The Reenactor's Movie Guide II

by Jonah Begone

It's late at night. Somewhere far from the cities and suburbs, in a wet field, men are sitting around a campfire. Authentic clothing, the smell of leather and wool and a Nineteenth-Century ambiance prevails. One speaks to the others: "So, 'jew guys see `Last of the Mohicans' yet?" That's right - it's another evening reenacting movie review! Bat these around next event weekend:

Last of the Mohicans: I used to wonder why they chose a shot of a running Daniel Day Lewis for all the marquees - having seen the film I know. The lean and wiry Indians and scouts dodging around in this flick give the whole production a breathless aerobic look. Oddly enough, it has reenactors, not a group generally known for looking lean and wiry, contributing to the look as extras. The soldiers all look suitably scared, desperate, youthful, hungry and generally capable - a testament to the careful screening that took place before filming. Excellent script, convincing cast, great incidental music and lots of action (the massacre scenes seem authentically swift and violent). All this and politically incorrect, too! (It has savage Indians and frightened women.) A magnificent film - I didn't think we made 'em like this anymore. Reenactors should be prouder of this than the over-praised "Glory."

The Duelist: An early Ridley Scott effort set in Napoleonic times. Has the look of a European flick with the commercial sensibilities of one of ours. Beautifully photographed, with the kind of details that reenactors enjoy seeing in film. (I liked the hair braids and gold piping worn by the dragoons.) Revenge and hate have always been two great motives in drama; Joseph Conrad knew this when he wrote the story from which this is based. I have a pet theory that the best historical flicks come from the Seventies - a time after the overblown Hollywood corniness and before our "politically correct" era - and this film is Exhibit A. A self-esteem must see for cavalry guys, I would think.

The Man Who Would Be King: Comforting in that Sean Connery and Michael Caine prove that there is a gutsy sort of honor and daring in simply being white and male (despite the fact that they portray British imperialists, which were a sort of turbocharged kind of white male). A "ripping yarn" for us Anglophiles. Is there any interest out there for Boer or Crimean War reenacting?

Sweet Liberty: Remember Bizarro World where everything was the opposite of what it should be? (Bizarro Superman: "Me love Kryptonite!") Unlike "The Man Who Would Be King," this one has Alan Alda, the Bizarro Sean Connery, in yet another one of his sickening "sensitive guy" parts. This time he plays a tedious writer who wants "historical authenticity" in a film script - whatta notion. This film has Revy War reenactors, a.k.a. 20th century mercenaries, in it - you better believe they were paid! Despite the fact that this is a film about reenactors doing extras work in filming (a relevant topic if ever there was one!) "Sweet Liberty" is frequently boring and bears watching only once. The battle filming at the end is notable because all the Revy War guys strip off their uniforms and undergarments for the cameras, which is surely in harmony with the current notions regarding an alternative-lifestyle armed forces.

The General: This Buster Keaton comedy, a jazz-age silent feature, makes a remarkably good Civil War film. (Must be the fact that it's in a suitably primitive-looking black and white and is 67 years closer than us to the America of G.A.R. members and living memory of the war.) It's based on the Andrews Raid - the great train chase - and surely features enough locomotive footage to please the most rabid train buff. All the stunts are performed "real-time," and the climax of the film is a remarkable shot of a real train falling off of a real bridge into a real river. This film is not called "a classic" for nothing - it's just plain fun and is strongly recommended.

Glory: Finally saw it. I realize it's probably a reenactor heresy to say this, but I thought it a good film, not a great one. Watching it I didn't see scenes from the Civil War, but reenactors reenacting scenes from the Civil War, which is a different thing. What's more, I didn't get weepy-eyed and blubbery, as some reenactors are reported to me to have become during a viewing. (Some reenactors who were in on the filming, that is.) For me, the most enduring testament to the 54th Massachusetts is the classical music piece by Charles Ives, "Three Places in New England: the St. Gaudens at Boston Common." (The sculpture shown during the closing credits, which is also a masterpiece.)

Santa Fe Trail: Stinky 1940's Hollywood product with swoony women, goofy sidekicks and matinee idols Erroll Flynn and Ronald Reagan as J.E.B. Stewart and George A. Custer. (A friend of mine has the criticism that Reagan portrays Custer as a sane man. My problem is that J.E.B. Stewart couldn't possibly have ever smirked as much as Erroll Flynn does in this film.) The best thing about this one is Raymond Massey's portrayal of John Brown. The worst parts are the idiotic prophesies and allusions to the coming Civil War, presented in an over-obvious fashion that even the historically-illiterate public couldn't fail to miss. If "the Duelist" made the cavalry look romantic and attractive, this one makes it look hackneyed and cliched.

The Pride and the Passion: Stinky 1950's Hollywood product with, get this, Frank Sinatra cast as a Spanish peasant fighting partisan style against Napoleonic forces in Spain. Cary Grant is his British pard. The plot centers around the herculean efforts of a gang of villagers lugging a humongous siege cannon up and down hills and across the countryside to be used to fire upon a Napoleonic fortress. The only two good things about this film is 1) watching the cannon go crashing out of control down a hill, much to the chagrin of Frank Sinatra and the villagers, and 2) Sophia Loren. (Make that three good things.) Fortunately Frankie gets it in the end, as does Sophia. My dad hated this film and referred to it as "That Goddamn Cannon Movie". Despite that fact that he never reenacted and died ten years ago I find the old man gets smarter all the time.

Northwest Passage: An okay film - people older than I seem to like it better than I do. Read the book, it's much better. (You should stop reading when the rangers come back from the St. Francis raid - it's all downhill from there.)

Das Boot: One of the reasons I like foreign films so much is because they look so different from the usual thing we produce in this country. This remark certainly applies to "Das Boot." What's more, I don't think we've cracked the "This-is-what-it's-like-to-be-a-Nazi" genre as convincingly as the producers of this film have, so it has a novel angle going for it. Finally, it portrays the crew of the U-boat as being either mindlessly bored or frightened out of their wits, which surely must be an authentic ingredient for a war film. Recommended viewing, but please don't run out and put together a WWII German sailor impression to convince the event-going American public that "...they only fought for what they believed in."

Waterloo: By all accounts Napoleon was diminutive. Rod Stiger, who lumbers around playing him in this film, is not. As a matter of fact, he weighs in with Orson Wells who plays Louis Bourbon, which thing should not be. Other than physical attributes, Stiger's Napoleon is still pretty bad. When he's not chewing out junior officers he's chewing up scenery, and at times an embolism seems imminent. Up until the battle the film is pretty hard to sit through, something it has in common with "Zulu Dawn." The production seems authentic - well, the whole thing reminds me of Stratego game pieces, which I suppose is enough. One helicopter shot of the battle reveals a tie to reenacting: the French dragoons approach the British infantry squares, ride all around them, are fired upon and nobody on horse goes down. I like when Christopher Plummer (Wellington) tells someone that his men are scum. Describes my unit pretty accurately.

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