You just never know who may be reading through your blog, and in the past, we have had such a wide array of people become regular comment-posters here, one of which is Brad Clark, a Civil War buff from Iowa who decided to take his interest and enthusiasm to another level, by making a documentary film about the 150th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. As Brad wanted me to point out, this is not a documentary about the battle itself, though there are plenty of details given early on, but rather the event that commemorated one of the war’s bloodiest battles. As for taking this program as an educational video, Brad notes, “This was not intended to be a History Channel episode presenting a detailed history lesson on the battle. They can do that better than I can.” Well, given the talent present in the making of this video, which will hopefully be the first of many presentations from his film company, Open Eyes Media, perhaps the ever-floundering channel he mentioned can’t. What we have here is a mammoth, two-disc feature running nearly three hours in length that perfectly captures the spirited essence of this reenactment and all those who took part. As someone who has been to many small reenactments, but only one big one (the 138th at Gettysburg), it was a pleasure to watch something so in-depth on something that was so grand of a scale. As was mentioned, there were more than 8,000 reenactors and 140 cannon present, the largest force assembled in Shiloh since the battle itself. More than 23,000 spectators also came by to watch the festivities during that overcast weekend in April.
I have seen many reenactment videos, mostly online, but none really compare to this one, as it puts you right in the heat of the action. Brad noted to me that sometimes the camera appears to be shaking, and though most of it was edited out, some was left in just to put the uneasiness there, to give people an idea about how much was going on, including when an artillery blast caused the ground to shake. The outstanding, punch-packing audio complimented the video and crystal-clear still-photography (some donated by reenactors who took part) very well, and combined with the music of composer and country singer Bobby Horton and other Civil War era songs, as Brad elaborates on below, gives you the complete package and lets you be a part of something special even if you were not present—this film is the next best thing to having actually been there to witness it firsthand. The Battle of Shiloh has always intrigued me, as many Western Theater battles do, and this video will prompt me to learn more, as I usually only focus on the battles in the east. This video will leave you with that effect, especially when you see the reenactors and their determination, and feel what they go through to try to recreate history. Who knows, maybe you will end up enlisting yourself!
Below is the interview I conducted with the filmmaker Brad Clark, who wrote, directed, produced, and co-narrated The Battle of Shiloh: A Documentary Film of the 150th Reenactment for Open Eyes Media. The whole Clark family found themselves involved with this one, and includes Seth assisting on photography, and Bruce and Mary providing additional narration. So now, I will let Brad do the talking as he can detail the project and experiences a lot better than I can. I hope you enjoy!
GC: What inspired you to make a film about the reenactment of the battle of Shiloh?
BC: The idea of a making a film about the reenactment of the battle of Shiloh was gradual decision. My brother is the co-owner of a 10 pound Perrott Rifle and he was going to Shiloh as an Iowa artillery reenactor. Over the past year, he had encouraged me to go to Shiloh on several occasions and film the event and their group. He wanted me to make a DVD to record their experience at Shiloh and capture some of the other activities at Shiloh so they would have a nice global view of the event. My son and I are both interested in the Civil War and reenactments and have been to a number of events in the past including a couple of Gettysburg reenactments. We talked about it and decided to go with the hope of shooting some high quality photos and video. As I thought about it, I felt this project had the potential to be appealing to others beyond my brother’s group. So, as we headed to Shiloh, the documentary film project was a go unless we had weather or camera issues.
GC: Since this was your first venture into film, how would you describe your overall experience? (The good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of it!)
