Monday, February 23, 2015

A Different Reality: Civil War vs Colonial / RevWar - Living the Past

The civilian men are growing in numbers
As a living historian, I have been sharply focused on the Civil War era for well over a decade, studying intently the great as well as the minute details of everyday activities of middle class family life of the northern states, particularly Michigan.
I find the period from roughly the 1840s through the 1860s a very fascinating time in our nation's history, from home life through the battles of the War. When I began in this reenacting hobby all those years ago, male civilians were *almost* unheard of. We were an oddity. We were an invasion in the female realm of the hobby.
In many circles, we still are.
Which is silly, when one thinks about it. Most men - especially my age - were not off fighting. They were at home, caring for their family and attempting to keep normalcy in their uncertain lives.
Understanding this, along with the study of home life, and, most important, attempting to look at history through the eyes of those who were there, has helped me to grow in my historical presentations. I went from the initial camp-sitter during my first year when I was still learning, to post master to stage coach stop owner to farmer, and I include all aspects of these occupations (except camp-sitting!) in my current incarnation. This gives me much more to talk about to visitors, enabling me to teach them about their lives had they lived "back then." It also prevents boredom from creeping in that can occur from doing the same old thing year after year.

And now,I also travel back to the 1770s.
Gotta love the cool colonial clothing!
This is a whole new ball of wax for me.
It's an entirely new/old world of history to discover - or in my case, rediscover - for in my youth I used to focus my attention on the colonial period of American history pretty heavily, especially during the Bicentennial of 1976.
I must admit, I like men's clothing of the 1770s better than men's Civil War era clothing, for at Civil War reenactments I wear a shirt, pants, vest/waistcoat, and jacket - it's really not vastly different from what I wear when I dress for church or a wedding in our modern day. The style is pretty close.
But there is a distinct and very noticeable difference in what a man wore in the 1770s in comparison, from the hat to the shoes.
Very cool.
However, because I've been turning some of my attention to this RevWar period and writing colonial-oriented postings here on Passion for the Past, many have asked, and some have even assumed, that I was going to leave the Civil War era by the wayside (get it---the wayside? The Wayside Inn? The well-known tavern from the Colonial era?? Longfellow? Okay, I'll stop...).
Nothing can be further from the truth.
Colonial/RevWar just gives me another opportunity to visit the past; to explore and recreate the living conditions of another period in time, for, as British novelist L. P. Hartley put it, “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”
Oh! The people you’ll meet:
Here I am with my friend,
Dr. Benjamin Franklin
And I'm finding it exciting, for the times of our Founding Fathers really is a fascinating world. To me, the folks that lived through this era - not just politicians or men in the military, but regular people at their home or place of occupation - are genuine heroes to me, for they all played a part in the founding of our nation, and they put their lives on the line just by choosing to be a Patriot or a Loyalist. There are stories from both Patriots and Loyalists harassing each other, sometimes to the point of mob rule and even murder.
To replicate these times for history's sake is very exciting to me. As I delve further into the 1770s I continue my manner and mindset as a living historian and take it, as I do in Civil War, to the extreme: I want to be there - to feel, as close as possible, what it was like to live in the good old colony days, to practice living history by attempting to experience the past as I have been able to do for the Civil War era. To have "experiential, individualistic, and sensory moments"—why just read about the past when you can dress, eat, sleep, and smell like it?
Immerse myself in it
So why should I do all of this to such the extent that I do? 
Why do I submerse myself in this world of the past rather than just be happy visiting museums or reading about it?
Well, you see, as I read in a post by D.A. Saguto on the Colonial Williamsburg site, "there is an element of escapism involved in dressing up like dead people and playing make-believe, escapism in which J. R. R. Tolkien, who wrote Lord of the Rings, saw as “an attempt to figure a different reality” and found the freedom through his writing to do so. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why people spend hours outfitting themselves in the garb of any particular historical era and pass their weekends recreating everyday life of times long past (or not so long past), fighting old battles, reveling in renaissance fairs, or just hanging out with friends who share their affinity for the past." 
There are some who are among the most serious in the reenacting world - the living historians - who not only have a true abiding interest in the clothing and fine points of history as well as a dedication to authenticity, but also a determination to come as close to living in yesteryear as can be attempted. 
The definition of Living History just about explains it all: any of various activities involving the re-enactment of historical events or the recreation of living conditions of the past.
Experiencing history: That's me, plowing behind a team of horses.
In other words, living historians live history by way of experiential, individualistic, and sensory moments—why just read about the past when you can dress, eat, sleep, and smell like it? Above all is the desire is to personally connect with an authentic past and immerse yourself in it.
Experience it.

My wife and I:
Spending time at a tavern built in 1831.
The word "re-enact," as you may know, is not my favorite term for what I do. It seems 'reenacting' has a negative appeal to "serious" historians, more than likely due to some of the inaccuracies associated with it. Recently I spoke with a period dressed docent at Greenfield Village, who also happens to participate in living history, and she mentioned that an 'accredited' history major she knows made a general negative comment about those of us who re-enact. She did not elaborate on what he said, only that he alluded to the opinion that we were not to be taken seriously; we are not true historians. In response she gave him a double-fisted knock upside the head and let him know that, although there are those who are just 'hobbyists,' there are many more of us who take this "calling" to bring the past back to life quite seriously; we do research on a daily basis and keenly study the differing aspects of daily life in the past - in many cases much more than the 'accredited historians' do, who tend to be more interested in ancient politics or battle tactics - and that there are many more of us in this vein than he might realize. She added that those of us who reenact, though we didn't go into debt for the knowledge we've gained over our decades of study, have still earned and deserve respect as historians nonetheless, for we are every bit the historian as those who have a college degree in history.
(Tell me that someone who has spent four or six years in college to get a history degree deserves the title more than anyone who has been studying history for 30 or 40+ years and I'll show you someone who looks at education as something you can only get by paying for it. Not putting anyone down for their degree, for it is an admirable accomplishment, just the ones who place themselves above those who are every bit as knowledgeable but do not have that piece of very expensive paper that tells them they're smart).

