The “N-word” is disgusting, but so is the hypocrisy surrounding its usage. Racism has no place is society, though it apparently will never go away, and that should especially be the case in professional sports, where fans watch their favorites teams to escape from “real life” for a couple of hours. In the weeks following Donald Sterling’s taped personal conversation in which he says some overly racist things about black people, does no one else in the NBA notice a glaring hypocrisy when denouncing this man for a private conversation while ignoring other people around the league who have said much worse? Take the co-owner of the Brooklyn Nets for example, Jay Z, a rapper who would not have a career if not for many utterances in his “music” using the N-word. His songs, if you can call them that, go much worse than mere racial epithets, including misogynist remarks about women, championing their rape and use as “hoes”. I need not get into his lyrics, as they are sordidly well-known, but what bothers me is that no one, except Phil Mushnick who writes for the New York Post, seems to care that Jay-Z has never been denounced by the league or any team owners for his past history. For years, Mushnick has asked in his many columns, “Is Jay-Z the only NBA owner allowed to use the N-word? Is Jay-Z the only owner allowed to be racist?” The questions, when asked, were always hypothetical, until Sterling’s little moment a few weeks ago. Now we all know the answer: yes, yes he is.
Like Grant in 1864 (or Lee in 1862), the To Appomattox Kickstarter campaign is rolling full speed ahead, with its launch beginning today (for an unprecedented $2.5 million), just about an hour ago. Already I am pleased to see quite a few backers and thousands of dollars raised. I am still contemplating which option to donate to, and will probably go with the $100 “Haversack” option, which includes a DVD set of the series and some other goodies. I am going to keep this post short, because I have written about this series at length already, including just a few days ago with writer and executive producer Michael Beckner himself. After years of waiting, the time has come for US to try to get this series off the ground. It looks promising, but in the end, we need results. The Civil War community, myself included, always complains about a lack of related projects, so now WE finally have the chance to get something made. There is not much more to say than that. If you are a die-hard and want to donate a thousand, or can only spare a few bucks, every little bit counts—and I am sure the production staff would agree. Please click here to check out the Kickstarter page and see all the support options. Over and out.
Aside from a pleasantly plump looking Robert E. Lee (as my friend and fellow Civil War blogger Steven Hancock pointed out earlier), this latest trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, directed at the international market, is the best one we have seen yet, and might even be the last chance to wet our appetites that we get before the film opens up on November 16th. While the “Unite” trailer from last month was outstanding, this one contains more dialogue and an expanded view of Tommy Lee Jones’ character as Thaddeus Stevens and one of the insults he uses to denigrate pro-slavery representative Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), a series of which one reviewer, who had already seen the film, described as “blistering”.
As you all know, I used to write for the unofficial fan blog of To Appomattox, and still wish them the best of luck in production and plan on covering it from a far on here once filming begins, but I just have to say that I am not too crazy about the name change, the mini-series now shifting over to Grant Vs. Lee. I can see why the title was changed, because the majority of television viewers in this country can probably barely pronounce the word “Appomattox” correctly, let alone know what it refers to, however, I think that the new title they have come up with is a bit too gimmicky and hokey for my liking, sounding like something the History Channel would have produced, and you all know how I feel about them and their Civil War productions. Grant Vs. Lee is definitely better for marketing, because most people (or at least I certainly hope so) know who Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant are. Even the casual reader of history and anyone who paid attention in school knows them, so I can obviously see the marketing angle they are coming from. The rumor is that ongoing network negotiations have forced the title change, and that comes as no surprise, since respectful titles and historical authenticity must go out the window for the almighty dollar. Thankfully, it is being reported that the script has gone unchanged, which, unless you want to really be fanatical, is all the matters.
The one thing I wanted to buy more than anything else on this trip is a bobblehead doll of John Wilkes Booth. Sure, I could purchase this novelty on Ebay, but I wanted to get it here because of the special location. There was much controversy surrounding the sale of these dolls, which I wrote about several months ago, and it seems that they are nearly impossible to get here. Most of these stores are selling the dolls of Grant, Lee, and Lincoln, and when I ask about Booth, they seem to get very narrow-eyed: “Oh…yeah…that. We used to sell ‘em. Not anymore, though. Sorry.” As I browsed around more and more, I was met with someone who said, “I wish we could sell those! You’re the third person who came in today asking about it.” Even one of the stores that boasts selling more than 200 different bobbleheads, including many in the same set as Booth, does not carry the item, the worker telling me, “We used to sell Aaron Burr, and nobody saw a problem with that. But this Booth one, after that newspaper article came out, there was such an uproar that most stores yanked them.” Poor Alexander Hamilton…what a schmuck! He then eluded that there may be one store in town that carries it, but did not say where, or with any confidence. I will continue tomorrow before we leave to spend a few days in Lancaster.
For something that happened a hundred and fifty years ago, the Civil War is the one event that still stirs up controversy, more often times caused by people who know nothing about the war, and even less about why it was fought. The Confederate Flag will always been an undying symbol of hatred and slavery for the ignorant, who have nothing better to do than march in rallies protesting its showcasing. Granted, the hillbillies and racists who tattoo themselves with it while unfurling massive banners on the backs of their rusted pickup trucks do nothing to help the cause that it should fly, and fly proudly, but what about those who respect the flag for what it really is?
We know that the Civil War was not fought entirely because of slavery—yes, the government and wealthy aristocratic plantation owners of the south made that their reason, but what about the common man, the overwhelming majority? What about the soldiers who hardly had the money to feed their families, yet alone own another human being? Political correctness in this country is appalling, and while I would love to sit down and rant to you about what my feelings for the flag are, I have already done so here. No, why I write to you this afternoon is because of an ordinance recently passed in Lexington, Virginia, which has banned the Confederate Flag from being flown on public property. No big deal right? Well, unfortunately, that might encompass the grave-sites of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (EDIT: still trying to find confirmation if this applies to cemeteries). The proposed answer to the ban? Flying an American Flag over their places of burial instead. Why don’t we just dig up their bones and throw them into a dumpster while we are at it? Maybe we can re-write history books to say the War never happened. Can this nation further desecrate, humiliate, and cloud the honor of those that found themselves on the opposing side of the Union?