BC: The Good: Overall, my son and I had an awesome time at the reenactment. We registered as reenactors and attended in period clothing provided by my brother. This worked well during the reenactments as it allowed us the freedom to go to areas that were off-limits to spectators. My son worked the perimeters of the field and I went into the middle of the field. I set up in a narrow tree line with a ditch, thorny bushes and tall grass. At one point, this put me to be in the middle of a Confederate charge as they pushed toward the Hornet’s Nest. The massive wave of troops engulfed me and my cameras got knocked around as the soldiers over-ran my position. It does not get much better than that! How often do you have he opportunity to face a battle line of determined soldier reenactors storming directly at you doing the Rebel Yell with rifles ready and swords drawn? The Bad: We were not aware of the exact battle movements ahead of time so we set up cameras and did our best. We changed locations as battle movements unfolded in order to be in the right place. Most of the time we were getting some great shots. However, at times my son was in places on the first day where he had to contend with spectators to get shots. I was in the middle of the field in a very uneven area so every time I moved I had to re-level the tripod. Also, during the first day of the reenactment, as I was moving through the thick brush and trees, my tripod was damaged. A backup tripod was in the vehicle but I would have lost an hour of prime time to retrieve it. So, I used the damaged tripod for the balance of the day but it did not function smoothly. Sometimes things go wrong at the worst time and there is nothing you can do except move on. All in all, we were very pleased with what we captured. The Ugly: We wore period clothing and shoes at the Shiloh reenactment. Our shoes were very stiff heavy leather brogans. We toured the Shiloh camp area for two days prior to the reenactment in order to cover behind-the-scenes. The first night the area received a heavy rain and the reenactment parking lots and fields developed some really muddy spots. Walking was a challenge in some areas. During the first two days (before the reenactments) we walked 7-8 miles in these very stiff uncomfortable shoes. By the time the reenactments started our feet were a mess. I lost a toe nail plus a large section of skin rubbed off my right foot. Each day, my socks were bloody. My son had similar problems but it was the back of his heals that were rubbed raw. So, as you can imagine, we had miles to walk to cover the reenactments on Saturday and Sunday and our feet were a disaster. This whole situation was complicated because we had a motel that required an hour and a half trip each morning and night. There are not very many motels in the Shiloh area and motels were booked up early… (seems like we should have planned our trip a little sooner!). So, we had feet that were killing us and long drives every day. Typically, we were downloading all our files between 11:00pm to 1:00am. Fortunately, we got such a buzz from reviewing the awesome photos and video each night that we were totally pumped with excitement the next morning as we drove back to the Shiloh site. Its kind of funny, we would eat a nice early breakfast then drive to the site and get busy. We got so involved in hiking the reenactment fields and camps and filming everything in site that we forgot about food until evening. We were focused. In retrospect, we should have broken in our new shoes ahead of time. Duh!
GC: Is the battle of Shiloh your favorite Civil War battle? If so, why?
BC: Shiloh is not really a favorite battle. So far as I know, I did not have any relatives at the Battle of Shiloh. I had a number of relatives in many of the eastern battles and in some of the other western conflicts, serving as Federals and Confederates. The focus on Shiloh was more a response to a great opportunity. This was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh so the reenactment was large. It was a grand opportunity to get some great photos and video. Since my brother was going to Shiloh, he was helpful with some of the logistics, getting me contacts with other units and providing period clothing. All of this made the Shiloh battle a great place for a first film project.
GC: Please describe some of the technical aspects of your production, like what is included in the video and the music.
BC: The idea of making an independent documentary film was something new for me. I was familiar with operating the camera and video camera and I also had a fair amount of experience with movie making software. But, I wanted this to be a significant step beyond a home movie which meant I had much to learn. The first challenge for the project was – what is the story? The answer to this question was the driver for the project. It would not be a History Channel style program where battle scenes were primarily used as a backdrop for a history lesson. I opted to make a documentary that would weave together two narratives, one telling the story of the reenactors and a second story outlining the historical Battle of Shiloh they were reenacting. As a viewer watched the theater of the reenactment in the film, they would learn enough about the history for it to all make sense. The documentary would get close to the reenactors and it would also include significant coverage of the camps, the sutler area and the dance. This broad agenda meant we needed to allow at least a couple extra days to hike several miles around the camps with hills, mud and dense woods in order to film everything. Our aggressive agenda forced a time management discipline into the filming. This obviously was a low-budget production where we were aiming for high quality production results. I had not worked with audio very much but I knew this area needed real focus in order to capture realistic battle sounds at the reenactment. I researched shotgun microphones and ordered one – this was a smart move. We recorded some amazing battle sounds considering we filmed scenes where cannons and infantry were 50-300 yards away most of the time. I am pleased with the quality of the battle audio and with the fact that we recorded all the audio in this documentary, except for the music. No special sound effects were used…the sound in the documentary is the same sound the reenactors and spectators heard. Another area that was new for me was obtaining rights to quality music. A portion of the music in the documentary comes from Bobby Horton, a talented musician who has worked on a number of Ken Burns films, A&E films and other projects. Working with him was a true pleasure. We discussed this project and many other things…and he liked the project. Talking to him encouraged me as I moved forward on the documentary and I greatly appreciated his time.