And so I've been experiencing the 1770s for a few years now, and I have thrown myself in head first as I do in Civil War and immerse myself into this world, even if some may rather not do it this way themselves.
And, just like in Civil War reenacting, I wouldn't expect them to. Only those who choose that style of living history.
As for me, I can't help it - it's the way I am. I couldn't do it any other way.
Which is why I began my own colonial reenacting group (click HERE).

And I am so excited about it!
Yes, it has me kind of on fire for the experience - and that's where I'm at...just expanding my historical opportunities and experiences.
So if the present is seen as superficial and lacking of merit, we, the living historian, can look for the freedom to escape to a fully faithful, if re-created, reality of the past.








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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

American History From the Movies: A Listing of the Best (According to Ken)

Filming a scene in "Copperhead"
I love watching historical movies - the kind that can take me away to another time and place. Unfortunately, trying to watch history in the movies can be pretty tough. I mean, there's a reason why the term "Hollywood History" exists; most movies about history coming from this city of fantasy tend to be more fictionalized than fact. In my opinion, however, if they throw in mostly facts and make the fiction secondary (such as the love story in "April Morning" - of which you will read about shortly), then, to me, it's all good. Sometimes a little fiction can add to the story and flesh it out as long as the facts remain.
I am always on the look out for a good historical movie to watch, the kind that are based on actual historical events and presented in a realistic way. And if one digs deep enough they can find films that have honest portrayals of occurrences that most movies rarely - if ever - show. An example is the "Felicity" movie, based on the colonial American Girl Doll. "Felicity" shows the battles not of the Revolutionary War itself, but between neighbors, families, and even between indentured servants and their masters.
"Copperhead" is another example of a story not often told about how there were many people in the north that were against the Civil War.
And it's when they "get it right," that you will suddenly find yourself transported, if only for a few hours, to another place and time.
Filming the very accurate-in-nearly-every-way "A Midwife's Tale"
"Being authentic or truthful about the past involves much more than getting the costumes and the architectural details right. Shortly after beginning the project (of making 'A Midewife's Tale'), I put together a board of advisors who are expert on the eighteenth century: on women's history, architectural history, medical history, music, and material culture. With their guidance, I plunged into the research. I visited the buildings which are still standing which were part of Martha's world. I visited archives all over Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire and put together a database of thousands of images from the eighteenth century, including handwritten documents, paintings, maps, medical book illustrations, children's book illustrations, newspapers, broadsides, photos of buildings, and the artifacts of everyday life. I found out what had been written about dialects and music and religious beliefs two hundred years ago. I learned as much as I could about the everyday work done by men and women in eighteenth century Hallowell, Maine: textile production, laundry, cooking, farming, surveying, etc. I put together a timeline of Martha Ballard's life and the national and international events that affected her family and her town. And I also spent time talking with (book author) Laurel Ulrich about her process of piecing together Martha's life.
The past is a foreign place, and a film's portrayal of the past depends upon thousands of choices about the physical, behavioral, and cultural details of the period and place being presented."

This quote is from Laurie Kahn-Leavitt, Producer of "A Midewife's Tale, and in watching that docu-drama it is obvious the research she put into it.
 
And this is why I included certain movies while not including others. They may not be 100% in all areas, but they're pretty darn close, as far as movies are concerned.
So what I have here is a list of historical movies with short reviews following each.
Though most are *pretty much* historically accurate, a couple are fictional accounts of the eras, but there was enough factual history in the storyline to make it worth inclusion here. 
By the way, I've only listed the movies that I personally have seen and, for the most part, own. The reviews have been taken from various movie review sites, and I included my own personal small observations as well.
Just my opinion, folks - nothing more, nothing less.
Also, the movie titles are the links that'll take you to (usually) Amazon.com for purchase if you desire.
Now...in historical chronological order (for the most part), here are my selections of the best American history movies:
Desperate Crossing
Desperate Crossing -
Part movie-part documentary (otherwise known as a docu-drama), this film (believe it or not produced by The History Channel) of the pilgrims is two and a half hours of a well-known and very important part of our American history, although you may not realize how little you actually do know of these separatists and of the times they lived. In fact, it certainly is more movie than documentary and, although interspersed throughout are historians filling in the gaps, this docu-drama is as engulfing and riveting as any full-length period movie I have seen. The lives and times of these early European settlers are authentically portrayed by use of English Shakespearean actors, and the quality shows. Never have I seen any other film put flesh on the bones of the pilgrims to the extent this one does. A social history extravaganza!
The clothing, lighting, effects (especially while on the Mayflower), and, at times, even some of the speech patterns are reflected fairly accurately. I did not see the typical revisionist history so often reflected in many of today's historical depictions. They were very religious folk bent on keeping their practices, even if they had to cross the ocean to do it, and this movie shows that in no uncertain terms.
The Indian dramatization was done very well for the most part, although I would have preferred to have their speech in their original (or close to their original) language and include the use of sub-titles.
Oh well, can't have everything.
As an extra added bonus, by the way, there are a couple of short (too short!) extra's - one features the making of this extraordinary documentary, and the other has outtakes and bloopers.
For teachers and lovers of history I recommend this docu-drama very highly. A wonderful way to learn about our early American history.

Ken's Observations:  Since I actually wrote this review for Amazon.com, I guess it's also my observation as well, isn't it?

