Tag Archives: historical movies

Matthew McConaughey will play Newt Knight

Hat tip to commenter Leo at Crossroads for noting this news item:

Matthew McConaughey has signed on to play Newt Knight, who led a group of anti-slavery Confederate deserters in Jones County during the Civil War.

The movie, “Free State of Jones,” is written by Gary Ross, of “The Hunger Games,” “Pleasantville,” and “Seabiscuit” fame. It details the story of Newton Knight, an American farmer, soldier and Southern Unionist, who became the leader a band of Confederate Army deserters that turned against the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Local legends state that Knight and his men attempted to form the “Free State of Jones” in the area around Jones County at the height of the war.

Kind of ironic that the Hunger Games director would do a Newt Knight movie.  Desertion is basically the opposite of volunteering as tribute. *rim shot*

As you might recall, there was some blogosphere buzz surrounding Free State of Jones historiography a few years ago.  For more info on the history behind the film, check out Victoria Bynum’s Renegade South blog and her book on Jones County in the Civil War.

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Confederate spy Loreta Velazquez is headed to the screen (sort of)

Remember that PBS documentary from last year about Loreta Janeta Velázquez, the Cuban woman who passed as a soldier and spied for the Confederacy?  A recent interview with actress Diane Guerrero (from Orange is the New Black) includes this tidbit:

We just finished shooting in Nantucket. It’s this film called Peter and John where I play a Cuban woman who’s a confederate spy, set in the 1800s. It was loosely based on the life of Loreta Velazquez.

Loosely based indeed; even the character’s name is different.  Here’s a bit more info from the movie’s website:

Kingdom County Productions has announced that actress Diane Guerrero will play the role of Lucia Childs in its film Peter and John, now shooting on Nantucket. Lucia Childs is the mysterious young woman who, during the spring of 1872, arrives on Nantucket island. She brings long-buried secrets with her and attracts the attention of brothers Peter and John Roland. Diane Guerrero plays the recurring character of Maritza on the new Netflix hit series, “Orange is the New Black.”

The story is adapted from a Maupassant novel.  Not sure where Confederate spies fit into the picture, but anyway, there it is.

I could’ve made a “Gray/Butternut is the New Orange” joke, but I didn’t.  You’re welcome.

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“He won’t stay in these woods forever”

Remember that movie about a young Abe Lincoln that’s been in the works?  Well, if you’re going to Sundance, you can see it this weekend.  The rest of us will have to settle for this quick peek that’s popped up online:

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The Patriot and rites of passage

As many of you probably know, Michael Kammen passed away a couple of weeks ago, ending a distinguished career marked by several important books and a term as president of the Organization of American Historians.

Coincidentally, when I found out about Kammen’s death I was about to start re-reading his book A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination.  In this work, he argued that a common theme in fiction about the American Revolution was the notion of the founding as a rite of passage.  Novelists have portrayed the War for Independence as a national coming-of-age story, and many have amplified this theme by populating their stories with characters on the verge of adulthood.  For these characters, participation in the Revolution marks a transition to maturity, so that their own life stories reflect the larger story of their country.  Many of these novelists have also employed generational conflict as a narrative device, with their young characters chafing under parental control just as America sought independence of a different kind from the mother country.

Kammen’s book deals primarily with novels, plays, and imagery.  He relegated films about the Revolution a short sub-section of one chapter, due to a scarcity of original material.  In the three decades since the publication of A Season of Youth, we’ve seen a few more (but not that many) theatrical and TV movies about the Revolution, and for the most part I think his thesis still holds up.

In fact, the most successful recent movie about the Revolution fits Kammen’s argument to a T.  The Patriot is a story of generational conflict between Benjamin Martin and his oldest sons.  Martin knows what sort of devastation the war with England will bring and is reluctant to get involved, while the two boys are eager to enlist.  The protagonist gets dragged into the war by his children, one of whom is burning with patriotic idealism, and one of whom seems more fascinated by the trappings of war than anything, playing with toy soldiers and trying on his father’s old uniform coat.