Is removing the Confederate Flag from the graves of two men who both publicly detested slavery while fighting for their home state really the answer? How about shunning it from city streets? No, this is not being done for any other reason than political correctness and boredom. When people have time on their hands, they tend to think of things they can do to screw with peoples lives for sport (controversy sells, does it not?) . To my friends and those up here in the north who might not see this as a big deal, I have to remind you that there is a different climate down south, when it comes to history, and this is a very drastic ordeal the city of Lexington is undertaking. Men died fighting for the Confederate Flag, and their ancestors still live on to this very day. Do you have any ancestors or know someone who died fighting for our American Flag? I must say, that too is a flag that has been involved in controversial wars, and of course, the mass killing of American Indians. I hate to go that route, but something like this leaves me with little choice to do otherwise. How are they not to be judged on the same level? Thousands of people owned slaves while the American Flag was flying before the Civil War erupted, and even states that fought for the side of the Union continued to do so, even after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. What’s the matter, your history teacher leave that out? Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution were both authored with slavery very much apart of society in the 1700’s, all while Old Glory flew proudly over the capital.
Let’s keep destroying our history. Let’s keep ignoring the truth. I have spoken to even the staunchest of Unionists on this very matter, and they all agree that the flag these men fought for should remain over their eternal resting places. This is what happens when people with no knowledge have final authority on the matter. I cannot think of anything more infuriating when it comes to the Civil War, except of course when someone wants to build a Wal-Mart near a battlefield. You can say I am pretty angered at this, almost with a tear in my eye thinking of my heroes having their grave sites ravaged by some politically correct charlatans.
For the past several years, historian Cary Eberly has been writing for the very popular, and award-winning website, ExplorePAHistory, and if he was not busy during that time, he surely is busy now! The accomplished writer is currently working on three books; one on the American Civil War, one on George Washington, and the other on Indian chiefs Cochise and Geronimo. These books, however, will be a little bit different, as they are photographic narratives, which will attempt to illustrate the history and bring it alive, either inspiring an interest in those new to the field we love so much, or enhancing it for those who have already immersed themselves in the subject. While I have known Cary only briefly, I can confidently say that if his kindness is indicative of his writing, than we are all in for a treat.
I had contacted him last week, and he told me that he was going to Antietam for a photo-shoot for his book on Grant and Lee, and would do the interview when he returned. Sure enough, he did not forget, and I now have him to thank for these wonderful and informative answers below. Cary is also serving as a historical adviser to the upcoming television mini-series To Appomattox, which was the main subject of our discussion. I also want to point out something he says in his second answer, about wanting this series to appeal to all ages, and consideration being made to create companion lesson plans for the series to be used in schools. This is probably the most important aspect, aside from the entertainment factor in this show, and that is the education of our youth. As someone who will be teaching a class on the Civil War this fall, as part of a special weekly elective program at a nearby middle school, this will be my chance to do my part and drum up interest to those still in school. Please enjoy the conversation below:
GC: How did you first get involved with “To Appomattox”? What will your role be with production?
CE: My involvement with To Appomattox began with a suggestion from my friend, author Thomas Fleming, to contact documentary filmmakers about making my George Washington book into a film. I had developed a friendship with him over the previous two years, as he was quite impressed with my photo narrative format in the George Washington book, and offered to help me, as well as write the introduction for it. By the way, his next books will be his 51st and 52nd , and will be with Da Capo Press; one on the Civil War and the other on the Revolution. So as I began to contact documentary filmmakers, I saw comments about the upcoming To Appomattox on various reenactor chat rooms, and contacted Michael Beckner with a photo narrative book I was working on about all the battles of Robert E. Lee. Like Tom, he also liked the format, and after reading his script, I decided to combine a Grant and Lee battle narrative into a single book in the hope that he would use it as a companion volume to his film. As for the production itself, I don’t see myself having a role in that. At one point, we discussed another photographic book that would present my photographs of the actual battlefields to the sets that they will create, and I suggested we ask each actor the same three questions about the Civil War, and sprinkle their answers throughout the book. [People love celebrity quotes!] Maybe something to add to the DVD boxed set.
GC: This is something I asked J.D: what are your hopes for what this series will accomplish?
CE: My hope for the series is that it will reach a whole new generation who are not being taught the central role that the Civil War played in making Americans who we are. The American Revolution set us free, but the Civil War was the white-hot cauldron that forged what it would mean to be an “American.” That war decided what kind of country we would be, with freedom for all, regardless of race, creed, or religion. It settled issue of slavery once and for all, something that had been a stain on America’s character since the first slaves arrived. And I think this series has a unique opportunity to reach people across a wide spectrum of age, interest and education, as a result of the script that Michael Beckner has crafted. Not only is it extremely accurate, but he weaves the drama of the war into his story while capturing the relationships between so many of these generals who shape the way this war was fought. These men had bonded together like brothers during their years together at West Point, and in so many life and death battles during the Mexican-American War. By placing these deep relationships at the very heart of the story, he paints a compelling and accurate picture of the gut-wrenching human drama that tore so deep into American families. I think when the final episode airs, the viewer will come away with a very accurate picture of who these principle characters were; flawed human beings who often did unbelievably heroic deeds. And this series can be a jumping off spot for people who want to learn more about the Civil War, and that includes schools. We have spoken of creating a lesson plan for all levels in the educational system, starting with middle school, all the way up to college level courses. Everything in this film reflects the most recent scholarship, and all my books are designed to appeal to a more visual generation who will see elegant photographs of the battlefield itself, what the soldiers looked like, opposite a thrilling narrative designed to spark a deeper interest in these stories that every American should know by heart.
