This is the last one, I promise! Really! (Besides, I'm running out of Civil War movies that I've seen, and I'm too cheap to rent any more!) -- Jonah

The Reenactor's Movie Guide IV

by Jonah Begone

Memphis Belle: Your basic "Hooray-for-America" white knuckler film, this flick doesn't really have anything not previously seen on the old "Twelve O'Clock High" TV series, but is done more convincingly. Made me want to run out and buy a bomber to do a WWII bomber impression, but the obvious financial considerations kept me in Civil War infantry... (A bomber unit impression is not as unbelievable as you think. I understand there was once a reenactment of the bombing of Hiroshima by some guys who pushed a humongous bag of flour out of a restored WWII-vintage "Confederate Air Force" bomber. I'd like to think this story is just a legend, but knowing the reenactor commemorative frenzy I have a feeling it really happened. Write an account to the CCG if you've actually witnessed such a thing, will you? By the way, at the CCG Staff Party at 130th Gettysburg a friend revealed that he is now doing a bomberless-WWII bomber squadron impression. He also perfected the Revy War horseless dragoon impression, so go figure. )

Silverado: John Cleese, who plays Tim the Enchanter in every reenactor's favorite film "Month Python and the Holy Grail," has a bit part in this film. (How's that for a Civil War reenactment tie-in?) This is one of the great film Westerns, up there with "High Noon," and has Kevin Costner cast as a sort of an archetypical Reb Young'un-Full-Of-High-Spirits-An'-Sich character (we've got one in my unit). More fun than his later films, one of which is,

Dances With Wolves: This film is entertaining and would deserve its "Best Film" Oscar if not for its politically correct final half hour, when the evil Anglos screw things up. By the way, watching countless "F Troop" episodes has enabled me to master the Heckarewe dialect, which is akin to the Lakota Sioux language, so I'm able to more correctly translate the council scene in the tipi: "Ugh! Lt. Dunbar am heap big Farb. Him relate to animals, the environment, women and minorities. Him no Civil War soldier. How we get rid of him, Owns-Red-Porsche?" "Ugh! Hear my words, Timeshare-in-Waikiki: we marry him off to Stands-With-Fist, then he learn how she got name, and why previous husband jumped into buffalo stampede." (General noises of assent from among braves and from Chief Screen-Actors'-Guild.) This film is much better than Kevin Costner's next foray into history, called

Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves: Wretched, absolutely wretched. He can pull off being politically correct in a film about the nineteenth century, but trying it with the twelfth century is another matter. The most menacing thing about this particular Sheriff of Nottingham is the possibility that he might be HIV positive, and what's more, Maid Marian is ugly and the costume designer dresses people funny. I hated this film so much I refused to give in to my son's pleas to buy the Robin Hood Prince of Thieves action figures or breakfast cereal. (He doesn't own any Start Trek-the Next Generation action figures for the same reason. Come to think of it, there's a contradiction in terms: Star Trek-the Next Generation action figures. The show is so wretchedly emasculated and talky there is no action, but I digress.) This film sucks big time.

The Seventh Seal: Ingmar Bergman's classic, despite the fact that it's Swedish and in black and white. I am no medieval reenactor, thinking the Society for a Creative Anachronism types pathetically lame and nerdy (including a suspiciously high percentage of software geeks), but medieval history was my love before I discovered the Civil War. I think this film evokes the religion, superstition, fear and utter grottiness of medieval society better than just about any other film I've ever seen. The procession of flagellants scene is especially memorable (parodied in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), and the closing scene of Death leading victims off in a dance to the Great Unknown is an indelible image. I also like the plot of Death playing a game of chess with a returned crusader, the stakes being the knight's life. Try to see this one if you can.

The Lassie-in-World-War-II film that my pard Mal Stylo saw: I haven't seen this one yet but it sounds remarkable. According to Mal, Silver Star recipient Lassie returns stateside from service on the Aleutian Islands during WWII somewhat battle-scarred from the experience. She begins stealing chickens and barking a lot, and is nabbed by the dog catcher. Alas, foolish, short-sighted humans decide to have her destroyed. Her advocate claims that Lassie needs counseling just as returning soldiers need time to reacclimate to society, and she beats the rap, smiling knowingly at the audience at the end of the film. She later becomes a facilitator in a WWII Canine Veterans' Wellness and Self-Esteem Task Force and obtains a cabinet-level position in the Clinton administration, where she educates the public about sensitivity to veteran animals. (Just kidding about that last part.)