The movie also portrays the war as a transition of a different sort for Martin’s younger children.  For them, the war is not so much a step into maturity as a loss of innocence.  Just as Martin predicts in an early speech, the Revolutionary War is fought on their doorstep.  The family farm is an idyllic sanctuary in the movie’s opening sequence, but when the shooting starts, Martin’s attempts to shield his children from all the death and destruction prove futile.  Check out this deleted scene:

There’s another way in which The Patriot supports Kammen’s thesis.  He argued that by pitching the Revolution as a coming-of-age, Americans have also domesticated their own history.  We’re a nation born in revolution, but we value order and stability.  If the founding was a passage into adulthood, it was a one-time event that doesn’t need to be repeated.  The notion of the Revolution as a rite of passage is thus a way of celebrating our violent and radical beginning without endorsing the overthrow of the status quo.

The Patriot’s closing scene shows us the Martin family returning to the site of their burned home at the war’s end.  When they arrive, they find white and black veterans of Martin’s command working together to build them a new dwelling.  The implication is that the destructive work of war and revolution is over, and it’s time to move on to the constructive work of building on a foundation.  The movie thus emphasizes the possibilities the American Revolution opened and passes over the issues it left unresolved.  And it would take another such violent upheaval to resolve some of them.

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The exceptional Solomon Northup

I saw 12 Years a Slave the other day, and it’s a darn good movie—certainly the most visceral onscreen depiction of the peculiar institution I’ve ever seen, rivaling the harrowing slave ship scenes from Amistad.

One reason the film is so powerful is because Solomon Northup makes for an especially relatable protagonist. Anyone who’s thought about the history of American slavery has probably sympathized with the people who were victims of it, but sympathy for someone is not the same as identification with them. Identification requires you to be able to see yourself in a character, and living your whole life as someone else’s property is so foreign to the experience of most modern Americans that it’s difficult to put yourself in that place.

Northup wasn’t born into slavery; he had his freedom, a home, and a family before losing it all when he was abducted. You can see yourself in him. And in the movie, he’s thrown into this brutal new reality at the same time you are. You’re on his journey alongside him, and that lends the experience a special kind of impact.

Of course, if Northup’s exceptionalness makes him a useful surrogate in approaching the subject of slavery, it also means that we have to remind ourselves of how atypical his story is. Most slaves were born into bondage, lived their entire lives in that condition, and died without publishing their stories. Peter Malamud Smith explains the dilemma:

It’s just so hard for us to identify with “the regular slaves,” in whatever form they may take. 12 Years a Slave is constructed as a story of a man trying to return to his family, offering every viewer a way into empathizing with its protagonist. Maybe we need a story framed on that individual scale in order to understand it. But it has a distorting effect all the same. We’re more invested in one hero than in millions of victims; if we’re forced to imagine ourselves enslaved, we want to imagine ourselves as Northup, a special person who miraculously escaped the system that attempted to crush him.

In other words, this individual’s story can’t take the place of millions of other slaves’ untold stories. But it more than compensates by reminding us, as few other slave narratives can, that behind each of those untold stories was an individual.

Northup as depicted in his book, via Wikimedia Commons

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It pays to be Doris Kearns Goodwin

Steven Spielberg keeps buying the rights to her books faster than her publisher can get them on the shelves. From the LA Times:

A year after Steven Spielberg‘s “Lincoln” became a box office hit and award-season favorite, the filmmaker’s DreamWorks Studios has announced plans to make another presidential drama — and based on the work of the same author who helped make “Lincoln” possible.

The studio has acquired the rights to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s upcoming book “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism,” which is set for publication Nov. 5. Kearns also wrote 2005’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius ofAbraham Lincoln,” which became the basis for Tony Kushner’s “Lincoln” script.

We’ve already had a couple of really good onscreen Teddy Roosevelts: Brian Keith in The Wind and the Lion and Tom Berenger in TNT’s Rough Riders. Interestingly, Keith was in Rough Riders, too; he played Roosevelt’s predecessor William McKinley. John Milius directed both films, so maybe it wasn’t a coincidence.