GC: What event or character are you most excited to see portrayed on-screen?
CE: I think I’m most excited to see Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman portrayed accurately on the screen. So many films have painted both men as a caricature of who history and their own private letters teach us they really were. The truth is always more interesting than fiction, and in the case of these two men, it could not be more applicable. Like all of us, both men were flawed human beings who overcame a whole range of human hardships, to contribute and shape America in positive ways that still reverberate in our culture today. I also look forward to seeing the relationships develop between the young boys who arrived at West Point, and would someday lead these immense armies against each other. Men who had been like brothers; West Point roommates, Mexican War tent mates, the best-man at each other’s weddings, many married each other’s sisters, etc. The story Michael Beckner will bring to the screen, will really show the bond that developed between the men, North and South, who would lead these armies in a war that cost more than 620,000 American lives, and another 500,000 wounded.
GC: You just got back from a photo shoot for a book you are working on. Can you tell us about that?
CE: The photo shoot was at Antietam. It was for my Civil War book, On to Appomattox: Grant & Lee, Following the Warrior’s Trail. Early in the summer, I met a number of young, lean reenactors, mostly from the 63rd Virginia. In this case, two of men are park rangers at Antietam National Battlefield, and were able to secure permission for a few of them to sleep on the battlefield last Saturday night. While I already have more than enough photographs to complete this book right now, I keep getting better and better reenactor photographs, so it’s very hard to stop at this point! Ha! These are all young, lean men of the right age and weight to reflect the kinds of men who actually fought the Civil War, so I plan to get a few thousand more images so that I can operate from abundance when it’s time to put the book together. I’ve posted a few of the new ones on my Facebook page, but I always keep the majority offline, and save them for the book.
GC: Do you have a favorite battlefield you like to visit? How about a favorite General? And why?
CE: I don’t really have a favorite battlefield or general, per se. Like so many stories from history, there is always something new to discover. At any given time, there are usually eight to ten books on my nightstand that span anywhere from the Roman Empire to the Afghanistan war. I sometimes read two or three books on the French & Indian War, before choosing a different era and immersing myself into that. So there is always something new to read and learn about. When I tire of a certain subject for a while, I simply go to a new subject and my interest is renewed.
GC: Lastly, if you had a time machine and could travel back to any period in history (aside from the Civil War), where would you go and why?
CE: Great question! And that reminds me of a movie that must have had a great deal to do with deepening my interest in history at a young age. The 1960 movie Time Machine with Rod Taylor, was an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ famous novel. While the 1960-era special effects left allot to be desired, like the body-builders who played mutants, painted blue with really bad, long-haired white wigs, it was that time machine itself that really intrigued me. The machine itself could never move off of its specific patch of earth, but could go backwards or forwards in time, according to the date you set on the “dashboard” of what looked like a stripped-down Model A. As Rod set the machine to go backwards, the time-lapse of his neighborhood would be visible in all directions, until the buildings were long-gone and dinosaurs were roaming the neighborhood. When he went forward in time [if memory serves], nuclear war had left the landscape with very few humans who were working as slaves underground and being rounded up by the blue mutants! Now I grew up about two miles from Valley Forge, and during our winter sledding of the hills below where Anthony Wayne’s men were stationed, I would try to imagine what had happened in specific spots around the park like Washington’s headquarters, the river crossings, etc. Ever since that movie, I often make history a little more real when I am standing where it happened, by pausing for a few minutes, and quietly reflecting on what happened there right where I am standing. I have a Twitter account approaching 20,000 followers, and a post a few stories each day from the History Channel about what happened “This Day in History.” Knowing that something happened on this day, so many years ago, makes it a little more real to me to stop and imagine it occurring “on this very day!” Now, if I had that time machine you’ve so graciously brought to me, I would have a virtually endless list of where I would like to go. But if you would make me choose a single place and time, this week I would travel back to the Battle of Long Island which will take place this Saturday, 235 years ago, August 27, 1776. It was the first major battle of the American Revolution after the Declaration of Independence, and the beginning of a brutal series of losses for our young Continental army that would test George Washington’s resolve all the way until he turned the table on the Hessians at Trenton on Christmas night. Exactly how long can I stay?
I would like to thank Cary, not only for this interview, but for his kind words. When he sent me the responses to my questions, he noted, “First, I wanted to compliment you on your blog site. It’s really impressive to see how you are crafting this site into something really special! And I am honored that you have asked me to be a part of it.” This really means a lot to me, and hope to keep interviews such as these coming as many times as I can! And please click here to visit Cary’s official website.
When I was growing up, of the many things a little boy dreamed to be, a CIA agent was most certainly one of them. Every Friday night, I would sit down with my dad to watch The Agency, which ran from 2001-2003. During that time, I was captivated and excited by a show that was beginning to become a rival in the hardcore Law & Order household we lived in. Little did I know, several years later, I would be talking to the man that created and wrote the series, Michael Frost Beckner, who has now turned his talents to making something even more up my alley. He is going to be the writer, as well as one of the producers, for the much talked-about upcoming television miniseries, To Appomattox. We are going to see a lot of projects on the American Civil War over the course of the next four years, but none of them promise to be as endearing as this, a series with more than 50 prominent speaking roles and a team of 16 historical consultants working to make sure they have the most accurate script and screenplay possible. Among those is J. David Petruzzi, who I interviewed a few days ago.
This new project, To Appomattox, is currently in the pre-production stage, with filming set to begin next spring, and a release slated for 2013. Before he becomes too busy, I contacted Mr. Beckner in hopes of doing an interview, and he agreed. He has also written the screenplays for films such as Sniper, with Tom Berenger, Cutthroat Island, and Spy Game. Below is our conversation:
GC: When did you first realize you wanted to make a TV series on the Civil War? What was your inspiration?