Three Sovereigns For Sarah -
Salem Witch Trials - as good as it gets!
"This is a true story. Nineteen people were hanged and one old man pressed to death, while hundreds of others suffered in jail cells during the witch hysteria of 1692. THREE SOVEREIGNS FOR SARAH is the most accurate portrayal yet. Each character you will see actually existed, actually spoke many of the words you will hear. Original transcripts of the trials are woven into the dialogue." 
Ken's Observations:  I do not believe there is a better movie showing America's Puritan past as well as the awful Salem witch trials. Another one of those 'you are there' epics, the THREE SOVEREIGNS FOR SARAH is a must see for all students of American history. Hearing that this was filmed in some of the actual buildings where the original events happened sends shivers down my spine.

Last of the Mohicans
"An epic adventure and passionate romance unfold against the panorama of an 18th century frontier wilderness ravaged by war. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Hawkeye, rugged frontiersman and adopted son of the Mohicans, and Madeleine Stowe is Cora Munro, aristocratic daughter of a proud British Colonel. Their love, tested by fate, blazes amidst a brutal conflict between the British, the French and Native American allies that engulfs the majestic mountains and cathedral-like forests of Colonial America."
Ken's Observation: The written novel come to life - drama and action surrounded by the French and Indian War, and there's not too many contemporary movies that can say that! And that's why it's included here. Another great movie. 

George Washington Mini-Series
“A sweeping twelve-hour, five-part miniseries chronicling the life of Washington from ages 11 to late in life, beginning just after the death of his father in 1743 and taking him through his journeyman days as a young surveyor, his hidden love for Sally Fairfax (the wife of his best friend), his marriage to widowed Martha Custis, his involvement in the French and Indian Wars, his premature retirement from military life and his return to uniform to head the American colonists in the Revolutionary War. We also see his emotional farewell to his officers and his return to Mount Vernon following war's end. It then continues on to his life as the United States' 1st President, showing the pluses and minues during his time as the Father of our Country."
 Barry Bostwick heads an all-star cast in this dramatization of historian James Thomas Flexner's four volume "George Washington" biography."
Ken's Observation: I was seriously blown away by this mini-series. It put flesh on the bones of Washington like no other, which, from what I've read on various sites, is unlike the new movie about Washington that is supposedly being released sometime in the near future. This one from 1984 sticks to the truth by following documents and letters, whereas the new one, I hear, will be taking a few extreme 21st century liberties and fallacies in hopes to show Washington "as a real man." Yeah...as a real 21st century Hollywood man. If this is true then I'll stick to this one from 1984, thank you.

John Adams
John Adams -
 

"Based on David McCullough's bestselling biography, the HBO miniseries John Adams is the furthest thing from a starry-eyed look at America's founding fathers and the brutal path to independence. Adams (Paul Giamatti), second president of the United States, is portrayed as a skilled orator and principled attorney whose preference for justice over anti-English passions earns enemies. The first thing one notices about John Adams' dramatizations of congress' proceedings, and the fervent pro-independence violence in the streets of Boston and elsewhere, is that America's roots don't look pretty or idealized here. Some horrendous things happen in the name of protest, driving Adams to push the cause of independence in a legitimate effort to get on with a revolutionary war under the command of George Washington.
Besides this peek into a less-romanticized version of the past, John Adams is also a story of the man himself. Adams' frustration at being forgotten or overlooked at critical junctures of America's early development--sent abroad for years instead of helping to draft the U.S. constitution--is detailed. So is his dismay that the truth of what actually transpired leading to the signing of the Declaration of Independence has been slowly forgotten and replaced by a rosier myth. But above all, John Adams is the story of two key ties: Adams' 54-year marriage to Abigail Adams (Laura Linney), every bit her husband's intellectual equal and anchor, and his difficult, almost symbiotic relationship with Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) over decades."
Ken's Observation: "The furthest thing from a starry-eyed look at America's founding fathers" as is quoted here does not mean they make our Founding Fathers look like bumbling idiots, sex fiends, or 21st century people thrown into an 18th century world. There is no modern PC to make it contemporary. It's a very well-done historical drama that shows people as they were in a very natural way. Hands down as authentic as it gets and my very favorite movie of all-time! Patriotic.

April Morning"
"This is simply a gem of a movie based on Howard Fast's excellent 1962 novel of the first day of hostilities between colonists and Britain.
There may have been bigger blockbusters made about the American Revolution (The Patriot,  etc.) but this under- rated 1988 film is a true classic, capturing the quintessential decency of American colonial village life in Lexington and the developing tensions and conflict on that fateful day of 19th April 1775.
April Morning is also effective because it does not glamorize war or demonize the redcoats. In fact, a Patriot and a Redcoat are both seen, at various stages, to be scared witless by the whiff of grapeshot and of battle. Yet overall, in what is truly a momentous day for the villagers of Lexington and Concord, we see how the events mature a young colonist, and this is brilliantly illustrated at the end of the film when he leads his family in prayer for their food and life. This very subtle approach makes it evident that the boy, like colonial America, is gone forever and has been replaced by a decent man who would, with humility, be worthy of his emerging new leadership role-in young America."
Ken's Observations: This is another movie that took me by surprise when I discovered it a couple years ago. We now make it an annual watch on either April 18 or 19. I highly recommend this you-are-there movie.

The Crossing
"The Crossing is a stirring dramatization of General George Washington's surprise attack on the British Army's German mercenaries and the Battle of Trenton. Based on the book by Howard Fast, The Crossing brings to life Washington's historic passage across the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776 and the lopsided fight that followed."
Ken's Observation:  Another very well-done made for TV drama that puts flesh on the bones of General Washington. You want this.

