Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reel People: Robin Wright Penn is Mary Surratt

The film is The Conspirator directed by Robert Redford with a screenplay by first time motion picture screenwriter James Solomon.

Mary Surratt

Mary Elizabeth Jenkins was born in 1823 in Waterloo, Maryland. She had two brothers, and due to the death of her father Archibald Jenkins at her age of two grew up without a father. She was sent to the Academy for Young Ladies, a private Catholic boarding school in Alexandria, Virginia as a child.

In 1839 Mary married. She was 16, and her John Harrison Surratt, a Roman Catholic farmer, was 27. History is not favorable to John Surratt, typically classifying him as a drunkard who despite his desire to pursue many financial endeavors (including operating a grist mill, post office and tavern) his alcohol consumption limited his ability to succeed and care for his family. He is often cited as being abusive towards Surratt.

Mary and John had three children, there first Isaac was born in 1841 when Mary was 18. Her other children Elizabeth Susanna (Anna) and John Jr. were born shortly after.

As the American civil war began, the Surratt family, like many others in Maryland found their sympathy's torn as their state sided with the Union, but culturally as farmers with slaves found themselves sympathizing with the South.

John died in 1862 after over 20 years of marriage, and Mary was left with John's financial burden with limited ability to enforce the loans that John had made to others. As a result she leased the family farm and tavern to a former DC Policeman John Llord, while her and her children moved into a town home in DC left by John's family. Mary converted this townhouse into a boarding home.

On April 14, 1865 Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at the Ford Theater. What followed was the arrest of anyone who was believed to have had a part in the assassination and Mary Surratt was included in that group along with Louis J. Weichmann, Junius Booth, John T. Ford, James Pumphrey, John M. Lloyd, Samuel Cox, Thomas A. Jones, Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O'Laughlen, Lewis Powell, Edmund Spangler, and Mary Surratt.

Eventually the list of potential conspirators was narrowed down to eight, including Mary Surratt who amongst other possible connections stored the firearms used in the shooting on her property. Mary Surratt was said to have gone to her tavern and spoken to John Lloyd the day of the murder and advised him to prepare the weapons which were then picked up later that day by John Wilkes Booth and his accomplice David Harold.

Arrested April 19, 1865, the military commission trial would begin May 9, 1865. Mary Surratt alleged she was innocent and not involved with the conspiracy. She is also notable in the trial as the oldest person on trial, as well as the only woman. The verdict was delivered on June 30, 1865.

All defendants were found guilty, and four of them were sentenced to hanging including Mary Surratt (the other sentenced to death by hanging were Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt).

President Andrew Johnson signed her death warrant and she was hung on July 7, 1865.

The Conspirator

The film stars Robin Wright Penn as the lone female conspirator. Evan Rachel Wood plays her daughter Anna and Johnny Simmons plays her son John, Jr.

The film's co-star is James McAvoy who plays Fredrick Aiken, a young war hero who reluctantly defends Surratt in the conspiracy trial. Alexis Bledel plays the role of Aikens wife (Sarah Weston) and Tom Wilkinson plays the role of Reverdy Johnson the former attorney general who is Aiken's mentor. Justin Long plays Nicholas Baker, Aiken's best friend.

In the rest of the court room, Danny Huston is prosecuting attorney Joseph Holt. Kevin Kline is Edwin Stanton (Lincoln's secretary of War).

Stephen Root plays John Lloyd, the tavern renter is also plays the role in the story as the principle witness for the prosecution.

Robin Wright Penn has never received an Oscar nomination and the role of Mary Surratt certainly has the potential to have the dramatic and historical quality to entice audiences and critics. Will Robin Wright Penn receive an Oscar nomination and perhaps a win for his portrayal of this Reel (Real) Person?


Andrew K. said...

Wow, never heard of this film or the history but this sounds lovely and I love Robin Wright (Penn). You Americans and your history, though.

(Vaguely off-topic, have you ever heard of Sondheim's musical ASSASSINS? About different presidential assassins? Brilliant stuff.)

Unknown said...

I am a direct descendant of John Lloyd. I have a book written by Daniel Boone Lloyd that doesn't really characterize him, just outlines what he did at that time. At his arrest, he was overheard to say, "I am to be shot." I don't doubt his complicity, but I am interested in how he got off scott free. Little I know of him, but I have heard that he was a scoundrel. He was reinstated later, I believe, to police officer with full pardon. It's a curse to bear, being related to a conspirator to such a vehement murder.
M. Lloyd Atkins

Anonymous said...

"Mary Surratt was included in that group, along with...and Mary Surratt."

She was the first human clone!

Larry said...

I just saw the movie today. I came home and read many of the critics opinion of the film and disagreed with most of them. In my opinion this is the first major film to be Oscar worthy this year. Robin Wright Penn is well deserving of a nomination.