Philip Nolan is Chuck Pfarrer’s captivating adaptation of “The Man Without a Country,” the short story originally published in The Atlantic in 1863. Masterfully blending history and fiction, Pfarrer transforms an allegory promoting the Union cause into the story of a young artillery officer, Phillip Nolan, who becomes embroiled in Aaron Burr’s 1807 conspiracy to invade the territories acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Insinuating that his plot has official approval, Burr convinces Nolan to carry a coded message into the Orleans Territory. Nolan has no idea that the former vice-president intends to set himself up as a dictator—and Burr has no idea that his scheme has been discovered. Soon both Burr and Nolan are in military custody, and Nolan is an accessory to treason.
The nation holds its breath as Burr is put on trial for attempting to dismember the union. The charges against Burr seem ironclad, but his lawyers are clever, and Burr is acquitted. An embarrassed prosecution looks for a scapegoat, and they expand the charges against Nolan to include desertion and treason. Learning that his own court martial will proceed, even though Burr has walked free, Nolan denounces his accusers, damns his country, and tells the court he wishes never again to hear the words “United States” as long as he lives. Nolan’s fateful words stun the court. The judges return with an ominous verdict: the prisoner’s wish will be granted. Nolan is exiled, sentenced to life aboard a series of U.S. warships, never to hear news from or be allowed to speak of his country again.
After years of being shuttled from ship to America’s first secret prisoner ship realizes he is a stateless person, estranged from his keepers and forgotten by his country. Decades after his trial, Nolan is passed aboard an American frigate in the Mediterranean. There, he comes into the custody of a newly commissioned lieutenant, Frank Curran. When Barbary pirates capture an American whaleship, the pair finds themselves drawn into a complex web of international deceit and mortal danger. As a desperate rescue mission is launched, Nolan teaches the young officer a poignant lesson about duty, loyalty and the meaning of patriotism.
Philip Nolan is equal parts adventure, naval history and morality tale. Brilliantly evoking the age of sail, Pfarrer brings alive convincing details of that courageous and sometimes brutal world. More than broadsides and small boat actions, Philip Nolan is a clear-eyed examination of the human condition. Philip Nolan is beautifully crafted, and it deserves a place among the classics of the genre.