The Reenactor's Movie Guide I
by Jonah Begone
While the rise of authenticity in reenacting is basically the tale of amateur historians rejecting the "history" lessons Hollywood tried to foist upon them, we reenactors still love historical films. Many a smudge on someone's "Window into the Past" (a.k.a. "environmental farbism") is caused by the campfire movie review to be found on any evening at any event. Here's a partial survey of some notable films:
"Zulu": immensely popular. So popular, if fact, that it spawned a sequel ("Zulu Dawn" - sort of a prequel, really), as well as Limited Edition Historical Art, wargames, Anglophiles, etc. I understand the venerable old copy the Fort Frederick Maryland State Park used to show has finally died from overuse. Why is this film so popular? I have a hunch it's because 1) reenactors love Brits, and 2) some of them find the theme of lots-of-white- guys-shooting-lots-of-black-guys secretly entertaining. (And now, if you want, you can help reenact "Zulu Dawn!" Click here for details.)
"Monty Python and the Holy Grail": younger reenactors know the lines from whole scenes from this one. It's not just that Monty Python was a talented comedy troup - it's that a film this eccentric would appeal to people who think it recreational to run around in layers of wool on scorching summer days. It also forever ruins any seriousness to be found in dramatic medieval films - I kept expecting to see "mounted" knights with coconuts appear in "Excalibur." (Have you dismounted cavalry guys considered this approach?) This film answers the universal question "How do you know he's a King?"
"Red Badge of Courage": the black and white one, not the John-Boy version. Okay, so the uniforms and drill are farby - big deal. More "authentic" productions would be hard pressed to match this film's mood, ideal casting and faithfulness to the (classic) book. I get more of a sense of what war must be like from this than anything else, and for me Andy Divine IS the "cheerful soldier."
"Revolution": any film that has Al Pacino cast as a Revolutionary War soldier has to be bad. For added measure it also features Nastasia Kinski flipping her hair.
"Barry Lyndon": gorgeously-filmed, most find it excruciatingly boring (with the only worthwhile parts being the brief battle sequences and Marissa Berenson's tub scene.) I, however, like it so much I actually bought a copy instead of pirating it! The book by Thackeray is excellent, too.
"Glory": haven't seen it. One reenactor I talked to called the score "...the best music ever written," which surely does a disservice to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Personally, I find the notion of reenactors bestowing cult status upon a film they appear in as a little narcissistic. (You Rebs can look that one up.)
"The Good, the Bad and the Ugly": unlike "Barry Lyndon," excruciatingly boring. However, I think the theme is the best music ever written.
"Henry V" (the newer one, although the Olivier WWII propaganda version is also good): being a Shakespeare-loving high-brow I found this film fascinating. It hasn't yet caught on in reenacting but I hope it will because I've memorized entire scenes for my "literate soldier" impression. (I can't wait to use Kenneth Branaugh's impassioned "Will you yield?" speech in a future Vicksburg event). Great production values - the Agincourt battle looked like a terrific event.
"Birth of a Nation": really, I don't understand why this Klan rally film is so highly regarded. The only good part is the scene where the Yank picket gazes longingly at Lillian Gish. I get a kick out of those things that look like toilet plungers bopping around on the klansmen's heads.
"Gone With the Wind": Chick film. Doesn't get talked about much in reenactment circles. (At least not in the ones I frequent.)
"The Warlord": obscure Charlton Heston film (he's a 10th century Norman warlord - hence the title, get it?) The only existing film on the subject of "Droit de Seigneur," the charming medieval practice wherein the local lord gets the first night with the peasant bride. (The notion has promise - we ought to incorporate this in our nineteen century wedding vignettes.) I like it because Tony Fransioza - an actor I could never stand - not only gets his bride taken away from him but gets impaled on a tree by Richard Boone (in his greasiest role). Whatta loser.
"Tunes of Glory": obscure 50's British film about a Scottish regiment. There's the Regimental Dinner, billiards and a suicide at the end. Other than that nothing much happens - it's sort of like somebody videotaped an entire Civil War living history garrison weekend - but it's very picturesque (or at least wanna- be Scots find it so).
Any of those French Ambrose Bierce adaptations: I saw 'em at a special showing at college, and with the possible exception of "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," they all suck. An interesting moment in one of them is when a Federal Captain gives two appreciative kisses on the cheeks to a picket as an award for being alert and shooting a Rebel intruder! (Who, of course later turns out to be his brother...)
Have I forgotten any? Don't hesitate to write in about your favorites if I have!
The longest continually screened film in American motion picture history.