The Legendary New Market Flag Film: This is the film that you can see for free when you visit the New Market, Virginia battlefield park. You get what you pay for. (Actually, since you have to pay to visit the "Hall of Valor" the film isn't really free, which ought to constitute a violation of Federal consumer protection laws.) This is unquestionably the most low budget Civil War film in existence. The march, battle and eventual victory of the VMI cadets at New Market is thrillingly represented by a single VMI flag. The flag is shown on the march, resting against a tree by a campfire (with a pot 'o coffee on the boil - I want to know: did the flag make its own coffee?) and double quick timing into the assault. It's so bad a VMI graduate with whom I last saw this film threw school allegiance to the winds and laughed uncontrollably with everyone else during the performance. The high point in hilarity for female viewers is the mention of Confederate General "Baldy Dick" Ewell. Since I'm into unintentional hilarity (and therefore reenacting) I make it a point to see the Flag Film every time I do New Market. I've seen it five times. By the way, you can buy this film on videotape in the gift shop. But don't.

POSTSCRIPT, 2004: Wait a minute... this is entirely too harsh. Absence Maketh the Heart Grow Fonder, and the years have softened my opinion about the Legendary Flag Film. I now consider it to be one of Virginia's minor precious historical resources. Might even buy the thing on videotape next time I visit, in fact. It has been replaced by another production - see comments about it on the letters page, in a letter dated 9/17/04 by Scott H. Harris, Director of the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park. As I get older I note that my attitudes about a lot of things are growing kinder and gentler, and this includes Confederate reenactors, Tubby Bearded Guys (which is the same thing) and, yes, the Flag Film. - Jonah

Antietam Visit: The film shown at the NPS Antietam battlefield park. Not only is it better than the Flag Film, it's better than most ambitious big production Civil War films. This is a somber and moving little production, and was filmed with reenactors over a very hot Labor Day weekend in 1981. Some of the faces are still at it, educating the public. This film is well written, and the actors playing McClellan and Lincoln look convincing. What's even more amazing is that the producers managed to find the best musical excerpts from that horrible "White Mansions" Civil War theme country album and used them appropriately in the film. By the way, you can buy this film on videotape in the gift shop. You should.

Johnstown, PA Flood National Park film: The Johnstown Flood happened in 1889, well past the Civil War, but since this is the hands-down all-time BEST National Park film I've ever seen I think it deserves inclusion here. (However, there is one Civil War connection in that Clara Barton directed the Red Cross relief efforts. In a way it could be said that the Civil War was a dry run for the Johnstown disaster.) A parental advisory is posted on the door of the theater - which is wide screen and rigged with multi-channel audio, by the way - and sure enough, my wife had to take my little daughters out of the room. The film is an artful combining of old disaster movies and new footage, and looks "authentic." (As if there is such a thing as an 1889 movie.) The conclusion, read during the credits, is a reading of the coroner's terse descriptions of the bodies recovered afterwards. The impact of this was considerably lessened by a park service employee trotting out after the film and doing a wretched first person recollection of a survivor of the flood.

The Three Stooges comedy where they're Civil War soldiers and perform all sorts of wacky highjinks and physical humor: Technically this isn't a movie, it's a short subject. But they used to show 'em with movies so I'll count it. I have heard it said that the basic difference between males and females is males think the Three Stooges are funny. My personal opinion, however, is that the Three Stooges perform a brand of lowbrow humor that is only surpassed by MTV's "Beavis and Butt-Head" on the Jonah Begone Dull Wit Index. However, the remarkable thing about this short isn't the humor, which, heh heh heh, sucks, dude, but the fact that the Stooges were able to repeatedly do rapid, well-executed "stack arms." This is something the National Regiment couldn't teach presumably more intelligent people to do in eight or nine years of relentless drill and Schools of the Soldier. I don't think Velcro was available to Moe, Larry or Curley back in the forties when this was made (would they "...have used it if they had had it?"), so I can only assume that you need to be a Stooge to truly master the fine points of close order drill. Albert Einstein once said "The man who enjoys marching in line and file to the strains of music falls below my contempt; he received his great brain by mistake--the spinal cord would have been sufficient." Maybe this Stooges comedy provided the inspiration for his remark.

Go to the Internet Movie Database

I lied - there's more: Five Civil War Movie Reviews

Go to the first TV review article