The Patriot
"The Patriot qualifies as respectable entertainment, but anyone expecting a definitive drama about the American Revolution should look elsewhere. On those terms, the film is engrossing and sufficiently intelligent, especially when militia leader Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) cagily negotiates with British General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) in one of the most rewarding scenes. For the most part, the story concerns Martin's anguished quest for revenge against ruthless redcoat Colonel Tavington, and the rise to manhood of Martin's eldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), whose battlefield honor exceeds even that of his brutally volatile father. At its best, The Patriot conveys the horror of war among innocent civilians, and the epic battle scenes (which) are graphically intense and impressive. The focus on family (which frequently relegates the war to background history) provides a suitable vehicle for Gibson, who matches his achievement in Braveheart with an effectively brooding performance.
Director Roland Emmerich crafts a marvelous re-creation of South Carolina in the late 1770s." 
Ken's Observation: I suppose once in a while, action-packed is okay. Think of this as the American 'Braveheart.' Yes, there's underlying truth and fact, but it's mostly historical action/fiction for entertainment purposes: no, there was no locking of civilians inside of a church and burning them to death, for example. However, the battles are very well done - probably the best of any RevWar movie. And that's why The Patriot is included here - to show pretty realistically the horrors of Revolutionary War battles.

Felicity
Felicity 
"Meet Felicity Merriman, a 10 year-old girl who's as spirited and independent as the American colonies she lives in. For the first time ever, Felicity comes to life on screen in Felicity: An American Girl Adventure, a full-length live action movie based on American Girl's best-selling books. When Felicity meets Penny, a beautiful copper colored mare, she knows with all her heart that she must free Penny from her cruel owner. Felicity desperately wishes for that same sureness of heart about the rumors of revolution swirling through Williamsburg. Felicity's father believes that the colonies should be free form England's rule, but her beloved grandfather and her best friend Elizabeth both support the king. With fiercely conflicting loyalties dividing the colonists, something as simple as a cup of tea could divide Felicity from her best friend forever. As Christmastide draws near, Felicity struggles to hold her family and friends close, and to find ways for love and friendship to rise above the growing conflict."
Ken's Observation: While the intent of this made-for-TV movie is for the younger female set, I see it as an excellent introduction for the young 'tweens and teens to American History, one that adults - male and female - can enjoy as well. It does have plenty of modernisms in the language, by the way. But because of who it is meant for, and the fact that it was mostly filmed in Colonial Williamsburg, I feel that can be overlooked. Two thumbs up. 

"Often forgotten when we think of the Revolutionary War is the involvement of non-combatants.  In this case, General Silliman was not commanding troops but rather served as a state’s attorney.  He was caught up in the intense conflict between the Tories, Whigs and those who tried to remain neutral.  Silliman was abducted during the night by Tories and taken to Long Island and imprisoned. 
His wife, wonderfully portrayed by Nancy Palk, rises to the occasion and works to obtain his freedom through various plans of exchange.  Time and time again she is thwarted.  Wonderfully depicted is the neighbor vs. neighbor clashes of civilians as well as conflict with those in authority who find General Silliman a convenient political bargaining chip.
This is a wrenching tale.  Absent are the ranks of soldiers firing in battle.  Instead, there is the struggle of a woman to overcome the myriad of obstacles in her way.  Eventually, she very reluctantly resorts to desperate measures." (This review from All Things Liberty web site)
Ken's Observation: This was a very impressive, well-made movie. Who needs Hollywood when independents can show history much more accurate? Yes, an excellent movie about a part of the Revolutionary War rarely shown.
 
A More Perfect Union - 
"Detailed Description of America 1786, ten years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and England wages a new war of unfair trade and tariffs. Bickering and jealousy fracture the once united states, but a handful of brilliant men, James Madison, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, lead a political battle to create a new form of government, one that will establish the standard of self-government to the world. A More Perfect Union: America Becomes A Nation is the first comprehensive recreation of those stirring, heated debates during the sweltering summer of 1787. Filmed on location at Independence Hall, Williamsburg, Virgina, and other historical sites, it dramatically chronicles how America became a nation and established those underlying principles that guard our freedoms today."
Ken's Observations: This is not a documentary, but an actual dramatization of the events. If you like quality historical drama, you will almost certainly like this; it's like viewing history through an open window, eyewitnessing our Founding Fathers in action. Very well done!
(By the way, the picture and sound quality are not up to DVD specs - not awful, mind you, just not super high - but it's so worth getting. Bravo!)

A Midwife's Tale
A Midwife's Tale
“In 1785, America was a rough and chaotic young nation, and Maine its remote northern frontier. That year, at the age of 50, Martha Ballard began the diary that she would keep for the next 27 years, until her death. At a time when fewer than half the women in America were literate, Ballard faithfully recorded the weather, her daily household tasks, her midwifery duties (she delivered close to a thousand babies), her medical practice, and countless incidents that reveal the turmoil of a new nation -- dizzying social change, intense religious conflict, economic boom and bust -- as well as the grim realities of disease, domestic violence, and debtor's prison.
In "A Midwife's Tale" the daily activities, the physical feel of the people and buildings involved, and the historical verity that helps us envision late 18th century life, are always conscious - these eighteenth-century details are overlooked treasures that are rich in the texture of everyday life.
The actors were unfamiliar. They look like real people, not movie stars. Family dynamics were more believable and souring relationships took on terrific poignancy.
Martha Ballard is played by actress Kaiulani Sewall Lee, a direct descendant of the Sewall family of Maine -- people the real Martha Ballard knew, aided in childbirth, and nursed through illness.”
Ken's Observation: This docu-drama just brought the historic colonial homes I often visit (like the 1750 Daggett Farmhouse inside Greenfield Village in Dearborn, MI) to life. This is one of the most amazing films about everyday 18th century life - - wow----it authentically and accurately brought the era and people of the Founding Generation to life like I've never experienced. Seriously...this struck a strong chord in me. After the first 15 minutes or so, it played more like a movie than a docu-drama. Real life history.

