Monthly Archives: May 2013

PBS features story of Loreta Velazquez, a reinvented Rebel

If even half of her controversial autobiography is true, then Loreta Janeta Velázquez led one of the most fascinating lives of the nineteenth century.  She’s the subject of Rebel, a new documentary airing Friday, May 24 to open this season of Voces on PBS.

Loreta Janeta Velazquez, in and out of disguise

According to her 1876 book The Woman in Battle, Loreta was born in Cuba in 1842 to  a prominent Spanish official.  Sent to New Orleans as a young girl, she displayed a rebellious personality from a young age, dressing in boys’ clothes and eloping with an army officer at the age of fourteen.  Deciding to see something of combat, she was one of hundreds of women who disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War.  Calling herself Harry T. Buford, she experienced some of the war’s most famous battles, including 1st Bull Run, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh.  After her exploits as a soldier, she took up spying, enjoying a remarkable career as a double agent.

That, at least, is the story she told in her memoir.  How much of it is true has been a subject of debate ever since its publication.  Jubal Early, who met her in Virginia after the book’s publication, denounced her as a fraud.  Some historians have likewise found her claims hard to swallow, although researchers have found enough documentation to verify a few parts of her story.

Rebel doesn’t spend much time separating fact from fiction.  Instead, it focuses on the outline of her story as she told it herself, using it to examine the role of Hispanics in Civil War America, gender in the nineteenth century, and contested historical memories.  The concern here isn’t really whether her account is true, but why its accuracy was a matter of such concern to her contemporaries.  The program suggests that her autobiography offered a challenge to the society in which she lived, not only because she stretched the truth but also because of who she was—a Hispanic woman involved in the business of war and espionage who was determined to go public with her exploits.  It’s a fascinating story, and I enjoyed watching it.

1 Comment

Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Movie protagonists and the past as a foreign country

I’ve taken as one of my creeds novelist L.P. Hartley’s oft-quoted statement: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”  As I’ve said before, I love it when historical films manage to convey this “otherness” of the past.  The tricky part is that audiences are supposed to identify with a movie’s protagonists, and it seems like underscoring the differences between historical characters and moderns would only make that more difficult.  So how do you depict the “otherness” of a historical film’s protagonists without undermining an audience’s sympathy for them, especially when that otherness consists of attitudes and practices that are morally repugnant here in the twenty-first century?

The easiest approach is to cheat and eliminate the otherness altogether.  If your hero is a prominent landowner in eighteenth-century South Carolina, you’re going to have to deal with the fact that men of his stature, place, and time tended to be slaveholders.  The makers of The Patriot sliced through this Gordian knot by making Benjamin Martin a remarkably forward-thinking guy.

It’s a simple solution, but it also leaves a lot to be desired.  Whereas the movie shows the British dragoons tearing free blacks away from their homes, the reality was in many cases the reverse, with many slaves escaping their Patriot masters to make a bid for freedom behind British lines.  Ironically, Benjamin Martin’s fictional military exploits are similar to those of a real South Carolina officer named Thomas Sumter, who paid his recruits with slaves confiscated from Tories.

The makers of 300, by contrast, didn’t try to gloss over the unsavory aspects of their historical protagonists.  The Spartans leave weak infants to die of exposure, they savagely discipline their own children to turn them into hardened soldiers, they cherish the idea of death on the battlefield, and they slaughter their wounded enemies and desecrate their bodies.  And the audience is expected to accept the characters for what they are—even to celebrate them for it.

The movie not only gives us the Spartans in all their ruthlessness, but makes us empathize with them.  You probably wouldn’t want to live among them, and you certainly wouldn’t want to be a wounded Persian falling into their hands, but it’s fun to root for them for a couple of hours.  This solution seems more historically honest than the approach taken in The Patriot, and it works pretty well when you’re telling a story in which there are obvious good guys and bad guys.

Of course, 300 tells the story entirely from the Spartans’ perspective.  Can filmmakers tell the story of some historic event holistically—that is, from a variety of perspectives—while conveying the past’s “otherness” and still make audiences empathize with all the characters involved?  Can they do on film what David Hackett Fischer did in his book Paul Revere’s Ride, approaching “both Paul Revere and Thomas Gage with sympathy and genuine respect” even though the main characters act in opposition to each other?  I think one movie that handles this really well is John Lee Hancock’s 2004 film The Alamo.

As this scene demonstrates, the movie presents the Alamo’s defenders as heroic.  Indeed, for some critics, they come across as too heroic.  A number of reviewers accused the filmmakers of whitewashing the story.  What struck me about the movie when I saw it, however, was its remarkable frankness about the protagonists’ shortcomings.  Early scenes establish that David Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Travis have all experienced some sort of disappointment or disgrace, and Texas represents a second chance for them.  A short but sympathetic side plot involves a very young solider marching in Santa Anna’s army.  Most notable, though, is how upfront the film is about the relationship between its heroes and their slaves—fittingly so, since the peculiar institution was one of the points of debate between the Texians and the Mexican government.

In one scene, Travis assigns two slaves named Sam and Joe the task of digging a well within the fort’s walls.  “Ain’t bad enough we got to fetch ‘em the water,” Sam complains, “now we got to find it for ‘em too.”  Later, Sam tells Joe that when the Mexicans storm the mission, he should worry about saving his own life and let his master to fend for himself.  (Travis did indeed own a young slave named Joe, who was wounded when the Alamo fell and escaped to freedom one year after San Jacinto.)    These scenes establish that the enslaved members of the garrison have their own interests at stake, interests at odds with those of the protagonists with whom we’re supposed to identify.  Contrast this with earlier depictions of black characters in Alamo movies, which tend to employ the familiar “faithful slave” narrative.

