Tag Archives: historical movies

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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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.

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