Monthly Archives: May 2010

Fly on the wall (2)

While we’re on the subject of credibility in historical films, there’s another scene from HBO’s John Adams that’s worth looking at, one which illustrates authenticity of a different kind—the authentic depiction of historical personalities

Before watching the scene, we’ll set the stage with a few descriptions of the characters involved.  Here’s David McCullough describing Jefferson and Adams in the book on which the series is based: “Where Adams stood foursquare to the world, shoulders back, Jefferson customarily stood with his arms folded tightly across his chest.  When taking his seat, it was as if he folded into a chair, all knees and elbows and abnormally large hands and feet” (p. 111).

Joseph Ellis describes Jefferson as “a listener and observer, distinctly uncomfortable in the spotlight, shy and nervous in a distracted manner that was sometimes mistaken for arrogance” (p. 32).

Finally, here’s Edmund S. Morgan on Benjamin Franklin: “[He] could not see anything without asking himself what it was, how it got that way, what made it tick.  He had that rare capacity for surprise that has made possible so many advances in human knowledge, the habit of not taking things for granted, the ability to look at some everyday occurrence and wonder why” (5).

Now here’s the scene, with Adams and Franklin critiquing Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence:

I’d say these guys did their homework. 

Good writing, good acting, and good direction can bring us as close as we’re likely to get to seeing historical figures in the flesh, and when it happens, it magic.

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Fly on the wall

I have no idea why this review of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto just appeared on one of Roger Ebert’s “far-flung correspondents” blogs, since the movie came out a few years ago.  Anyway, it’s well worth a read, because it touches on an important issue regarding historical films.

Every historical movie will have some inaccuracies, either intentional liberties or simple mistakes.  But regardless of how many historical flaws Apocalypto contains, it’s also saturated with details that “allow us to feel when the credits roll, that we actually attended the events depicted here, what some call ‘the fly on the wall’ theory.”  In other words, a movie like this creates a credible past.

Moviemakers create worlds, and it’s healthy for us to remember that when we’re talking about the past, a different world is exactly what we’re dealing with.  Historical filmmakers should build their worlds from the ground up in the same way that good science fiction filmmakers do.  Otherwise, the world they create won’t be credible.  It will be nothing but the past lightly grafted onto the present, like a poorly-done reenactment.

For a great example of a credibly, thoroughly authentic past, take HBO’s John Adams.  There is nothing modern about the world the characters inhabit.  Indeed, there’s nothing modern about the characters themselves.  They lack make-up.  They have bad teeth.  Even their speech is distinctive, since the filmmakers tried to reconstruct colonial dialects.  (The result is sort of halfway between a British accent and modern American English; it’s like an entire nation inhabited by William F. Buckleys.)

The world of John Adams wouldn’t be a vacation for anybody but a hardcore reenactor.  It would have all the hallmarks you’d associate with visiting a Third World village: unfamiliar speech, uncomfortable living conditions, strange food.  Watch this excerpt from the first episode, and then ask yourself how long it would take you to get accustomed to living in this world:

This is a world where it’s hard to keep out the cold, where children curtsey when their father arrives home, where simmering imperial tensions can explode in the blink of an eye.  This isn’t modern America in knee breeches.  These people live differently, speak differently, behave differently.  They are different, and they inhabit a different America.  It’s a remarkable artistic achievement.

There aren’t many ways that entertainment media can advance historical understanding.  Drawing attention to neglected people or incidents is one of them.  Creating worlds with this level of authenticity is another.  It reminds us of a fact we too often forget, one summed up memorably in Leslie Hartley’s dictum: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”  Movies like this are a valuable corrective for those occasions when we feel too comfortable with the past, when we forget the span of years that separates us from the people who lived there.

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Diminishing returns

Wondering how much new revenue the proposed Gettysburg casino might generate?  Judging by the long faces among gambling industry leaders, I’d say not that much: 

As new casinos keep popping up, even with overall gambling revenue stagnating, casino companies are fighting harder for smaller shares of their market.

Executives at the East Coast Gaming Congress, a national casino conference, said Tuesday that with many states now adding table games to the mix, it’s going to be even tougher to succeed in the cutthroat East Coast market.

‘We have to fight this explosion of gambling all around us,’ said Don Marrandino, eastern regional president of Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., which has four casinos in Atlantic City. ‘We have to continually reinvent ourselves as a destination.’

Operators of commercial casinos in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia told the gathering in Atlantic City they are being forced to fight for one another’s customers.

‘I don’t think it’s saturated yet, but it’s clearly crowded, clearly more challenging,’ John Finamore, senior vice president of regional operations for Penn National Gaming, said of the East Coast market As new casinos keep popping up, even with overall gambling revenue stagnating, casino companies are fighting harder for smaller shares of their market.

More details in the original news item, released just yesterday.  Still sticking by that rosy economic impact study?

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I know they have a legal right to meet there

…but seriously, can’t the “Aryan Nations” find some place besides Gettysburg National Military Park to have a rally?

