One’s interest in history has a funny habit of not being isolated to the region that he or she lives in. Take, for example, my friend that lives in England who has never been to the United States. He has an entire room devoted to our American Civil War. Books and movies line his shelves, painted figures and statuettes take their place on his desk and coffee table, while Mort Kunstler paintings figure as the majority of wall space, save for two exact replicas of American and Confederate flags, gently draped by the fireplace. There is actually a rather large Civil War following in England and all over the United Kingdom, which extends to many different reenacting groups, some of which travel here to participate in major reenactments such as the annual one at Gettysburg. In addition, there even seems to be a great deal of interest in Denmark and the Netherlands, as a newsletter called Nordstaterne syndicates some articles on this site and translates many of them into Danish, which I always thought was funny. How do all these people find interest in our greatest internal conflict, I have often asked myself.
Lincoln, To Appomattox, and Copperhead are just a few names of Civil War film or television projects being thrown around this winter, with filming either scheduled to begin or end somewhere around this coming spring and summer. However, there is another one that is flying under the radar, titled, 1863, which is something that we will be following very closely on this blog, along with Ron Maxwell’s Copperhead. Because the only information of this new project has come from this blog, I thought it would be best to actually conduct an interview with the screenwriter and producer, Justin Dombrowski, an enthusiastic and energetic Civil War buff who has been so busy lately that the “clutches of hell” would not allow for this interview to have taken place any sooner.
There may be people wondering why they should get excited about this venture, because there are no major names surrounding it as of yet, and they might not have heard of the writer. All I can say is, have faith. This project has legs and will be hitting pre-production before you know it. The very experienced actor and historian, Ed Mantell, who helped me to identify several World War II uniforms a few weeks ago, is also on hand as a co-producer. I have read the powerful script, and I will speak for most when I say it is going to come as a pleasant surprise when all is said and done. I speak to Justin on an almost daily basis, as he has filled me in on the goings-on behind trying to get a film off the ground. This has been very enlightening for me personally, because I have seen the tremendous amount of work that goes into making even a lower budget, independent film, much less a $50-million Hollywood epic. For this interview, I had the pleasure of asking Justin a multitude of questions concerning what goes into writing a screenplay, what his inspiration is, and much more in our conversation below:
Just yesterday, I said in the final installment of “Blogging Manassas” that I did not know if any more coverage of Gods and Generals would be coming. Lo and behold, I was contacted by another cast member, today, who was also at the premiere this weekend, telling me a little about the role he played. I asked if he would let me interview him, and he agreed.
David Foster played the role of Captain Ricketts, one of the Union artillery commanders during the battle of First Bull Run scenes. He told me in his initial email that he would never forget his filming experiences, and that it was a joy to work for director Ron Maxwell, and that anything he produces is a “class act”. Of course, I asked him to elaborate further on that below, but first, it is also worthy to mention that he brought up where he was on September 11th, since that was a question raised to the actors in the panel on Friday night. David told me, “On 9/11, we were also filming the first Battle of Bull Run, at Henry House Hill. After we found out the news, we prayed, and were allowed to decide to keep filming. We filmed the artillery duel and Captain Rickett’s subsequent wounding.” He also tells me that he is related to a Civil War soldier, which he thought of often while filming. In addition to this, David has also appeared in numerous films and television shows, such as The Village, Flags of Our Fathers, and State of Play, as well as the hit HBO miniseries John Adams. Below is our conversation:
GC: Can you describe your G & G filming experiences and what it was like to work for Ron Maxwell?
DF: Filming Gods and Generals was my best time on set, ever. The reenactors will forever be my heroes for the way they worked each scene so well. They endured extreme heat, long hours, and did this all for free and on their vacations. The crew was very good, and at times, I felt as if I had traveled back in time. My wife came to the set one day, when it was media day. There were a lot of charges and battle scenes. Rob Gibson had his glass plate studio set up on the edge of the field and took a picture of me in character. Rob had my wife and I come over to the tray when he developed the picture. We were amazed to see my picture appear on the plate in the tray of chemicals. Many of us bought a set of playing card size copies of our pictures. Months before filming, I began having headaches and a large cyst grew on my temple. Doctors said it might be cancer, but I waited until filming was over to have the operation. In September they told me that my filming was done, so I had the operation and fortunately it wasn’t cancer. While my wound was still healing I got a call to film the Battle of Antietam, but couldn’t go. Thanksgiving weekend came around, and I got a call to film another part of First Bull Run and filmed my only speaking part of the movie. I hope very much that somehow Ron Maxwell gets the chance to film The Last Full Measure, because I would love to be a part of it. I also hope Stephen Lang comes back because he was very good to work with.