The Awakening Land:
"Unschooled homesteader Sayward Luckett couldn't read her name if you showed it to her, yet she fell in love with and married agnostic, book-learned frontier lawyer Portius Wheeler. Now it's time to make a life with him in wild, wooded 1790s Ohio Territory.
There will be children, seven in all; joy and hardships aplenty; inconstancies of heart; and the enduring legacy of settling a new land. Based on Conrad Richter's trilogy of novels (he received a Pulitzer Prize for the third), this miniseries nominated for 6 Emmy Awards celebrates the pioneering spirit as it chronicles Sayward's heroic, unadorned life. Elizabeth Montgomery and Hal Holbrook (earning two of those six Emmy nominations) lead a strong cast that includes Jane Seymour."
Ken's Observation: There are some who really like this mini-series while others I know think it's a piece of crap. I happen to like it. The story is a good one, though it's not about any one actual person in history, and to see a town spring out of the woods helps one to understand just how towns were formed in our country's early days.

(Review from the America’s Navy website): "Master and Commander," based on British author Patrick O'Brian's set of 19th-century naval novels, follows Royal Navy Capt. Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and the crew of his ship HMS Surprize as they sail out to see the richness and strangeness of life on the far side of the world, against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars.
"I was impressed by 'Master and Commander.' I think it was the best portrayal of life in a warship during the Age of Sail that has been produced in Hollywood. The language, the uniforms, the rigging of the ship, the customs of the Royal Navy of that period, the portrayal of the captain by Russell Crowe, all seemed quite authentic to me," said Dr. William S. Dudley, director of the Naval Historical Center (NHC).
Karen Hill, Navy Museum educator, has a unique insight on 19th-century sailing having recently spent two weeks on the U.S. Brig Niagara on the Great Lakes, where the crew ran the ship as if during the War of 1812.
"The Niagara is a brig, so she is smaller and designed differently than the ship used in 'Master and Commander', but all of the commands that I heard in the film with regard to her sailing and handling were the same that I heard, repeatedly," Hill said.
It was so well done that NHC senior historian Dr. Edward J. Marolda said, "One can see, hear, and almost smell what it must have been like for England's Jack Tars in the wooden sailing ships of the Nelsonian Age."
"I was impressed with the depiction of the combat scenes: the crew moving to and fighting at their battle stations, the working of guns below decks, the damage to ship and personnel from shot and shell, the care of the wounded and the repair of the ship after battle," said Early History Branch historian Charles Brodine.
"Master and Commander also did a fine job of illustrating how disguise and deception could be employed with effect in the age of sail," said Brodine. "Warships could and would change their appearance in order to fool the enemy, whether to make captures or elude battle. Numerous American captains used such 'ruses de guerre' with great effect in the War of 1812."
Ken's Observation I didn't realize the high standards set in the making of this film until I read the review here. An excellent movie, especially on a large screen.

Gods and Generals -
Gods and Generals does a very good job at depicting the earlier battles of the Civil War. Although it's always leaned heavily toward the southern point of view in its original form, this new director's cut has been divided into chapters and totally re-edited to fit in the extra hours worth of scenes, some of which include involving President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, more of the Chamberlains, and, especially for fans of battles, Antietam. It now gives a somewhat more balanced perspective of North vs South. Yes, it still centers mainly around General Jackson and his pontificating, but, from what I've read, that's the way he was. More than what is shown, in fact.
Because the entire movie has been re-edited the way it has been, I don't believe I could watch the original theatrical release again. All the scenes are there - intact - but the entire movie is so much less choppy and so much more cohesive (it would have been nice to show the picnicking civilians at Manassas - oh well...).
The women's clothing? Yeah...they could've done better. Much better. Why didn't they research the details of the period clothing more? I feel it's probably because it was war film makers who made the movie and, like many of the senior reenactors, they felt the civilians are considered to be background...eye candy...rather than place any real importance on them. Remember, this was filmed in 2003 and period movies have improved since then.
But, aside from this and some of the over-dramatic scenes, Gods and Generals is still one of my greatest movie watching pleasures, and I love to sit back for six hours and immerse myself into the early 1860's via modern technology. Almost - but not quite - as good as being at a re-enactment.
 
Box set consisting of
Gods & Generals
and
Gettysburg
Ken's Observations: I wrote the review you just read, and when I published it elsewhere I was either praised or slammed. Mostly slammed. This is a movie one either loves or hates, and those who hate it want everyone else to hate it, too, or else they're foolish idiots.
Yep...still love it!

Gettysburg -
Except for a few exceptions (why are there always exceptions?) Gettysburg is another MOSTLY historically correct film. I feel the biggest reason for this is due to the fact that re-enactors have played such a prominent role in the making of both of these films, making sure that they're as historically correct as the producers would allow, right down to the buttons on the uniforms worn by the fighting men (yes, yes, I KNOW about the facial hair, but those aren't re-enactors! Blame the costume/make up people on that!). And the battle scenes are as realistic as can possibly be done. When you watch the men during Pickett's charge and see the anguished look on the general's face during the aftermath, one gets the feeling of actually witnessing the carnage that took place.
And the Little Round Top scene will get your heart beating just as it must have beat in the men who were there. Truly gripping.
Gettysburg is another very long but engulfing movie filled with battles and tactics, which truly brings the viewer into the horrific time of early July 1863.
Both this one and Gods & Generals help to bring the people of the Civil War alive - the men on both sides who fought in this war are no longer just old sepia-toned pictures in a history book, or silly 1950's b-movie style characters, but real men who fought and died horrible deaths. I wish more historical epics would use re-enactors in the movie making process (The Conspirator did!). They truly help bring the past to life.
Ken's Observations: This is the Civil War movie that all others are compared to. Since I wrote the above review, you have my observations.