MFB: I grew up in a home where I was told that when “Dixie” is played, you stand. Luckily, “Dixie” wasn’t played much in Studio City, California, because I’m sure I would have been laughed at by my fellow elementary school students. There have always been the ancestral portraits over the mantle and my mother and grandmother always attended their Daughters of the Confederacy meetings. On the other side of my family, there were the tales of my one-eyed, eye patch-wearing Union “General” great-grandfather. (I put “General” in quotes because I’m pretty sure he only ever made Colonel, but I learned at an early age not to contradict my grandmother on that one!). But, it was when I was working on my CBS series The Agency at Langley. My wife was with me and somehow the conversation got to the Civil War. I was telling a group of Agency officers that Professor Lowe’s balloons launched pretty much from where the CIA headquarters now stands; first American aerial recon! Later that night, my wife started asking me about the history of the war…and I guess I went on and on for the next day she told me I knew more about the Civil War than the espionage world I’ve made a career writing about. She was pretty forceful telling me it would be a crime if my next project wasn’t about the war. On one hand, when Anne gets an idea fixed in her head she’s relentless; on the other, I knew there’s no one in Hollywood who would ever do a Civil War film. And I need to write films that pay me. So in an effort to get around writing a film, I promised her I’d write her a play centered on the four times Grant and Lee meet over the course of their lives. Well, that got bigger and bigger, my passion for the subject unleashed—especially under the encouragement of my project mentor Dr. John Y. Simon, Founder & former Director (deceased) of the Ulysses S. Grant Association at the University of Southern Illinois, at Carbondale. Meanwhile, the deadlines I had discussed with the University of Richmond—where we had planned to premiere the show before taking it to London (there was no interest in a Civil War play in NYC)—I found to be tighter/stricter than my television deadlines. The play, To Appomattox, ultimately became the outline to something much bigger, which was first a two hour film. That was too breathless… Then I wrote a four hour mini-series…that showed there was too much left out…but where was the time to write it the way it needed to be written? During the Writers’ Strike of a few years back, that time became available. When that was over, I had finished a 13 episode series that seemed to write itself. The amazing thing with To Appomattox is, I realize now, this project, picked me… Not the other way around. Somewhere along the way, I realized I wasn’t writing this for Anne or for myself, nor—as with every other script of my career—was any of it my invention. It belongs to all of us and all our forebears; I’m just really a custodian of our shared history and I came to it not because I knew I could write it, but that it had to be written by me, because of my ability to get projects made, attach talent to what I do, get studios to finance my work: if I didn’t write To Appomattox no one was ever going to.
GC: Aside from hundreds of hours of research, what is the most difficult part of writing a screenplay for an eight hour series?
MFB: Making the choices of what to put in and leave out; who to focus on, who not to. And then once knowing exactly what that focus was and what I’d be able to tell well and properly, having the disciplince to cut five hundred pages out of the script and take 13 episodes down to the 8 we’ll now produce, and be secure in the knowledge that the 8 hour version is far better, dramatically, than the 13. The other difficulty is where my 20+ years of writing film and television craft came into play. Pacing the episodes scene by scene, opening and ending at the right moments. The film is straight history, but that crafting has allowed each episode to feel like a “movie.”
GC: One of the most important aspects of any war movie is the violence level– too gory and people will be grossed out, not gory enough and people will say it is inaccurate. How are you going to go about setting up and filming the battle scenes?
MFB: There is only about 15 minutes tops of war in each episode. Those sequences will be fully realized to historical accuracy. I get “grossed out”—and I think I’m similar to most people—when violence is gratuitous or created for “shock value.” At it’s extreme it’s actually desensitizing and—for example horror/slasher films—portrayed to get a sick laugh. There’s no place for any of that in To Appomattox. Think back to the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. That was the most realistically portrayed warfare I’d ever seen. The violence was at the most extreme level I can remember. I was horrified and I was frightened and I was heartbroken. Tears rolled down my cheeks. It also gave me a deeper understanding of my country and countrymen…and that was cathartic. To understand the hearts of the men who fought in our Civil War, the meaning of it—going in and coming out—we MUST understand what they faced in battle. Portraying Civil War battles exactly as it was will pay them respect and honor; to be put in their shoes will allow audiences to come away from this series with a deeper emotional connection to who we are as Americans and why we are Americans, and why Americans are unique. As for network viewing, if we go with the cable network we’re now in discussions with we have no content problem. If we go with one of the two major “alphabet” networks with whom we’re talking, because this is straight history, we can broadcast with a “content warning.” Sort of like how they show Saving Private Ryan on network TV, although that’s a fictional story.
GC: How will you approach the battle of Gettysburg, especially since a full-length (and very popular) film has already been made about it?
MFB: Episode 5, “Reunion” focuses on Gettysburg. Because one of my overriding positions in writing and producing this series is to connect audiences directly with this past—to show that it wasn’t all that long ago and the people weren’t all that different from who we are today and that we are connected; also NOT to show it the way it’s ever been portrayed before—Episode 5 takes place during the present of the battle and at the same time over the course of three battlefield reunions. Another aspect of this hour, is that I’ve used it to examine the “mythologizing” of the war. How it happened, why it’s happened, how that’s effected our own conceptions of American heroism…for better, or worse.
GC: After all the hours of writing this series, have you developed any personal favorite characters?
MFB: I was reared to believe William Sherman was insane and evil. After writing this, I’ve grown quite fond of the general and am very sympathetic to him. Back when this was a play, I approached Lee and Grant the way I was taught: Lee was the greatest American ever; Grant was a drunk and a butcher. I have no greater respect for an American hero than I do for Ulysses S. Grant. Funny, though, it’s the characters I couldn’t tell the stories of (no room) that have become my favorites. There’s John Sedgewick, there’s Nathan Bedford Forrest, and my very favorite, Gouverneur K. Warren. In the latter’s case, I’ve begun writing a play, a courtroom drama, entitled Inquiry based on the Warren’s Court of Inquiry that convened on January 7, 1880. Also, there’s a movie in the illustrious life of Dan Sickles.