GC: When did you first become interested in the Civil War, and why is it important for people to continue to learn about it?
BC: I have been interested in the Civil War since I was a kid. Every other year, our family took a driving trip from Iowa to eastern Tennessee to visit my dad’s family. Our trips typically included tours of historic sites and Civil War sites along the way. These visits were like magic to me…I quickly escaped into the past during these tours. The Civil War period is important because they had a political system in meltdown. Remember the Fire Eaters who whipped the south into a hysteria for war even though most ordinary people had little to gain by war? The people who benefited the most were the wealthy and the plantation owners. Many good southerners were loyal to their state and fought bravely for the Confederacy. They followed their leaders and, in many cases, the leaders represented the money interests. Curiously, Confederate law allowed an exemption to conscription for men on plantations that had 20 or more slaves. And what about the northern politicians? They enacted import tax policies that protected northern industrial interests that greatly angered the south. But, northern politicians were indifferent to southern interests. Each side could argue endlessly about the rightness of their views but they showed little interest in resolving differences. When communication broke down and compromise became impossible, disaster was inevitable. It would be encouraging if we could learn more from the past.
Synopsis: One hundred fifty years after the Battle of Shiloh, the Tennessee fields are again filled with soldiers. Thousands of reenactors set up camps and cook on open fires. Horses tethered under trees graze wile men pitch tents and clean rifles. Then it is time for two days of battle. Artillery thunders and belches fire. Long lines of blue and gray stream across the fields on a collision course. The soldiers recreate battle movements of the original Hornet’s Nest, Peach Orchard, Ruggles Lane, Wheat Field, and more. History comes to life in this exciting 2-DVD set!
Disc 1: Provides highlights of the two day reenactment plus a brief tour of Shiloh National Battlefield Park.
Disc 2: Covers the Confederate and Federal camps, the sutlers, the Saturday night dance and Battery C, 3rd Iowa Independent Regiment of Light Artillery. Also features Alamo Rifles, the Razorback Flying Battery and Burroughs’ Battery.
Color/ 2 discs/ 175 minutes
I would definitely like to see this film available in gift shops in all different Civil War towns, and not just around Shiloh. Perhaps even better than the reenactment focus itself was the tour of the National Battlefield included on the first disc. For someone like me who lives in New Jersey, and will probably not get to visit Tennessee (at least not for a while), it was definitely a nice touch and very professional. As for the narration included over the reenactment, it included readings of letters and firsthand accounts, which are always very important. Be it as it may, a low budget production, it really did not have that feel, especially when you consider the audio quality as I mentioned earlier—better keep your finger at the ready on your volume button!
I would also like to wish Brad well in his recovery from two major back surgeries since filming took place, of which the editing of this film provided a kind of therapy for him, “…it gave me a positive focus while sitting around at home. Progress on the film was slowed some because my initial pain levels caused me to suspend work for a couple of weeks. Then I slowly resumed work on the film with a couple of hours here and there. I am doing better now…and I will say this project has been the best medicine. It got my mind off myself and forced me to continue forward.” Many thanks to Brad for taking the time to conduct the interview as well as sending me a copy of the film for this review. He and his family did such a wonderful job with the project, and should be very proud of themselves! Now go out and get yourself a copy!