A Christian-themed Rev War movie about a masked vigilante trying to clear his name

That seems to be the gist of it, anyway.  Sort of like if you combined Zorro with The Fugitive in 1770s Philadelphia, with some proselytizing thrown in.

The leading mercenary for the British East India Company, Will Reynolds has just been double-crossed and now is on the run in the American Colonies. Working to redeem his name and win back the affections of the woman with whom he’s never been fully truthful, Will now hides behind a new mask in hopes of thwarting his former employer. As his past life closes in on him, Will must somehow gain the trust and the help of his beloved Charlotte – as well as Ben Franklin – while he races against time to defuse a plot of historical proportions. Coming to theaters Spring, 2015, Beyond the Mask is a revolutionary new family film that brings history to life in a faith-filled adventure celebrating grace, liberty, and the true freedom that can only be found in Christ.

Sounds unusual.  Heck, I’ll probably see it.  (Hat tip: Flintlock and Tomahawk)

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The Battle of New Orleans on the big screen

From NOLA.com:

Two hundred years after the Battle of New Orleans was waged — earning it an eternal place in Louisiana history books and further burnishing Andrew Jackson’s reputation as one of America’s original action heroes — it is getting the Hollywood treatment.

In a ceremony timed to coincide with local bicentennial celebrations of the historic skirmish between American and British troops, fought in January 1814 as one of the closing salvos of the War of 1812, Hollywood producer Ken Atchity and brother Fred unveiled plans Friday (Jan. 9) for a major feature film about the battle’s place in history and Jackson’s role in it.

With a planned budget of $60 million to $65 million, the independently financed “Andrew Jackson and the Battle for New Orleans” is being targeted for a possible 2016 release, with shooting to begin as early as this summer. Envisioned by Ken Atchity as a sweeping action epic in the vein of 2000’s “The Patriot” and 1995’s Oscar-winning “Braveheart,” the film will be shot entirely within a 30-mile radius of New Orleans, he said.

A script for the film has been written, and while it will strive for historical accuracy, it will function as a mainstream Hollywood-style movie, not a “schoolroom movie.”

I’m really excited to see this happening, but as I’ve said before, what I’d really like to see is a sprawling, three-hour, Patton-esque Old Hickory biopic.  I’d start with a brief scene at the American lines on Jan. 8, 1815, zoom in on Jackson’s face as he scans the horizon for signs of the British, and then flashback to his boyhood injury at the hands of a redcoat officer during the Revolution.  Flash forward to the Dickinson duel and the run-up to the War of 1812, cover his Creek campaign, then New Orleans for the big climax.

Time permitting, I’d include the whole 1818 Florida imbroglio, and then cut to James Monroe and John Quincy Adams mulling it over and discussing the fact that the country hasn’t heard the last of Jackson…annnnd roll credits over some rousing military music.

Here’s an earlier Hollywood take on Jackson in New Orleans, with Charlton Heston as Old Hickory and Yul Brynner as Jean Lafitte in The Buccaneer (1958).  Heston was probably used to filling Jackson’s boots at that point, since he’d played the same role in The President’s Lady just a few years earlier.

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When is “early America,” anyway?

This semester I’m taking a course on early America and the Atlantic.  A lot of our reading deals with expanding the physical boundaries of what we think of as “early America,” incorporating insights from scholars working on Latin America, the Caribbean, and the connections between the Americas, Europe, and Africa.

Last week we spent some time discussing temporal boundaries along with physical ones.  When exactly was early America?  If we’re using a chronological term to describe an area of study, shouldn’t there be a better notion of what constitutes the period under discussion?

Columbus seems like a logical starting point, but coming up with an end date is a lot trickier, and your choice of a terminus will reveal a lot about your historical priorities.  If you decide to cut things off at 1776, 1783, or 1789, you’re  privileging politics over markers of culture, religion, and other factors that remained much more constant after those dates.  You’re also more or less saying that U.S. history is the only early American history that really matters.

What if we set our end point at the date when Latin America became independent? That privileges politics, too.  And there’s a sense in which a cutoff point in the early 1800s makes even less sense than 1783 or 1789.  In many ways, the social, technological, and economic atmosphere of the 1820s looks more similar to the mid-nineteenth century than it does to the late eighteenth.

We could arbitrarily pick a nice, round year, like 1800, but the fact that it’s a nice, round number is just about the only thing it’s got going for it.

Does the question of early America’s chronological boundaries matter?  I think it does, because the way we create these containers for particular fields of study inevitably shapes the questions we ask about the past and the places we go to find answers.  On a more practical level, it also determines who goes to which conferences, who gets hired for particular positions, and so on. These chronological boundaries might be artificial, but their effects on the way we conceptualize the past are very real indeed.

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Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

I’ve spent the whole War of 1812 Bicentennial waiting to post this. *squeals with delight*

Fun fact: Jimmy Driftwood, the guy who wrote this ditty, was actually an Arkansas schoolteacher and principal named James Corbitt Morris, who used music to liven up his history classes.  In 1936 he set his own lyrics to a traditional song about the battle called “The Eighth of January.”