Glory - 
(Amazon.com reviewer): "Here's one of those rare movies that succeeds as both a sweeping, visually sumptuous historical epic AND an intimate, character-driven personal drama. This fact-based account of the first black regiment to fight for the Union in the Civil War is filled with scenes of grand pageantry: the bloody battle at Antietam Creek; the first assembly of the 54th Regiment; the proud parade of the finally-trained and uniformed soldiers; the climactic attack on Fort Wagner. And yet despite these heart-pounding, majestic sequences, the film at no time loses its focus on the individual characters whose stories provide an emotional connection to the action. The performances of the once-in-a-lifetime cast are uniformly superb: Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, and Andre Braugher are all at the top of their game, and Denzel Washington (who deservedly won the Supporting Actor Oscar) is amazing, especially in the scene in which he undergoes a bitterly harsh punishment. The dozens of emotions that flicker across Washington's face in that sequence, wordlessly conveying his character's essence, represent a powerful economy of acting that is rarely achieved in any medium."
Ken's Observations Right up there with the best of 'em. Though not 100% correct, it is still a very good accounting of a very important piece of African-American history.
 
"In a rural community in upstate New York in 1862, farmer Abner Beech is a Northern anti-war Democrat. While his neighbors take up the union cause in the ongoing American Civil War, Beech believes that coercion in resisting the secession of the southern states is unconstitutional, and gradually becomes more and more harassed for his views, derisively called a 'Copperhead.' " 
Ken's Observations: I bought this solely on the low price (under ten bucks!), not sure how good it would be. My wife and my 23 year old son, all of us reenactors, gave it two thumbs up. We felt it showed another side of the War not normally seen. The feel was very well done, by the way, and it drew us into their world.

Gangs of New York - 
"As waves of immigrants swell the population of New York, lawlessness and corruption thrive in lower Manhattan's Five Points section. After years of incarceration, young Irish immigrant Amsterdam, Vallon, returns seeking revenge against the rival gang leader who killed his father. But Amsterdam's personal vendetta becomes part of the gang warfare that erupts as he and his fellow Irishmen fight to carve a place for themselves in their newly adopted homeland
Violent, but it was a violent time."
Ken's Observations: A violent movie rooted in history showing occurrences rarely seen in other films, but is not very accurate in that the telling of the story itself. I included it because of the historical aspect of the "Five Points" section.

Andersonville - 
(From an Amazon.com reviewer): " "Andersonville" is an intense drama about a Civil War prison camp for captured Union soldiers. The camp is a huge stockade, built for 20,000 prisoners of war, but is filled to overcrowding with over 35,000 Union POW's, and more arriving daily. The conditions are horrible beyond words, virtually no food, no sanitation, clothing in rags and tatters, no shelter from the rain, gangs rampaging through the camp, rampant disease, a hundred men dying a day - a literal hell on earth. Purported to be historical fact, the story centers on a brigade from Massachusetts and their struggle to survive, and what a horrendous struggle it is. Other reviewers have stated that the story is not entirely truthful. Due to the shortage of critical supplies in the south, I do not doubt that the deplorable conditions existed exactly as depicted in the movie. I cannot comment on other issues as I have not read the book that the movie is based on. You will be shocked by the condition of the men, the violence in the camp, the slow agony of starvation, and the inevitable decline in the men, both physically and spiritually."
Ken's Observations: There's been a lot of discussion about how accurate this movie is and how cruel Captain Wirz actually was. To be honest, I haven't really researched this to any great extent so I can't tell you the truths or myths. I can say that this prison truly did exist and was said to be a very cruel place to be sent. On that basis alone makes this film historically worth your while. I found it riveting.

Friendly Persuasion
Friendly Persuasion
"For two years the Civil War has been elsewhere. Now Confederate forces are nearby, looting and burning. It is time to fight back, Jess Birdwell's neighbors insist. Yet Birdwell, a Quaker, knows there must be a better way to settle things. In a role ideally suiting his stalwart persona, Gary Cooper plays Jess in William Wyler's beloved film of Jessamyn West's novel that earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Dorothy McGuire (Best Actress), and Anthony Perkins and a superior supporting case get to the heart of a family, faith and pacifism put to the test."
Ken's Observations: A film that's obviously dated (it was made in 1949) but still holds up very well in the story it has to tell. It looks at the Civil War from a different angle from nearly any other movie, and as a descendent of Revolutionary War-era Quakers myself, I found this to be a more personal look at the lives and the social societal treatment of folks with a strong enough belief system to warrant them to attempt to live as they felt God wanted them to live, not as society dictated.

Gore Vidal's Lincoln -
(from an Amazon.com reviewer): "The movie starts with Lincoln slinking into Washington DC, for fear of a secessionist uprising in Balitmore, under disguise, for which he was much aligned. Constrasted with Mary's arrival, with hoopla and a thousand suitcases, shows the underlying dichotomy in the famous first couple. Jumping from historical event to historical event, the drama digs a bit deeper into the effects of the events on the family. By the time you've finished the movie, you felt like you've not only have a deeper understanding of the Civil War, but of the Lincolns as well. 
Sam Waterson nails, absolutely nails, Lincoln. We see all sides of him. It must have been a daunting role to play. We have solely deified Lincoln, almost erasing his humanity. Waterson brings it back in full force, with all the humor and sadness needed. At first, hearing that Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Todd Lincoln seems like a joke. Who would ever thought that Mary Richards could play someone Hay and Nicolette called "Hell Cat?" But she does. Her decent into madness at the death of Willie is heartbreaking. Richard Mulligan's performance as Seward is uncanny, and the ever stalwart Ruby Dee plays Mary Lincoln's dressmaker Mrs. Keckley with all of the sassiness and care required."
Ken's Observation: I thought this was a well-done made for TV look at Lincoln's presidency. Showing the illness and ultimate death of his son, Willy, is something that surprising so few are aware even happened. Good movie though the picture quality is not up to normal DVD standards. Still worth purchasing.