GC: I have to ask, was your beard real?
DF: My beard was mostly made, as well as my [own] hair. I didn’t shave for maybe two weeks and I had let my hair grow some before filming. Each morning on set, I spent about 3 1/2 hours in the chair. They made up three layers of hair extensions and attached them each day after my beard was done. The beard took longest. One time in Maryland, they made me all up and rain delayed the shoot until the next day. I volunteered to sleep with my hair and beard in place to speed up the next day’s prep time, since there was only a small window without rain. The hair department gave me rags to put over my beard and hair for while I slept. I took a Benadryl before bedtime since the whole get-up itched so bad, so I could sleep. The next day they took far less time to prep me, and we got the shoot in.
GC: You have appeared in several history-related films, but which is your favorite time period in history?
DF: My favorite period is the Civil War, because it is all around us. The buildings that survived the war fascinate me, because they all have their own story. The soldiers, as well as civilians, each have a story. The biggest thing is my Great Great Grandfather—Captain Henry Stowell of the 7th Vermont. He was the Quartermaster of his unit and I found documents where he supplied uniforms and supplies to the Black Union soldiers. His diary tells many stories from his time in the Gulf of Mexico region—his time in New Orleans, the blockade of Mobile, taking a ship from Pensacola to Ship Island. Henry came home in one piece and was a printer in Troy, New York.
GC: What was it like working for M. Night Shyamalan in The Village?
DF: Working for Night was a good experience. We averaged about 12 takes per scene, so it was a little tedious at times. I was on vacation in the Smokies when I got the call to go to Philadelphia for the audition. My wife overheard me on the phone just after we toured Biltmore House, and said, “Don’t say no, I have a good feeling about this part”. I was cast as one of the 12 main elders, but found out later, it was only a glorified extra part. Disney is very tight with the money, but I ended up with some good scenes, and worked 18 days in all. William Hurt was very helpful to me on set, and Sigourney Weaver swooned on my shoulder between takes of the first scene. Night Shyamalan took very good care of us all, and I would work for him again any time.
GC: What are you up to now? Any upcoming film projects?
DF: I just finished a commercial promoting uranium mining in Virginia. I filmed 4 spots and 5 voice-overs, which will start airing soon. Last fall, I filmed a very nice historical movie – Alone Yet Not Alone, based on a true story and book, set during the French and Indian War. I portrayed a french scout who shot the main villain, with a flintlock musket at night. They liked the job I did so much, they brought me back as General Braddock’s valet. I looked totally different thanks to a wig and makeup and I can be seen in the trailer in this part. Last fall, I also filmed an Anthem Blue Cross commercial, as well as a Southern States commercial. In addition, I was a high school principal in a Darden School of Business training video. Tomorrow I go to Richmond for my second audition for the movie—Lincoln.
I would like to thank David for taking the time to conduct this interview, and wish him the best of lucking in landing a role in the upcoming Steven Spielberg film about Abraham Lincoln!
With other online reenactor groups coming and going on the social network scene, I was asked to create a group myself, for reenactors and historians to network. While I am not currently a hardcore reenactor, nor do I pretend to be, I agreed to administrate a group only if someone else would create it. Last week, Jake Kessel, Ryan Townsend, and myself launched Reenactor Central on Facebook, which is a spinoff of other groups that had issues and kinks of their own. Jake and Ryan are both younger than me, and we have members who are veterans and many years older, showing how people of all ages can embrace American history. Make no mistake, though our focus is primarily for those in the field, you do not have to be a historian or reenactor to join—anyone with a love of history is welcome!