GC: Lastly, did Will Patton, Paige Turco, Richard Speight Jr., Jason O’Mara get involved in the project through their work with you on The Agency? How do you think they will adapt to their roles?
MFB: They’ve been close, close friends since The Agency. In fact, Will and Jason were attached all those years ago to star in the Grant/Lee play. This entire cast didn’t come together from “packaging” but from personal relationships and deep passion for this history. For everyone in the cast of To Appomattox this is a labor of love…for their families, their children, and their nation.
I would like to thank Michael for taking the time to conduct this interview! This really wets the appetite and makes one hope that 2013 won’t take too long to get here. It is also sad and true when he mentioned about Hollywood’s lack of interest when it comes to the Civil War. Ron Maxwell alluded to the same exact thing last month. You would think, with so many potential stories and dramas (even comedies) just waiting to be told, there would not be this severe reluctance to make a film about that era of our history. That is why each and every film done about it, when done correctly, is important to the telling of our history. This is a story, like many others, that needs to be told, and thankfully, Michael is here to do just that.
I will also be launching a new sub-page at the top of the site to keep track of the interviews and articles that get written about the show, much like my ‘Gods and Generals Archive‘. You can either scroll up or simply click here. And don’t forget to visit the show’s official website.
What exactly constitutes someone being considered an “expert”? There are many qualities you can contrive in order to define the word, but I am pretty sure, that at the end of the day, no matter what you think of, historian and author J. David Petruzzi would always be considered one when it comes to the American Civil War. He is the author of five books on the subject, including the freshly released New Gettysburg Campaign Handbook, which has been described as a must-read for diehards and newbies alike. With another trip to Gettysburg coming up in the next couple of weeks for me (have not yet decided on the dates), I think I am going to pick up a copy and take it along with me, because it seems to be the real deal according to the reviews.
All of Petruzzi’s hard work has led him to be selected as a historical adviser to the highly anticipated television miniseries To Appomattox (2013), which has been mentioned a few times on this blog. With many fans out there wanting to learn more about it, and his role, I asked him to shed some light on that, as well as his general opinion on various aspects of the Civil War and films made about it. He is also the author of other related works, including walking and driving tours of Gettysburg, One Continuous Fight, which details Lee’s retreat, and finally, Plenty of Blame to Go Around, which currently holds distinction as the only book dedicated entirely to Confederate cavalry General J.E.B Stuart’s famous, and controversial ride, from Virginia to Gettysburg. Mr. “Call Me J.D” Petruzzi also maintains a blog called “Hoofbeats and Cold Steel”, which I discovered after stumbling upon his review of the History Channel Gettysburg documentary from late May—both of us had choice words to say about that one, while his expertise took it even further! Below is our interview, which we conducted by email this afternoon:
GC:You are serving as a historical adviser to the upcoming mini-series To Appomattox. What exactly will your job entail?
JDP: First, I’m really humbled and honored to be a part of this, which I truly believe will be the media event of the Sesquicentennial. It’s all been very exciting, because I’ve never been involved in something of this scope and magnitude. My initial duties a few months back entailed two things: First, I was asked to read the entire script and offer historical accuracy suggestions. As an aside, I was hooked after the first few pages. From the very first scene in the first episode to the last scene of the last episode, it is an amazing story. Writer Michael Frost Beckner is a life-long student of history (he also has ancestors who fought in the war) and his research went extremely deep, so the writing was already very accurate from a historian’s point of view. I just caught some things here and there and helped Michael do a few rewrites and modifications. Second, I assisted in assembling a world-class team of consultants, each of them with a particular specialty. We have a uniform expert, a flag expert, personality experts, battle/campaign experts, and so forth. We’re all experienced enough to know that some historical boo-boos will creep in here and there, but our team is comprised of the finest in their fields. Viewers will have the confidence knowing that in each scene, within the context of the dramatic storytelling, every word uttered by every character – every item in the shot – every military action portrayed – will be historically accurate and plausible. My primary duty now is to bind the script of each episode, and begin making a collection of them with all of my historical notes and supporting material with them. For example, each episode, page-wise, runs about 65-70 pages. By the time I’m done, each of my episode binders will consist of about 200 or more pages. I’ll also be collating the material of the consultants. Therefore, as each and every scene is being blocked and prepared, we’ll have information at hand which gives us all of the historical accuracy details ready and available. If there’s a flag or flags in a scene, we’ll have the right ones. If Robert E. Lee, during the Mexican War, is in a scene, it will list what he looked like at the time, and exactly what his uniform should look like. When U.S. Grant’s home, “Hardscrabble,” appears in an exterior shot, there’s a photograph of it. Michael and I speak just about every day, often several times a day. He has me participate in just about everything having to do with the historical environment of the series, and that means assisting with things like enlisting corporations that provided consumer goods during the war to be sponsors and/or advertisers. I’ve assisted in preparing printed presentations submitted to many entities having connections with the series. It’s been great fun, and I enjoy helping any way I can. Once pre-production begins in the spring of next year, my full-time work begins. From pre-production through the end of filming, I’ll be full-time on the set. I very much anticipate that, and it’ll be a lot of hard, long work but a great deal of fun. As Historical Adviser, I’ll be working personally with the actors and actresses, helping them understand their characters and hopefully in some small way to help them give a believable performance. Michael has written into this story no caricatures, no icons up on pedestals – these historical figures are shown as exactly who I believe them to have been in real life… human, fallible, successful, and failures. Angels didn’t sing when Lee walked into a room, but his men loved him and his enemies respected him. Grant wasn’t a slosh who spent all his time on the floor passed out (though some would have you believe that). He had only periodic struggles with alcohol, and that because he was often very lonely – he dearly loved and often ached for his wife and family – and his internal conflicts with his failures in life. I think when folks are finished watching this series, they will come away feeling that they understand Grant and all of these men and women much more clearly. On the set I’ll also be coordinating, as the head of the Historical Department, the efforts of consultants and the crew assembling sets, reenactor/extra coordinators, battle scenes, etc. Basically, any way that I can assist the producers, director, and all departments regarding history and accuracy. When I don’t know an answer, I have to find it. But as I mentioned earlier, Michael has written such a wonderful script that my job won’t be nearly as difficult as it otherwise could be. Once filming and editing is complete, I hope to continue to be involved as Michael’s ambitious list of “extras” are worked on. We plan to include, in the resulting DVD boxed set that will be released, to have a “Behind the Scenes” documentary, mini historical documentaries, educational tools, etc. We really want the entire To Appomattox experience to be just that – an experience. We don’t want it to be over for the audience once the final episode begins. Truly, it is then that the real learning and teaching begins.