Lincoln -
The movie itself was done very well. It was not the typical Lincoln movie you've seen previously. It was an intense drama about the passing of the 13th Amendment - did I say intense? - and everything about it lent to a strong taste of authenticity. Day-Lewis, Field, Tommy Lee Jones, and the other actors did an amazing and realistic job portraying men and women from history. As far as I could tell, the clothing and fashions were spot on and the sets were exceptional - very authentic. The sound effects are the real thing - click HERE to read about that. Day-Lewis portrayed Lincoln very realistically; all of the mannerisms I've read on the man and of his contemporaries were here. But the best part of this movie, to me, was they didn't deify Lincoln and make him out to be some god-like mythological creature. They, instead, showed him as a human, they showed the whys and wherefores of those who didn't like the man, and spoke of his own questionable 'trampling' of the Constitution. They also showed him as one who believed strongly in his case and cause. It was as balanced as I have seen of the man yet on film, and for Hollywood that is very commendable.
Ken's Observations:  I wrote the review here so ...with that being said "Lincoln" is really a great movie but with the wrong name. It's more about the passing of the 13th Amendment than it is about Abraham Lincoln, though I suppose the name was the draw. It is very dramatic and gives the viewer an eye-witness look at life in the White House in 1865.

The Conspirator -
The Conspirator
"A riveting thriller, THE CONSPIRATOR tells the powerful story of a woman who would do anything to protect her family, and the man who risked everything to save her.
In the wake of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State. The lone woman charged, Mary Surratt (Wright) owns a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) and others met and planned the simultaneous attacks. Against the ominous back-drop of post-Civil War Washington, newly-minted lawyer, Frederick Aiken (McAvoy), a 28-year-old Union war-hero, reluctantly agrees to defend Surratt before a military tribunal. Aiken realizes his client may be innocent and that she is being used as bait and hostage in order to capture the only conspirator to have escaped a massive manhunt, her own son, John (Johnny Simmons). As the nation turns against her, Surratt is forced to rely on Aiken to uncover the truth and save her life."
Ken's Observation: Drama! Drama! Drama! That's what this movie is. Oh! But what drama! An excellent and gripping movie that held me from start to finish. It goes well as a sort of Part 2 to "Lincoln."

Little House on the Prairie

Little House on the Prairie (Disney mini-series) -
Is this really a Disney production? Seriously! For the first time in many, many years you did ol' Walt justice!
This newer one is closer to Mrs. Wilder's original biographical-oriented stories than the Michael Landon pilot movie (and, of course, TV series). It's this version of "Little House on the Prairie" that you will find a very good account of pioneer life in the latter part of the 19th century, pretty close to realistically portraying what it was like to leave a comfortable setting with family and friends around, and then deciding to begin a new life out west hundreds of miles away.
Traveling by wagon was a trying experience, and this series shows that very well. Through cold weather, crossing a frozen river, rainstorms, the family made it after two months to their land in Kansas. You will find realistic portrayals of continued hardships and illnesses.

Cut off from all they knew, as well as having their nearest neighbors quite a distance away, the Ingalls family learn to survive on their wits and skills, coming across the local (angry) Indians, meeting a life-loving free spirit, as well as a rather curt couple from Scotland. The Indians are seen from three different angles: the Scott's hate the savages and want them all dead; the Ingalls' feel that all people - no matter what race - have good and bad in them, and that the Indians are NOT savages and should receive the respect deserved to all folks; and free-spirited Mr. Edwards is somewhere in between. Not PC, though not far right, either. It also hints of the atrocities that the American government did to the Indians, but also shows that the government screwed the white folks as well.
Except for Charles' extremely white teeth, all of the actors fit the time portrayed very well, including dirty and unkempt hair for the women, burly men who, you can just tell, smelled like they haven't showered in years, and even folks with foreign accents - something rarely seen in film versions of our earlier American history.

Ken's Observation: I know what you're thinking - "Little House on the Prairie? Really??"
But this version is very well done and gives a fine perception on westward immigration. It shows the fear of the unknown, concern over food (or lack thereof), the sounds on the prairie at night, the solitude of pioneer life, the fact that one had to be of a tough stock to handle all that came, hopes and dreams - this version of Little House actually puts meat on the bones of not just the Ingalls family, but of all American Pioneers.

Tombstone 
"This Western has become a modest cult favorite since its release in 1993, when the film was met with mixed reviews but the performances of Kurt Russell (as Wyatt Earp) and especially Val Kilmer, for his memorably eccentric performance as the dying gunslinger Doc Holliday, garnered high praise. The movie opens with Wyatt Earp trying to put his violent past behind him, living happily in Tombstone with his brothers and the woman (Dana Delany) who puts his soul at ease. But a murderous gang called the Cowboys has burst on the scene, and Earp can't keep his gun belt off any longer. The plot sounds routine, and in many ways it is, but Western buffs won't mind a bit thanks to a fine cast and some well-handled action on the part of Rambo director George P. Cosmatos, who has yet to make a better film than this."
Ken's Observation:  From what I've read, there is not much factual historic truth to this movie other than the basics surrounding the fight at the OK Coral. That's a shame. I would love to see an accurate account of what actually happened. But I included "Tombstone" because I wanted to have a representation of the old west - something based on fact.
Great fun.
Now, "Tombstone" leads me to Wyatt Earp (Kevin Costner), which came out right around the same time. I've read on the internet that numerous people have researched "Wyatt Earp" and have found it to be more accurate than "Tombstone." You be the judge. I, myself, enjoyed it for entertainment purposes. 