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Having a blast at the blockhouse

This past weekend I once again signed on as an artilleryman with the militia from Martin’s Station, this time for an event at Natural Tunnel State Park near Duffield, VA.  NTSP’s most famous attraction is its namesake geologic feature, but the main attraction at the reenactment area was a great reconstruction of an eighteenth-century fortification.

The Wilderness Road Blockhouse represents the home of John Anderson, built in the 1770’s not far from the park.  It bruned about a century after its construction, but today a monument marks the original site.  During the Revolutionary era, it was a significant landmark for migrants starting out on the Wilderness Road.  Because Anderson’s house was a relatively secure structure near the road’s point of origin, it was a convenient gathering place for people waiting to join parties headed into Kentucky.  It was also a handy storehouse and defensive post for settlers during periods of Indian trouble.

The Wilderness Road Blockhouse at Natural Tunnel State Park, from the NTSP Information site.

Unlike the familiar walled forts that stood at places like Boonesborough and near Sycamore Shoals, which were made up of a series of buildings linked by palisades, frontier blockhouses were solitary, individual buildings.  What they lacked in size, they made up in strength.  The second story was wider than the first, so that the walls of the upper floor jutted out beyond those of the one below; imagine a small cabin perched on top of a slightly smaller wooden box.  This made it extremely difficult for assailants to climb up onto the roof.  Furthermore, since the edges of the second floor stuck out over empty space, openings in the floorboards allowed defenders to shoot or pour boiling water downward, directly onto the heads of anyone approaching the building too closely.

Two additional features make the Wilderness Road blockhouse a tough nut to crack.  There’s no mud chinking to seal empty spaces on the outside walls.  The wood pieces themselves fit snugly together, making a solid and more impregnable structure.  And unlike most frontier cabins, which had external chimneys, this building’s chimney is built within the walls, so that an attacking party can’t tear through it to get inside.

The Wilderness Road Blockhouse  has its own small visitor center, with an exhibit and gift shop.  It’s a great little interpretive area, with an extraordinarily effective use of limited space.  The exhibit explores the blockhouse itself, the Wilderness Road, and frontier life in general.  It’s a great spot, with a fantastic view of the surrounding hills.  Check it out the next time you’re in southwestern Virginia.

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If George Washington chops down a cherry tree in the forest and there’s nobody to hear it but Glenn Beck, does it make a sound?

The other day I was sitting in Pizza Hut with a friend of mine, enjoying a plate of boneless chicken wings, when I looked up at the TV mounted on the wall to find Glenn Beck talking about George Washington. 

Beck’s new favorite book is George Washington’s Sacred Fire, by Peter Lillback.  He’s been bragging that its sales have skyrocketed because of his endorsement, and evidently he’s right.  As of my writing this, it’s ranked no. 1 on Amazon.  I haven’t read the book, but as far as I can determine (and if anybody knows differently feel free to correct me), Lillback is trying to make the case that Washington was a more orthodox Christian than a lot of us believe.  Personally, I think Washington was well along the deism end of the spectrum, though not as far as some of his contemporaries. 

While I was looking for information about the book, I found out that Beck has been on a real Washington kick lately.  On May 7, his guests were Andrew Allison and Earl Taylor.  Allison is co-author of The Real George Washington; Taylor is president of the National Center for Constitutional Studies, the organization that published Allison’s book.  Beck has been encouraging people to read that one, too, but based on the transcript of his interview with these guys, I think I’ll have to pass.  Here’s a sample: 

BECK: Yes, and [Washington] was trusted on making treaties. And people, they did. They trusted him. Tell me the story of — I’m trying to remember the name of the Indian that came up and made the George Washington prophecy. A, is it true? Tell me the story and then, is it true? 

TAYLOR: That is true. This is actually in the French — during the French and Indian War when he in his early 20s was on aide to General Braddock – British General Braddock. And they were leading about almost 1,500 troops out to western Pennsylvania, Fort Duquesne, around Pittsburgh now. And Washington had warned — because Washington knew the area and he had warned Braddock that there are places that are real good ambush sites, I wouldn’t go there. 

Washington at Braddock's defeat on the Monongahela, from the Library of Congress (LC-DIG-pga-02418)

Well, General Braddock, he was a — he was a British general. And, you know, they’re — most of them are quite proud. And they know it. So they march right into — through this area. And almost 1,000, I guess the number is 700 French troops with Indians ambushed them and just started mowing them down. And out of the almost 1,500 that they started with, there was over 1,000 deaths and wounded. And among those were all of the officers including Braddock, except George Washington. And he wrote the next day to his family, he said, ‘I don’t know why I’m still here. It must be the hand of Providence that had preserved me. I’ve got bullet holes in my hat, through my clothing. I’ve had two horses shot out from under me.’ 

BECK: He was never wounded ever, was he? 

TAYLOR: No. Not in battle. 

BECK: And he — and the troops talked about bullet holes through his clothing and he was on a white horse. 

TAYLOR: Oh, yes. 

BECK: It would be like camouflage! 

(LAUGHTER) 

BECK: Camouflage your horse! 