GC: As it stands in pre-production, what are your hopes for what this series will accomplish?
JDP: I touched on that a bit in my previous answer – I hope that viewers come to begin to understand just in what environment the war took place, and who these people were who fought it, planned it, and those who waited at home and worried. Today, we look at a picture of U.S. Grant and see a black and white, detached-from-us-today photograph. But what was he thinking at West Point? What was his relationship with James Longstreet? What were his struggles with civilian life failures, alcohol, and loneliness? What was it like to be in a room with George McClellan before or during the Civil War at particular times? How did all these main characters – Grant, Longstreet, Lee, William Sherman – and all of their mutual friends interact with each other over several decades? What did they laugh about? What did they worry over? What did the war do to their relationships? All of these and more are dramatic limbs among the dramatic spine of the series, which is Grant’s memoirs. I also hope that it will go a long way toward getting young people more involved and interested. It is they who will carry on the work of understand the war properly after us. We are, after all, within the Sesquicentennial and interest in everything about the war is at an all-time high. If one child turns to a parent and says “Let’s go visit Gettysburg – or Shiloh – or Chickamauga” then it’ll have all been worth it. Further, to be quite blunt, I believe the series and the portrayal within will knock a few pedestals out from under some “iconic” figures – as it SHOULD be. It’s not an intentional effort to make any of these historical figures any less than what they were… quite the opposite, in fact it is to portray them (most often in their very own words) as they really were. They laughed, they cried, they stumbled, they were successful, they failed. And many of them leashed Hell upon the earth and to each other. An enormous percentage of Civil War soldiers died on battlefields utterly alone. In the dirt. In their own blood. Perhaps clutching a picture of their wife or a child. And their everlasting legacy on Earth was to be tossed into a trench, their identity never to be known again. Many families didn’t have even a grave to mourn over. Thousands of soldiers today still lie in parts unknown, all but forgotten. Theirs and many like stories are another foundation of this series.
GC: What is your favorite Civil War movie of all-time, and why?
I love so many – The Horse Soldiers, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Glory, you name it. But probably my favorite is Gettysburg, based on the Michael Shaara novel The Killer Angels. Much of the dialogue is just plain silly, but it was Shaara’s interpretation of those characters and they’re simply wonderful. Admittedly, the movie has set standards by which many reenactors and living historians now do their craft. For instance, Longstreet never wore the huge hat (it should have been given its own zip code) that actor Tom Berenger wore in the movie. Longstreet typically wore a regular kepi. I’m told that while in the town of Gettysburg prior to filming, Berenger went into the store Dirty Billy’s Hats and asked for the biggest hat in the place. Folks tried to tell Berenger that it would be inaccurate for Longstreet, but he wore it anyway. Now, when you see one of the dozens of Longstreet portrayers around, they’re all wearing one of those huge hats for fear of not being “recognized.” Many of them know better, but it is “Longstreet pop culture” to wear a big hat even though it’s utterly silly and inaccurate. But if a Longstreet portrayer showed up at a reenactment wearing the correct kepi, no one would know who he was. And that’s understandable. But in our series, Longstreet wears the right clothes during the war, and none of the uniforms will look like they were just pulled off a Hollywood wardrobe rack. But all of that aside, every time the movie Gettysburg is on, I can’t take my eyes off it. All of the actors are simply fabulous and I utterly enjoy watching it. And if the pre-Pickett’s Charge bombardment and the Charge itself doesn’t touch your heart, then you need to check your pulse immediately.
GC: You recently just published another book, “The New Gettysburg Campaign Handbook”. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
JDP: Thanks for asking about that – folks who know me know that I never turn down an opportunity for shameless self-promotion! In the Savas Beatie “Handbook” series, it’s a neat little companion to The Complete Gettysburg Guide that I also did with master mapmaker Steven Stanley. It contains a lot of material that we couldn’t include in the Guide – things like Gettysburg Campaign facts, trivia, personalities, and even Medal of Honor awardees. There’s a photographic study of the entire five weeks of the campaign. There’s also a comprehensive Order of Battle that is the most accurate and up-to-date available. Steve designed the entire book for our publisher, did all of the maps (he’s the best in the business bar none) and it’s simply gorgeous to look at. Steve and I are working hard on many more books – such as a Maryland Campaign Guide and others – and I’m simply blessed to be partnering with him on these projects. Between the two of us, Steve has more talent in his little finger than I’ll ever have, period.
GC: Back in May you wrote a scathing review of the History Channel documentary on Gettysburg (as did I). How is it possible, with so much information out there, for a major production to be so misinformed and inaccurate?
JDP: Oh yeah, I ripped that show and to think of the thing still makes me ill today. It was that bad. How something like that can air? I think much of it has to do with marketing and trying to appeal to an audience which today is pretty inflicted with ADD. And I also know that the writers and producers didn’t consult with the historical advisers and consultants beyond just their few minutes of speaking throughout the episode. If they had – consulted with knowledgeable folks like Garry Adelman and such – most or all of the garbage that aired wouldn’t have seen the light of day. It was filmed in South Africa literally on the cheap, so the terrain looked nothing like Gettysburg (unless Gettysburg is comprised mainly of acres and acres of sand and pine stands and I’ve somehow missed that). If you read my review of the show, you’ll see that I point out an error committed just about every minute, and I actually didn’t include most of them. The show was very, very hard to watch, and my wife kept running into the room thinking that I was screaming in physical pain rather than mental. I’ve seen only a couple positive comments about that show, and universally everyone trashed it. All the CGI and graphics done by the Scott Brothers studio – which was brought onto the project only at the very last second in order to do the CGI and attach their names to it – couldn’t save that show from making everyone’s eyes bleed. The History channel can only do the right thing by burning all copies of that program and never allowing it to see the light of day ever again. It also bears mentioning that such historically deficient tripe places even more expectations on us and our series, and we plan to rise to it. Glaring historical inaccuracies in personalities and the set will only distract viewers, and we don’t want that. We want everyone – student and scholars of history to those who know very little about it – to enjoy it and learn from it. The demographics of our expected audience are enormously broad. Not only will Civil War folks watch this, but, for instance, fans of Rascal Flatts (who is doing the music score and acting in it), fans of NASCAR drivers participating, and fans of the particular actors and actresses. We have a heavy responsiblity to each of them to do this right and honorably.
GC: Lastly, aside from Gettysburg which you have invested so much time in, which is your favorite battle? Who is your favorite general? And why?
JDP: I dearly love Antietam. It’s so quiet and non-commercial there, a stark contract to many things about Gettysburg. Watching the sun set from Little Round Top is always awesome, but watch the sun come UP from the area of Burnside’s Bridge, and now you’re talking my language. The area of the Cornfield there always gives me goosebumps, and I can’t help when walking the length of the Sunken Road (Bloody Lane) and just nearly tearing up as I look around an envision all those dead young boys of both sides that were in and around that. Because of my interest in the cavalry, another favorite field is Brandy Station. For us “Cav” folks, Brandy is the Motherload. There, the cavalry of both sides brought “Thunder on the Plains.” When I’m standing up on Buford’s Knoll or near Fleetwood Heights, nothing else in the world matters at that moment. If you asked others about my favorite general, they’d all probably assume John Buford. And they’re probably right. I admire the guy. Soft-spoken and reserved, but he’d dangle you from the nearest locust tree if he suspected you just didn’t smell right. I’d have loved to have been on a battlefield with him. I also like Winfield Hancock. Guy always had a clean white shirt on no matter what, and he could swear a blue streak said to have made flower wilt at his feet, and if any ladies had been present they’d have fainted dead away. His men felt invincible near him, and that fella would have been one to have shared a wee nip with. I bet he had stories. I also like to study the cads, the scoundrels. Speaking of having a whiskey with someone, Dan Sickles would probably be the ultimate party dude. And a fellow like Judson Kilpatrick fascinates me. Snarky, shrill, but hell-bent-for-leather. It’s why Sherman wound him up and turned him lose. Kilpatrick had a habit of getting just about everyone and everything around him send to Providence, but his personal traits are both confusing and fascinating. Truly, I like ‘em all. Everytime I discover an officer or common soldier with an interesting story, I just have to know more. That’s what keeps this so exciting and endless – there are quite literally millions of stories out there, and millions more to find. Among those millions of stories, our To Appomattox series will bring some of them to people’s living rooms – and hopefully their hearts. It is there that the seed of curiosity is born.
I would like to thank J.D for an absolutely enlightening interview! Reading and digesting this really makes me excited for 2013, when we will see this television series released. I had been trying to keep up with it, but with different updates being posted daily from their Facebook Page, I figured one day, I would just sit down and browse through all of it. This interview has given me just-cause to do that, because I don’t think I have felt this much excitement since 2003, when as a 12 year old, I waited with anticipation for my favorite Civil War film, Gods and Generals, to reach theaters. I cannot promise to provide as much coverage for To Appomattox as I did with G & G, but this is as good a place as any to start. Many thanks again to J. David for taking the time to type all of this out and send it over—this could have been a book in itself!
Being early usually pays off, and once again, it did on Friday afternoon. I was one of the first members of the press to arrive at the Premiere, and after we checked in, I noticed Ron Maxwell, who had entered the lobby and was standing and talking to someone. After waiting for him to finish, I walked over and introduced myself, and he knew exactly who I was. We chatted briefly before moving to another location to get some pictures together. I asked if it would be possible to ask a few more questions for my blog (we did an email interview a few weeks ago), and he pointed to some chairs and said, “Sure, let’s have a seat.” I made Jeff take some pictures of us so I had proof that I was actually “working” that afternoon.
Our interview is posted below, but it is what Ron told me after I shut the tape recorder off that I will never forget. He thanked me many times for coming and my enthusiasm for the film (just like I thanked him many times for inviting me!) and then he said that I had been on their radar for a while, and that “…the entire cast knows you, Warner Brothers knows you.” This would have made my day entirely, until he told me that he actually read my article on the importance of the John Wilkes Booth character to the director’s cut of Gods and Generals. This blew me away, because I had wanted him to read it, and was going to email it to him, but because I knew he was going to be busy, I never did, but he still found it anyway. He began by saying, “You got what it’s about.” Before adding, “You have a critical eye. It’s so refreshing that you are free of the political correctness of this generation.” He also went on to wish me good luck in the future as a teacher and historian.
GC: You have waited eight years for this to come out, so what is it like now that the day has finally come?