Driftwood got a recording contract about twenty years later, but “The Battle of New Orleans” didn’t become a sensation until Johnny Horton heard it on the radio while driving home from a show and decided to do his own version.  Horton got a hit, Driftwood got a second career as a musician, and we got a song so awesome it almost makes up for the White House getting torched.

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Filed under Tennessee History

Selma and LBJ: Do filmmakers owe anything to historical figures?

There’s been an interesting discussion among historians and movie critics about the movie Selma, which plays up the antagonism between Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here’s LBJ historian Mark Updegrove’s critique of the way Selma treats the president:

Why does the film’s mischaracterization matter? Because at a time when racial tension is once again high, from Ferguson to Brooklyn, it does no good to bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the Civil Rights Movement by suggesting that the President himself stood in the way of progress.

The political courage President Johnson exhibited in adeptly pushing through passage of the Voting Rights Act 50 years ago is worth celebrating in the same manner as the “Lincoln” filmmakers championed President Lincoln’s passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, putting a legal end to slavery.…

LBJ’s bold position on voting rights stands as an example of what is possible when America’s leadership is at its best.

And it has the added benefit of being true.

Selma doesn’t just portray LBJ as dragging his feet on civil rights.  It makes him complicit in the FBI’s attempt to silence King by blackmailing him with evidence of his extramarital affairs.

Others claim that LBJ’s defenders have overstated their case by attributing the march to Johnson himself, as if he came up with the whole idea.

This certainly isn’t the first time filmmakers have taken historical liberties—far from it—but it’s a particularly interesting case.  It portrays a prominent individual as standing further to the wrong side of history than he did, and deprives him of credit for contributing to equality and moral progress.

So leaving aside for the moment the well-worn question of whether filmmakers have a moral obligation to be as historically accurate as possible, do they have a more specific moral obligation to avoid portraying historical figures as acting less nobly or honorably than they actually did?  And does the fact that Selma deals with very recent history make this obligation greater?

I haven’t seen the film yet (although I plan to), and twentieth-century history isn’t really my thing, so I’m hesitant to weigh in.  What do you folks think?

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Filed under History and Memory

New year, old cabin

Here’s a little archival item to end one year and ring in a new one.  My mom ran across this vintage Marble Springs postcard and gave it to me as a Christmas present.  I don’t know the date of the photo, but somebody mailed the card from Knoxville to the tiny town of Godley, TX in 1910.  That was thirty-one years before the state purchased the property.  As you can see, the place needed some work.

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I’ve seen this same postcard image online, and something about it has always befuddled me.  If the building in the picture is one of the extant structures on the site, it could only be the kitchen, which is attached to the main cabin by a dogtrot.

By Brian Stansberry (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Since the main house is a good half-story taller than the kitchen, you should be able to see the gable end over the kitchen’s roof on the postcard.  But from the postcard, it looks like there’s no building on the other side of the kitchen.  Somebody evidently retouched the image to replace the main house with trees.  I have no idea why anybody would do this, unless the smaller, dilapidated kitchen cabin better fit some postcard maker’s notion of what an Appalachian homestead should look like.

I did a little poking around online and ran across a slightly different version of the image from UT Special Collections, dated 1921.  Here the main house is clearly visible, as it would be if you were standing there in person.  This version, however, also looks heavily retouched.  Did somebody try to clean up an earlier, already retouched version and produce this result?  I don’t know enough about early photo manipulation to tell precisely what’s been done to the images.

“John Sevier’s “Marble Springs Plantation”,” in Special Collections Online, Item #4225, http://kiva.lib.utk.edu/spc/items/show/4225 (accessed December 31, 2014).

Anyway, it’s an interesting glimpse at a place that’s changed a lot over the years, and one where I’ve been privileged to spend quite a bit of time.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Should history books cost an arm and a leg?

Over at the always-interesting Boston 1775 blog, J.L. Bell draws our attention to an interesting new title on gossip in American history.  Unfortunately, as he notes, a copy of the book will set you back nearly a hundred bucks.

Hefty price tags aren’t unusual when it comes to academic books.  Many university press hardcovers cost upwards of forty dollars.  If you’re only going to sell a few copies of a book to large research libraries, it makes sense to slap a high price on each copy.

But what about readers who want copies of these pricey academic books?  Many of them are probably going to be academics themselves, and they can get a free book from a journal looking for a review or a complimentary desk copy from publishers who want to sell to students.  Other potential readers—grad students, bloggers, independent scholars, reenactors, and history buffs—will either have to cough up some serious dough or wait for copies to start showing up in used bookstores or on Ebay.

One of my professors refuses to submit her manuscripts to one very prominent academic publisher because their books are so expensive.  She feels an obligation to make her work accessible and useful to people beyond the academy.

If your primary concern is writing for an academic audience, or if publication is just a means to some professional end (job, tenure, promotion, accolades), then you can afford to be unconcerned about your book’s cost. But I think it’s worth asking whether historians have an obligation to do whatever they can to ensure that interested lay readers can afford their books.

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