At the same time, though, the film’s revisionism doesn’t extend to demonizing the Alamo’s white defenders.  We sympathize with Sam and Joe’s predicament even as we admire the courageous last stand of the men holding them captive.  As prejudiced slaveholders of another time, Bowie and Travis seem foreign to us, but we also become invested in their confrontation with their own impending death.

As I said, the movie’s approach didn’t go over well with everybody.  The essay linked above, for example, notes that “the realistic portrayals of Joe and Sam may be to the credit of the filmmakers, but ultimately the film does little to question the ideological values inscribed onto the Alamo battle, which have gone largely unchallenged for the last 175 years, even if it does alter aspects of the story prevalent in its cinematic representations.”  In other words, the 2004 version is more frank about its main characters’ slaveholding, but it somehow manages to leave their bravery and heroism intact.  The movie leaves these contradictions unresolved.  It’s messy, complicated, and ambiguous, as history often turns out to be.  It didn’t work for many critics and historians, but from a purely historical standpoint, I was impressed.  Your mileage may vary.

Anyway, The Patriot and 300 grossed $113 million and $456 million respectively, but The Alamo flopped.  Maybe audiences prefer their historical heroes to be as straightforward as possible.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

Returning the souvenirs from Barry and Jason’s excellent adventure

The items Barry Landau and Jason Savedoff swiped from some two dozen archival repositories are gradually making their way back home.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Your very own Civil War tourist attraction

If you’ve got $1,695,000 to spare, you could be the next proprietor of the American Civil War Wax Museum in Gettysburg.  It’s officially on the market.

The exhibits depict such critical turning points as the fateful evening of May 2, 1863, when ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons and Mark Twain tended to a wounded Grigori Rasputin…

…and Lincoln’s 1860 conference with Lt. Commander Worf of the USS Enterprise.

Pics are from tripadvisor.com.

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

Philbrick takes Bunker Hill

Like the name of the battle itself, the title of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution is a bit misleading.  Just as his Mayflower covered more than the Pilgrims’ ship, his newest book is about more than the bloody confrontation at Breed’s Hill on June 17, 1775.  He tells the story of the Revolution in and around Boston from the time of the tea party through the British evacuation in 1776. 

In Bunker Hill, Philbrick’s gift for narrative serves him well when there’s some sort of action going on.  The chapters on the war’s first day, on the titular battle, and the siege of Boston are where this book shines, although the best modern account of Lexington and Concord remains David Hackett Fischer’s masterful Paul Revere’s Ride.  It’s fitting that Hollywood has already taken an interest in this book, which is cinematic in its vivid characterizations, gripping battle passages, and rapid pacing.

The earlier chapters, which deal with the political maneuvering that led up to the shooting war, are not as strong.  Perhaps this is because it puts Philbrick out of his element.  He first catapulted to popular acclaim with a gripping account of the sinking of the whaleship Essex, he’s at its best when he describes the experiences of men in deadly and dramatic circumstances.  Or perhaps this is simply due to the nature of popular narrative history itself, a genre in which character and action often take precedence over analysis.

Philbrick’s bibliography is extensive; he has read widely in the secondary literature on the Revolution in New England.  One of his contributions is to emphasize the role of Dr. Joseph Warren, whose critical place in the colonial protest movement is familiar to historians but less so to average readers.  Philbrick suggests that Warren’s death at Bunker Hill—he arrived on the battleground to fight as a common soldier even though the Provincial Congress had appointed him a major general—cost the Patriots one of their more able leaders, and he notes several points at which they might have benefited from his presence had he survived.

Ultimately, this is a good work of popular history.  If you’re new to the Revolution, or if you’re a more seasoned history buff looking for a refresher before setting off on a summer trip to Boston’s Freedom Trail, you’ll find Philbrick an informed and engaging guide.

1 Comment

Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

INSP is going colonial for Memorial Day

INSP, the cable network specializing in family programming, is going to air a colonial-themed miniseries starting at 7:00 P.M. on Memorial Day.  The show is called Courage, New Hampshire, and it’s set in the late eighteenth century.

It apparently originated as a direct-to-DVD production put together by a couple of guys who met through a Tea Party rally.  The guy who financed the first episode is into living history, so it might be worth a look.  You can find a few short clips on YouTube.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America

We have a winner, but we also have some glitches

Well, folks, there’s good news and bad news.  The good news is, we’ve got a winner for the Bunker Hill book giveaway.  The winning number was 674, by the way, which was also the lowest number of all the entries submitted.

Here’s the bad news.  When I contacted the winner to get a shipping address, he let me know that he’s been having trouble getting the comment function here on the blog to work.  “Whenever I try,” he said, “it won’t let me enter anything into the box called ‘Leave a reply.’ The phrase already in the box, ‘Enter your comment here…’ simply stays there and doesn’t disappear when I try to type over it.”  If anybody else out there has been having this problem, let me know by sending me an e-mail at the address on the “About the Blog” page and I’ll let the folks at WordPress know.

Anyway, let me thank everybody who entered the book giveaway.  We might do more of these in the future.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized