAL state of Abraham Woodhull’s family in 1776. So stay tuned!


8 thoughts on “Vexatious Vexillology

    Bob Allegretto said:
    April 10, 2014 at 7:52 pm

    Their signature logo of the two sided flag also includes the so called ‘Betsy Ross’ flag. A flag that likely flew less than any other. The more typical flag would have been 3,2,3,2,3 (top to bottom). I have to wonder if once again the producers are aiming at a ‘not so intelligent’ audience and is appealing to the lower standard…or simply using the more recognizable flag.

      Syke said:
      April 16, 2014 at 1:27 pm

      I’m going to guess both. Keep in mind that fully 90% of the viewing audience are neither historians nor re-enactors, so better to do something that is period correct and easily recognizable, than go for the fine details that’ll have most of the audience going “huh?”

    Charity said:
    April 11, 2014 at 8:34 am

    Looks like someone in the CGI department didn’t do their research, but the people on the ground unit did.

      Syke said:
      April 16, 2014 at 1:28 pm

      If there’s any re-enactors doing the privates in those scenes, the crew had a ready-made correction unit. And, they will.

    tman56 said:
    April 11, 2014 at 11:42 pm

    Actually, for the ships in the harbor, they could have/should have used the red naval ensign.

      spycurious responded:
      April 12, 2014 at 10:42 am

      Great point, tman56! There surely would have been British merchant ships in New York harbor, for which the Red Ensign (pre-1800, as shown in that website) would be the appropriate flag to fly.

      William Perrin’s “British Flags, their Early History, and their Development at Sea” is cited in many places (including the crwflags website above) as an authoritative source on the history of the Union Jack, and is free to read at Google Books. For any readers brave enough to dive into the complex history of British vexillology, he discusses the development of the Union Jack and Red Ensign in chapter 3 (specifically, pp 69-71).

      jegrenier said:
      April 16, 2014 at 4:01 pm

      That is a correct statement. The Devil is always in the details

    April 13, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    All three comments above are spot-on. Further, since the opening displays, 1776, the Betsy Ross Flag (My personal favourite) was not alleged to be created until 1777, despite Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware (Dec. 1776)” painting.

    As for CGI Department, it is not their responsibility (not the Editing Department’s) to do research. Why should they be held to any higher standard than writers?

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