Because we have many different people, spanning both north and south, east and west, the news feed is loaded with upcoming events and the best places to buy and sell equipment and souvenirs. Have a question about history that you cannot find online? Ask it here, and you will immediately receive an answer from an expert. Many of our members have been practicing their trade for decades, and some have even written books and appeared in movies (one was even in Gettysburg and Gods and Generals…take a guess at who that is!). We have people representing the American Civil War and Revolution, and even more obscure events such as the Texas Revolution and French and Indian War. Pretty soon, we will encompass all aspects of history, which is our main goal.
We have only one simple rule, and that is for people to engage in discussions and debates in a civilized and respectful manner. If you can abide by that, you will see that we have a nice community here, that is only going to get better and larger. Our mission statement is also rather simple: “Remembering the past, preparing for the future.” Without past events, there would be no reason for reenactors, so we acknowledge that those who came before us and gave their lives for what they believed in, regardless of whether or not we believe in their cause, should be remembered and respected. We must also prepare for the future, so that other generations will fall in love with history the way we have, and pass the torch onto others. That is the only way our history will survive, and we are here to do our best to help out.
Please click here to join, and also, spread the word to those who you think may be interested!
I first came into contact with Gary Zaboly through others in the tightly knit Alamo history community, that includes another interviewee, Al Bouler, who in this highly talked about interview, discussed what it was like being a historian and impersonator of David Crockett. Zaboly, on the other hand, has focused his energies differently, which includes writing a book on a much-forgotten, and unfortunately so, chapter of early America history, and that is Major Robert Rogers and his unit of Rangers that fought in the French and Indian War and helped to tame life on the wild and rugged 18th century frontier.
There are few historians who can match the expertise on this subject than Zaboly can, who has written a massive coffee-table size book titled, “A True Ranger: The Life and Many Wars of Major Robert Rogers”. Zaboly is also a painter, who has illustrated scenes of Rogers and also Texas history, for other magazines and books as he is an avid Alamo buff as well. He also tends to comment on my Facebook when I post something about movies, and I guess you can say he is an expert of sorts on classic films. I asked him about his historical passions and much more in our interview below:
GC: Osprey Publishing has referred to you as a “highly regarded expert on 18th century Rangers”. Where did this interest develop from, and how long have you been studying history?
GZ: My interest in early American frontier history developed in my pre-school days, primarily from all the B Westerns on TV at the time, and then of course from Disney’s Davy Crockett series in 1954-55. From that point on I was hooked, and almost everything dealing with the subject—from illustrated books to motion pictures—captured my attention and stoked my curiosity. Over the years I began to study the subject more deeply, my emphasis focusing on such particular areas as the Alamo, Rogers’ Rangers, the French and Indian War, the Revolution, and Custer’s Last Stand. But when it came to dealing with colonial frontier history in the 1750s-60s, most of the available publications seemed to be largely bereft of the nitty-gritty details I hungered for, and so over the succeeding decades I personally rummaged through libraries and archives to find answers to the many questions I had. Being an illustrator, this was a doubly important task to fulfill. Transferring my eventual piles of research notes and images to organized binders and reference files proved to be a boon to both my writing and my artwork. I’ve written scores of articles related to the above mentioned subjects, and a few books, and illustrated many more; hence my reputation, such as it is, as an “expert.” But I can only claim expertise as far as my research—and my interpretation of same—has taken me. Sometimes what we think we know to be true is true only as far as research has taken us. It’s unfortunate that a single life is really too short in which to do all the research that’s necessary to arrive at the answers to so many nagging questions.
GC: Having seen the 1940 film “Northwest Passage”, with Spencer Tracy, which is a story of Major Robert Rogers, the foremost Ranger, what is your opinion on the film, and how accurate is it?