Not sure what they’re planning to do with Taft, but if Spielberg’s got some money to spare on visual effects, my people can sit down with his people and discuss an option on an old post of mine…

Be a shame to let this current superhero mania go to waste.

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Lincoln and his bodyguard

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

If you didn’t get a chance to see Saving Lincoln in theaters, it’s available on DVD now.  Using actual period photographs for its settings, the movie explores the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Ward Hill Lamon, the Virginia-born attorney who went from lawyer to presidential bodyguard.  Lamon isn’t as well-known as some of Lincoln’s other associates, but the two men had a remarkable and longstanding relationship.

They met in Illinois, where Lamon was admitted to the bar in 1851.  Although he was born a Southerner, Lamon joined the young Republican Party and played an instrumental role in securing Lincoln’s nomination in 1860, packing the convention hall with his friend’s supporters by printing up extra tickets.  

It was during Lincoln’s inaugural train trip that Lamon’s stint as a self-appointed bodyguard began.  After detective Allan Pinkerton brought Lincoln word of a possible plot to assassinate the president-elect in Baltimore, an armed Lamon accompanied Lincoln as he passed through the city secretly by night.  Neither Pinkerton nor Lamon thought much of the other’s abilities; Pinkerton dismissed Lamon as a “brainless, egotistical fool,” while Lamon later claimed that the purported assassination plot was a sham.  (He reversed this opinion in some of his postwar writings.)

Lamon wanted a diplomatic post, but spent Lincoln’s presidential years as a U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia.  In this position he managed to offend some powerful people, with some senators eventually demanding that he be fired.  Lincoln entrusted him with a number of delicate missions, including a controversial trip to Ft. Sumter before that installation fell to the Confederates.  Despite Lincoln’s wish to hold the fort, Lamon gave Southern authorities the impression that the Union was prepared to abandon it.  But if Lincoln was angry at Lamon’s handling of the Charleston trip—and some sources indicate that he was—it didn’t stop him from allowing his old friend to take responsibility for presidential security.  The burly Virginian often patrolled the White House grounds at night—armed to the teeth with a pistol, knife, and a set of brass knuckles—sometimes sleeping on the floor right outside Lincoln’s bedroom.

Perhaps one reason Lamon was so conscientious when it came to presidential security was the fact that Lincoln himself seemed so cavalier about it.  An exasperated Lamon wrote to him in 1864, “I regret that you do not appreciate what I have repeatedly said to you in regard to the proper police arrangements connected with your household and your own personal safety.…To-night, as you have done on several previous occasions, you went unattended to the theatre. When I say unattended, I mean that you went alone with Charles Sumner and a foreign minister, neither of whom could defend himself against an assault from any able-bodied woman in this city.”  Lincoln’s lifelong tendency toward fatalism probably contributed to his seeming indifference toward his safety.  He told associates that if someone wanted to take his life badly enough, there would be little anyone could do to stop it.  Lamon wasn’t on hand on the night one of Lincoln’s enemies finally got the chance to strike a fatal blow, having been sent on a mission to Richmond.

He returned to his legal practice after the war, setting his name to a poorly-received ghostwritten biography of Lincoln.  After Lamon died in 1893, his daughter assembled some of his material into a second book, published in 1895.  Some of his personal effects—his watch, marshal’s badge, and ashtray—are highlights of the collection of LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.

As its title implies, Saving Lincoln focuses on Lamon’s role as bodyguard, but it nicely balances the public and private aspects of Lincoln’s life in the White House.  Tom Amandes effectively conveys Lincoln’s affable side in a performance reminiscent of Sam Waterston’s portrayal in the TV adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln.  (History buffs may recall that Amandes spent two seasons playing Eliot Ness in The Untouchables.)  Lea Coco, Penelope Ann Miller, and Bruce Davison all give convincing turns as Lamon, Mary Todd Lincoln, and William Seward, respectively.  The film includes a few incidents that don’t usually make it into Lincoln movies, such as the controversy over Lamon’s performance of a traditional song during Lincoln’s visit to Antietam.  I’m glad to see it available in DVD format; anyone interested in history will find it well worth watching.

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