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Nearly all the movies listed above have a strong bend toward historical accuracy, which is why they made the list. It's when they have more fiction than fact that they do a disservice to the past by presenting false history and, thus, frustrate historians and many viewers alike. The powers-that-be don't seem to understand that truth can actually be far more interesting, but the dumbing down of American society for the love of money tends to be the trend in movies. It seems too many producers of such films will loosely base famous historical names and dates around a concocted "historical"story with lots of 21st century thrown in.
Historical accuracy? Bah! People don't care about that, they say. Why have historical accuracy when you can make loads of money by selling the people mush-for-brain action-packed crap or lots of on-screen sex?
Funny, though...loads of money can still be made when a film is done with care and quality, am I correct, Tom Hanks, executive producer of "John Adams"?
So why, then, do film makers continue to insist on making "based on" fantasy flicks? 
Case in point: The History Channel's 2014 fiasco, "Sons of Liberty."
After watching it I cannot express enough just how deeply disappointed I was in the poor representation of the beginnings of the founding of our country. Within the first few minutes we find Samuel Adams, who was supposed to be in his mid-40s, leaping onto rooftops to avoid being arrested by the British army. Really? I never knew that. And how about Samuel flirting with Abigail Adams - if you know anything about Mrs. Adams, for there is plenty of primary source material readily available about her, you would know she was not the "flirting kind." And I don't think Samuel's second wife would have liked it much either. Ah, but ya gotta put in those 21st century modernisms to show they were just like us and keep the interest, right?
Sons of Liberty

How about British soldiers shutting down newspapers, arresting popular patriot leaders for acts of insubordination, and stifling political demonstrations in Boston?
Nope - there is no evidence to suggest that British soldiers shut down newspapers, arrested any popular patriot leaders, or stopped any peaceful demonstrations in 1765. 
Again, all within the first hour of the movie. There is plenty more. 
Okay...I know that the History Channel says "based on" as part of its advertisement. Sorry - poor excuse coming from a network that's supposedly giving historical truth. (The History Channel - where history is history) - - - 
Period movies should also have a strong feel - some soul - to the times being portrayed. "Sons of Liberty" has little to none of that - they just took very 21st century actors with 21st century mannerisms and language (did you catch the modern anachronisms in the dialogue?), dressed them up in colonial-looking clothing, and threw them into the 18th century. Now mix in action police-drama-type scenes without a care for historical accuracy, and what do you get?
The closest thing I can compare it to would be the "Pirates of the Caribbean" meets NCIS.
Pirates of the Caribbean
Very little actual truth. 
By the way, I really enjoy the "Pirates" movies. A rollicking good time not to be taken seriously!
I could go on and on about why "Sons of Liberty," was not very good, but if you are that interested (which you really should be), just Google it to get a more complete composite of all what's wrong with this History Channel atrocity, for pretty much every historian I have either read or interacted with agrees.

Now why could I not enjoy "Sons of Liberty" in the same way as, say, "Tombstone," strictly as entertainment?
I'm not quite sure...I suppose it all boils down to if you're going to call yourself THE HISTORY CHANNEL then you will be held up to higher standards in movie making. As one commentator wrote: "I find it deplorable for a channel called “The History Channel," which implies truth in history, to air such a piece of fiction as fact without noting it as such during the programming."
That's the best answer I can give.
 ~ ~ ~

By the way, are there other good history-oriented movies I enjoy that, for varying personal reasons, I've not listed in the above 'main' list:
AMC's "TURN: Washington's Spies" is an excellent and gripping television series drama that I cannot get enough of. Based on Alexander Rose’s book "Washington’s Spies," AMC’s TURN tells the untold story of America’s first spy ring. A historical thriller set during the Revolutionary War, TURN centers on Abe Woodhull, a farmer living in British-occupied Long Island who bands together with his childhood friends to form The Culper Ring -- an unlikely team of secret agents who not only went on to help George Washington turn the tide of the war but also gave birth to modern spycraft.
The trouble is, the characters, though real to history, are *mostly* presented historically inaccurate. But the show itself is so well done, and it does tend to bring the viewer back in time to the late 1770s. It just seems to get better not only with each season, but with each episode (filming many episodes in Colonial Williamsburg was a shot of genius!). Quality entertainment - stressing entertainment.
"Into the West" does a fairly good job in showing the growth of our nation in a mini-series format, but I do have some personal issues with this one, so I didn't include it. I will say the wagon train portion is excellent as is the scene showing the devastation of Quantrill's Raiders. I believe we also meet John Sutter, the man who began the California gold rush (if I'm not mistaken).
"Cold Mountain" is one I like a lot, but there was too much incorrectness that took away the historical perspective. But the movie is one of those "I can't stop watching" types. The feel is real...and it successfully does bring the viewer back to the war-torn 1860s south. We watch it strictly for entertainment.
I haven't seen "The Blue and the Gray" mini-series in years. I recall some scenes well done while others were schlocky. I'm going to have to take some time to watch it soon and maybe add it to this listing if I feel it's good enough.
"North and South," has some good parts, for instance showing the siege of Vicksburg and the starvation of its citizens, but the bad scenes (sex every half hour folks!) overshadows it.
"Outlaw Josie Wales" tells the tale of a renegade Confederate soldier who escaped death from the 'forgiving' Yankees. Great Clint Eastwood western with a little historical fact in this particular story.
"Lincoln the Vampire Slayer" - - A very minor occurrence during Lincoln's presidency that the history books have chosen to ignore. Ha! Just kidding!

I hope you find this guide useful in a moving picture study of American History.
However, as good and great as these movies are, they will never replace the history books where the information mostly comes from. If you enjoy a movie or a particular era, please make and take time to research by reading further on the subject or time period for your own sake.
And don't be afraid to look at differing views on a subject, for the truth will lie somewhere in between.
Til next time...
















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