RM: For the longest time, we were not sure that the director’s cut would ever be released. It’s an unusual director’s cut because when people think in terms of these cuts, you think of maybe ten or fifteen minutes of more material, maximum, organized perhaps in a different way, but for a director’s cut to come out with an additional hour of new material, and that hour totally changes the entire film, reintegrating it, that is a rare event. So, we did not necessarily think that it would ever happen, but we kept that cut under wraps and no one had really seen it other than those who worked on the film. I think if it was not for the coincidence of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, there may not have been a trigger to consider releasing this. But that being the case, about a year and a half ago, Ted Turner decided the timing was right and that we should release the full version that we had scripted, filmed, and edited eight years ago. Happily, those of us who worked on the film, now have the film we really intended on making, and those who have been waiting for it, I know from the blogosphere and internet, and reenactors and history buffs, that there has been a lot of people hoping it would be released at one point, and here it is! I’m thinking over the long run, as one can anticipate these kinds of things, that this will be the definitive version of the film, and this will be the film that people will see going into the decades of the future.
GC: Of all the scenes you added, which is your favorite scene, if you had to choose one?
RM: I don’t know if I have a favorite scene, per se, but what I really appreciate is that, first of all, everything in the film makes more sense now. We’ve restored the historical integrity and continuity of events, number one. Number two, to have the whole Antietam sequence back, which again, the reason it is there and the four battles are there, is that they unify the main characters of Chamberlain, Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson. Antietam was the place where they were all present again. We obviously don’t pretend in this film that it is the battle of Antietam—you could do a whole big movie on just the battle alone, but it is just the grace notes to show where our characters are. Another thing I was gratified to bring back was the whole subplot with John Wilkes Booth, because every time you see him on a stage, that is historically where he was. He was on that stage, in that theater, in that play, playing that role, as he is shown to be. And so we have, in retrospect, and of course, no one knew it at the time, but when we juxtaposed the images of Booth on the stage with the events of the Civil War, you have, in effect, William Shakespeare as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on what is going on in the war, because Booth is playing regicides over and over again. Now, this obviously does not mean that any actor who plays a regicide is going to act it out in real life (laughs), but it is curious that he is given the words of the greatest poet in the English language, and those roles, of Brutus in Julius Caesar, Hamlet in Hamlet, and Macbeth in Macbeth, are the rationale for regicide. They are the most potent rationales for bringing down a tyrant, and he is saying this over and over again, so one must ask the question, did Shakespeare influence him in his ultimate political act? We see him gradually becoming radicalized. The film is over in May of 1863, so that is two years before he assassinates Abraham Lincoln, and he is not yet radicalized to the point, to the act that he ultimately commits, but he is on his way. I think the film accurately portrays him as a totally rational, totally sane, extremely talented, very popular, and very successful matinée idol, who is not just a matinée idol, but also someone who is a highly esteemed Shakespearean classical actor in a long family tradition. His brother Edwin and his father Junius Brutus Booth, were a great tradition of the stage, so he was a kind of like royalty. The equivalent today would be someone like Robert Redford, someone who is a very good actor, and also a matinée idol back in his day, who suddenly becomes an assassin. I think understanding how these things work, which is completely different from justifying political murder, is fascinating, cause obviously the whole exercise in making Gettysburg and Gods and Generals is to go where those people lived, to try to understand what made them tick and what was in their minds, not to bring or hold them up to the judgment of the 21st century, but for us, in this century, to go where they were and to try to illuminate that for ourselves and understand it. So to bring Booth back into it, it really makes the whole film work for me—it kind of locks it in perspective, to have this Greek chorus, the words of Shakespeare, commenting on what is going on in the American Civil War. Finally, we have restored a lot of the tender moments: Jackson and his wife baptizing their baby, Jackson getting his photograph taken, Jackson with his aides-de-camp, and when they are punning and joking around, and when he gets a new uniform; Joshua Chamberlain and his brother, who cannot figure out how to load a musket as quickly as he should, which is a matter of life and death as we later see, when he has to load it quickly when he is on the front lines in the battle of Fredericksburg. All those personal, familial touches, back in the film, humanize the characters and make it work a lot better.
GC: One last question, and it has been beaten to death, I know, so if you don’t want to answer it, that’s okay. The Last Full Measure, any chance at all that it will be made?
RM: This is where I find that I kind of laugh—I laugh at the people who should know better, who say with great authority, “This film will never be made.” Maybe they have a direct line to the Almighty, I don’t (laughs). I know that making Gods and Generals was miraculous, making Gettysburg was miraculous, like any of the films in that genre that we could talk about, whether its Glory, or you name the title, even The Charge of the Light Brigade. These are not films that are talked about. There is nobody at a studio meeting in Hollywood who goes into their weekly meetings and says, “Does anybody have a Civil War project today?” It does not happen that way. So, for people who say that the odds are long, therefore you will never see it, is just silly. People who make that statement are just ignorant. I work on it every day. You know, maybe it won’t get made in my lifetime, maybe it will be made after my lifetime, and maybe it will never be made, we don’t know. What we do know, is that sometimes, these forces line up and these movies get made, but they do not get made with defeatist attitudes. They do not get made when you don’t suit up and go on the battlefield. They get made because you believe it can be made, you believe in the possibility of getting it made, and you will it into existence, by finding the right financing team, the right distributor, and the right actors who agree with you. That is how my two Civil War movies were made, and that is exactly how The Last Full Measure will be made. What I can tell the fans of the film and those who hope the movie will be made, is that there is not a week that passes where I do not work on it, and one of two things will happen: either I will die, or the film will be made. But, until I die, I will never cease my efforts to get the last part of the trilogy made.
Once again, I thank Ron for taking some time to talk to me. His answer regarding The Last Full Measure was very passionate, and is definitely hopeful. When we were all done, he said, “If we decide to make it, you’ll be the first to know!”