GZ: Northwest Passage essentially got me started on the subject of Rogers’ Rangers. I’d first seen the Northwest Passage TV series of 1958, but it only had a minimal impact on my boy’s mind at the time. About five years later the MGM movie version was shown on local TV, and it proved a watershed viewing for me: it was an entirely new, entirely different type of frontier history. I soon sought out the novel by Kenneth Roberts, and fortunately it appeared that year (1963) in paperback for the first time, published by Crest Books. It proved even more thrilling and inspiring than the film, and I’ve probably read it seven times again since then. As history, the film, like all Hollywood films, is inaccurate from many standpoints: in terms of the uniforms, the layout of the village of St. Francis, and much of the history itself. But when it comes to conveying an idea of the raw wilderness conditions Rogers’ men had to endure on that expedition, it succeeds very well. Even though filmed in Payette National Forest in Idaho, Northwest Passage did manage to credibly depict the rangers’ march through the swamps and rugged hills of southern Quebec, northern Vermont and northern New Hampshire, not to mention their voyage by whaleboat up Lake Champlain in northern New York. In 1759 those regions were just as barren and devoid of human habitation as shown in the film: a virtual no-man’s wilderness land. One of the ironies of 1940’s Northwest Passage is that it paints Major Robert Rogers as something of a racist. Nothing could be further from the truth. The real Rogers learned much of his craft from early, friendly contact with the Indians of New Hampshire, and he dealt fairly with the Mahicans and Mohawks and other English-allied Native Americans during the French and Indian War. When he became the British commandant of the integral British frontier trading post of Fort Michilimackinac in 1766, he was dubbed “the Good Father” by the local tribes because unlike his predecessors, he knew how to treat them with kindness and fairness.
GC: You are also an accomplished painter, and have illustrated scenes not only of the Rangers, but the Alamo and Texas Revolution as well. How long have you been painting and what is your favorite aspect of the Texas Revolution?
GZ: I’ve been illustrating books and articles relating to American history since the early 1970s. The Alamo continues as my major subject area of the Texas Revolution not only because it’s a hugely dramatic event, but also because so much about it remains a mystery, and much research and dissection remains to be done. The amount of progress, knowledge-wise, that’s been done on this subject over the past 50 years has been considerable, yet so much is still unknown, or blighted by long-held misconceptions.
GC: Tell us about your book, “A True Ranger: The Life and Many Wars of Major Robert Rogers”.
GZ: It’s the comprehensive biography of Robert Rogers that I always wanted to read but could never find. It’s very long, and fully footnoted and sourced, and it contains tons of information about Rogers that I had collected over the years, virtually all of it highly fascinating (to me anyway), and much of it new in terms of the scholarship. I think I wrote it mainly for other historians, not necessarily for the public at large, although I consider it readable for anyone. The book begins with Rogers being sprung from a New York City debtor’s jail cell by Highland troops and soldiers of the Royal American Regiment, which exemplifies how popular he was among even the British regular rank and file. But he had enemies in certain high places, and much of the book deals with the machinations they contrived in order to destroy him. Of course the book’s main concern is how Rogers transformed a motley collection of independent colonial ranger companies into a full-fledged, effective corps of rangers, and the skirmishes and battles they won, or lost. It also underscores his Ranger legacy, and how so much of his famous Special Forces “Rules” remain as viable and important today as they did in the 1750s.
GC: Whenever I post a link or picture of a classic movie on Facebook, you always seem to have your two cents about it. What is your favorite movie, and who are your favorite directors/actors/actresses?
GZ: Oh, I’m a big movie lover. I have my personal favorites, most of them historical in nature (1952’s The Big Sky, 1955’s The Last Command, the aforementioned Northwest Passage, 1960’s The Alamo, 1939’s Drums Along the Mohawk, and so on), but also high on my list are Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Citizen Kane, and such odd numbers as Inside Movies. I’ve long been a student of film history, and since teenage days have collected many classic films, of both the silent and sound eras. Director-wise, I’ve always especially loved [D.W] Griffith and [John] Ford. Actor-wise it’s a tough call, but high on my list are John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Charlton Heston. Actress-wise, there’s a wide range of names that come to mind: from Jean Arthur to Loretta Young to Ida Lupino to Anne Archer to Zooey Deschanel—the list is long!
GC: Lastly, I ask this to every historian I interview: why is it so important to keep the past alive?
GZ: Our past is our present; our present is our future. All of it is vitally, inextricably connected, and the more we know about where we came from, the better equipped we’ll be to deal with the challenges of the future. So much national conflict today arises from the fact that history ain’t taught a damn in our schools anymore. Also, even fiction can’t compete with the sheer drama, action, mystery, and color you can find in history. Which is why so much fiction is drawn from history.
I want to thank Mr. Zaboly for taking the time to conduct this interview!