TAYLOR: Well, 15 years later, Washington — this was in 1770, Washington was with a group of men that were reviewing and kind of scoping out the same area. And an old Indian was part of an Indian band that discovered them and invited them to sit down in the council, around the council fire. And this old Indian chief gets up and he said, ‘I was there. As a matter of fact, I was in command when the Indians and the French drenched this area with the blood of the soldiers. And we killed a lot of them. But we could not kill that man.’ He said, ‘I had moved my best marksmen on him and I told them they cannot miss and they usually did not miss.’ ‘But this time,’ he said, ‘we couldn’t hit him.’ 

BECK: And is this the same Indian that said, you will be a great leader of… 

TAYLOR: Yes. And that was his — that was his prophecy. He said, ‘I’m telling you, the great spirit is with that man. He will one day be the great chief of a great nation.’ 

ALLISON: Preside over an empire. 

TAYLOR: ‘He cannot die — he cannot die in battle.’ 

Washington did indeed escape from Braddock’s defeat without a scratch, which is remarkable enough, but if the part about the prophecy sounds more like drama than history, it’s because that’s probably all it is.  Washington’s step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis wrote a play about the incident in 1828, claiming that he got the story from Dr. James Craik, a physician who was at Braddock’s defeat and on the 1770 surveying expedition.  (He was also, incidentally, one of the attending physicians at Washington’s death.)  

Years later, the tale turned up again in Custis’s Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, where he again attributed it to Craik but admitted in a footnote that Washington made no mention of the incident in his diary.  Interestingly enough, the same footnote mentions a separate meeting with Indians during the same trip that is found in the diary, and for which (unlike the supposed prophecy visit) we have a specific name for the embassy’s leader.  I suspect that Craik took this visit, embellished a few details, and turned it into the prophecy story after Washington was dead and elevated to the pantheon of early national heroes, but that’s just me. 

This wasn’t the only bit of questionable history Beck and his guests were throwing around.  Here’s Beck during the same show: 

His country, Britain and then the United States of America, had him serving for year after year after year after year. After he won the Revolutionary War, he went back to be that farmer in Mount Vernon. And things started to fall apart. And they came knocking at his door and said, ‘George, we need you, because the whole thing is falling apart.’ I’m paraphrasing, but I think it was pretty close to — ‘Have I not yet done enough for my country?’ No. He went back and he didn’t say very much during the Continental Congress and the constitutional convention. He didn’t say much. He didn’t have to. He was a revered figure. He was — that’s my favorite painting of him. He was a revered figure. He was a guy — this was actually a painting done on the, just on the words of one of the — I think it was a farmer if I’m not mistaken. A farmer came into the field one day, and heard some noise and heard him standing there, in the field and he just watched him as he got down in Valley Forge on one knee and he prayed all by himself. He’s a guy that in the end could have been made king. He could have been made a ruler. He’s a guy who could have been really upset at Congress. Boy, oh, boy. 

The “farmer” was supposedly a Quaker named Potts, who decided after seeing the general in prayer that soldiering wasn’t such a bad gig after all, and became a fervent supporter of the Revolution.  That, at least, is the story as it originally appeared in the Washington biography by Parson Weems, who never met an anecdote he didn’t like.  Since then it’s appeared in illustrated form so many times that the question of whether or not it actually happened is essentially moot.  It probably didn’t.  Weems is a notoriously unreliable source, and in 1918 Valley Forge park officials refused to allow the erection of a monument to the event when they were unable to find any evidence to substantiate it. 

At one point during his Washington segment, Beck claimed that “it’s ironic to me that we make up a lie about ‘I shall not tell a lie’ on George Washington when there are so many great truth stories with him.”  That makes two of us—or maybe one of us.  I’m glad he’s urging his audience to study the founders; I just wish he’d do it a little more carefully himself.

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And the reports are filtering in

…from the 2010 Raid at Martin’s Station.

The fort’s website has posted a slew of fine images, including some photos of the artillery in action, with your humble blogger making an appearance.  Here we are maneuvering the grasshopper into position, and here we’re giving the Indians a dose of canister.  Note the fellow with the wide-brimmed hat, dark waistcoat, green breeches, and fingertips hardened from blogging.

I had a glorious time, gained a new perspective on Revolutionary-era warfare, and did not blow my own face off.  HUZZAH!

While browsing around the web in search of photos of the event, I also ran across a few items posted by participants with their own historical blogs, which I’ve added to my blogroll here.  Let me direct your attention to a series of posts (here, here, and here) by a physician who was on hand to tend to the wounded and instruct the young in the art of eighteenth-century medicine.

While I was standing inside the fort with the rest of the cannon crew before we went into action, I spotted an intrepid frontierswoman shouldering a firelock in order to head out and do battle with the menfolk.  It turns out she has a blog, too, and you can read her account of the raid here.

Finally, you’ll find a number of additional photos by browsing through recent threads at this discussion forum, which is well worth your time.

My thanks to the park staff and all the living historians who were present for making a first-time reenactor feel welcome.  When do we get to do it again?

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