A& E Network this week offers a rendition of George Washington that runs counter to the popular myth. Oh, he sits astride a white horse, all right; and he has a neat uniform to wear, complete with a cape and that spiffy tricorn hat. But while he is clearly in charge, he is hardly unflappable.
Monday at 8 p.m., the cable channel presents an adaptation of Howard Fast's novel "The Crossing," with Fast himself writing the television story of the dramatic Delaware River expedition.
That daring excursion has become an icon of the American Revolution, symbolized by the image of Washington standing proudly in one of the boats carrying his men to a surprise attack on the Hessians encamped at Trenton, N.J.
But that image barely begins to tell how desperate the colonial situation was that December in 1776, a mere six months after those heady days in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence had been committed to paper.
In that short span, disease, desertion and the well-trained British army had ripped through Washington's troops like a buzz saw.
A force of 20,000 men had been reduced to 2,000 -- mostly boys, mostly hungry and cold, and soon to be free to leave the army when their enlistments were up.
Why do they follow me? Washington asks at one point in "The Crossing." They trust you. And they love you, is the reply.
The man they love and trust and follow into history is played by Jeff Daniels, an actor who has played some of the more feckless characters in recent film history.
Would anyone follow Flap, the loathsome husband of "Terms of Endearment?" Would a Boy Scout troop let the guy from "Dumb and Dumber" lead them across the street?
On the other hand, Daniels has portrayed one of the country's least-known and least-appreciated military figures, Joshua Chamberlain, the Union hero, in the film "Gettysburg."
"I grew up off-Broadway," said Daniels, "and you played different characters. For better or worse, that's what I tend to do. From Joshua Chamberlain to the guy sitting on the toilet next to Jim Carrey to Washington -- it's all the same guy." The same actor, that is.
"I had such admiration for Jack Lemmon and grew up on Dick Van Dyke, an unsure guy," he said. Daniels's acting, he said, "is all sort of down that line. Rather than setting your jaw and running the lines like they're coming from Mount Rushmore, here's Washington -- they wanted to deliver him with different colors, and so I'm one of the guys they call."
This version of Washington is a man who understands the desperate straits he and the colonial cause are in and who has a daring scheme in mind. The crossing of the frigid Delaware at Christmastime and routing the Hessian soldiers garrisoned there would not win the war in one swift strike, but it would win the Americans some time, a resource that seemed to be running out.
Washington figured the Hessians, a crack German regiment fighting on the British side, were biding their time, waiting for the Delaware River to freeze over. When it did, they would walk across the ice into Pennsylvania and continue to squash the revolutionaries.
Amid the openly expressed doubts of his subordinates and the disparaging condescension of another general, Washington determines to carry out his surprise attack, timed to find the Hessians asleep, hung over from too much holiday cheer, or both.
"It was a group of men working against all odds, against a river, and deciding what they would do," said Daniels. "It resulted in the United States of America. You could argue that that night was the turning point in what we are today."
The war would last seven more years after the crossing, but the attack -- in which no American was even wounded
-- is held up as a dramatic comeback for an American force which, until that time, had largely been in retreat.
Some of the characters in this novelization of history are fictitious, but a number of real people are brought to life.
Steven McCarthy plays Washington's 19-year-old aide who helps spearhead the attack -- Capt. Alexander Hamilton.
Nigel Bennett plays Gen. Gates, who tells Washington at one point that everyone but Washington knows the revolution is already over.
Roger Rees plays trusted aide Gen. Hugh Mercer.
Sebastian Roche is a revelation as Col. John Glover, a little-known Massachusetts fisherman who commandeered boats and engineered the crossing.
"Sebastian worked hard trying to find out what he could on Glover," said Daniels. "He went up to Marblehead and went to Glover's grave and was able to get more information."
Glover, blunt, brave and untraditional, offers his share of criticism of Washington's plan. But as much as anyone, it's the Marblehead fisherman who makes the crossing happen.
But foremost, of course, there is Daniels's portrayal of Washington, based on his own research at the University of Michigan, as well as on Fast's script.
"I went to Ann Arbor and walked out with two armloads of books on Washington," Daniels said. "The image of him crossing the Delaware is enduring -- and no, he didn't stand up in the boat. I wanted to know what got him there, the state of mind, what the months leading up to the crossing were like. We think of him like Jesus, never doing anything wrong.
"But hundreds of men died leading up to that battle, some would say because of his lack of leadership. There's guilt, depression. And you've got guys questioning him, Gates telling him he was out of his mind."
Daniels said some historians point out that under somewhat different circumstances, Washington might have preferred to remain at Mount Vernon and play the country squire rather than get involved in the revolution.
"Yet he showed up at the Continental Congress in his military uniform," Daniels said. What he had was an idea of what was at stake, that it was a battle for the future. And he knew it funneled down to that night. . . . He couldn't stomach the idea of going back to Mount Vernon without having crossed the river."
And when the battle was over, added Daniels, "He knew that they had not done anything other than live to fight another day."