“Back to one!” (Part 4)

IMG_1143As the afternoon of filming on a portion of the actual Gettysburg battlefield progressed. we background actors grew antsy: after endless retakes we decided to take matters into our own hands.

Crossing the “stop line” on the latest take, we broke into an approximation of the eerie, warbling Rebel yell. Our officers sensed what was in the offing and, instead of halting us, pointed their swords toward Cemetery Ridge. A general charge ensued that ended only when we encountered a rail fence at the far edge of the field. There our voices were raised in a continuous cheer, with hats waving atop our bayonets. Delighted tourists beyond the fence trained camcorders on the spectacle as their National Park Service guides looked on in bewilderment.

We soon learned that the charge was a big mistake, as the area between the stop line and the fence was thought to contain the remains of some of our Rebel brothers. Thus, the plot was considered to be a cemetery. Consequently, the NPS threatened to pull TNT’s filming permit, should anything else untoward take place!

Seminary Ridge was also the venue for filming the dejected survivors of the ill-fated Confederate assault straggling back in retreat. We scattered across the field, retracing our steps to the Rebel artillery position. Some men helped “wounded” friends, while others shook their fists at the imaginary victorious Yankees. As the day came to a close we boarded the busses again for the ride back to camp. Enough daylight remained after dinner for a quick cleanup of body and equipment before we turned in.

Reveille sounded again at the stroke of five on Tuesday, leaving the re-enactors to wonder whether the production company would ever trust that they were able to get their act together in a reasonable amount of time. After breakfast we marched to a piece of private land resembling Seminary Ridge, where filming was to consist of close-up shots of Pickett’s troops preparing for the charge.

Time and again actor Stephen Lang, portraying General George Pickett, was filmed galloping down the line of Rebel soldiers to their cheers. The aerial camera, controlled from a white convertible, tracked Lang and his staff. After a few takes hoarseness enfeebled the re-enactors to the point that, for the final take, we were told to pretend to cheer: the appropriate noise would be added, post production. As the cameras ground on an antiphonal chant, “Less filling – tastes great!” from a contemporary beer commercial filled the warm Pennsylvania air. That evening the wind rose, bringing a short, violent storm which made it evident whose tents weren’t anchored securely.

To our amazement, Wednesday reveille was pushed back to six o’clock. For the first time the filming schedule would feature both Federal and Confederate troops. Still a Reb, I joined others strung out several hundred yards beyond the dirt road that simulated Emmitsburg Pike. We were to portray Brigadier General Richard Garnett’s brigade as it vaulted the rail fence paralleling the road before it formed to approach the bluecoats crowding the distant rise standing in for Cemetery Ridge.

Shooting this action took a day and a half. Anyone wearing glasses had to remove his eye wear, adding  excitement to clambering over two fence lines with bayonets on our muskets! Now stuntmen mingled with the re-enactors. Time and again we reached the road, only to be mowed down by Union artillery. We took care not to “die” where passing horses left their droppings! Stuntmen – whose weapons had rubber bayonets – flew into the air from springboards when ground charges were set off, coating the rest of us in cork and dirt.

A gentle rain fell in the afternoon. We stood around for over an hour while the crew scanned the sky for a break in the weather. (The professional actors had the luxury of being shielded by golf umbrellas during the interlude.) When it became apparent that the precipitation wasn’t going to stop, we returned to camp to dry out.

The next day saw us wrapping up the fence-climbing sequence, after which further stages of the advance on the Yankee position were filmed. (The photo above is of these defenses.) Bayonets fixed once more, we marched forward as the defenders poured volleys into us. There was tension in the air: many Confederates remained convinced that the galvanized Yanks portraying Rebs were hogging the close-up shots, while some Yankees felt all they were going to do was stand around while the “enemy” was in the limelight. A beer ration issued that evening poured oil on the waters.


Friday came with news that we were finally to be filmed in our Federal uniforms. Blue and gray battalions filed onto the land whereupon the climax of Pickett’s Charge was to take place. First we portrayed a Vermont regiment that flanked the attackers, necessitating the placement of a blue corps badge on our kepis. Next our company was positioned on the Union left flank, where the Seventh Michigan Volunteer Infantry stood during the battle. Off came the blue corps badge, to be replaced with the correct white trefoil.

Once the equipment was prepared the Confederates began their suicidal charge. Filming opened with Union cannons firing directly over us as we lay behind a stone wall. The gunners warned us again and again to keep our heads down.

At last the moment Yankees like me had been waiting for all week arrived. The order came for us to “rise up” and open fire on the foe. Thousands of blank cartridges were burned as we unfurled our colors (see second photo). Everyone loaded and fired as rapidly as he could. Soon a bank of thick powder smoke settled over us, making it impossible to see the enemy. The order to cease fire was given, only to be rescinded by Ted Turner, who wanted the cameras to capture more footage.

The end of this scene signaled the close of my time at Gettysburg. With “Cut!” the slain Rebels carpeting the field were “resurrected.” They joined the Federals, trading handshakes and thumps on the back. It made for a fitting end to a memorable week, one that brought us all closer to the terrible events that shattered the quiet countryside so long ago.




“Back to one!” (Part 3)

IMG_1142After a drizzly journey that ended by traversing central southern Pennsylvania’s hilly terrain, the Seventh Michigan’s “Gettysburg” contingent arrived at the immense ski lodge near Gettysburg that was to serve as the film’s registration site. Upon signing in each re-enactor received a “Killer Angels Background Artist” tee shirt and ball cap – in blue or gray. A mountain bike rally was underway on the ski slopes, leading to the incongruous sight of neon-garbed bikers mingling with re-enactors dressed in modern or period military clothing.

A roundabout drive took us to our assigned camping place, located in a small depression. The gentle rain continued unabated, making our numerous downhill trips to haul equipment from the vehicles an exercise in mud surfing. While most people elected to reside in reproduction canvas tents, some stayed in brightly-colored modern nylon tents or even motor homes.

Negotiating a maze of feeding tents, porta-johns, shower trailers and sutlers’ tents led to the open field whereupon we background actors were to lodge during our week of filming. (The photo above illustrates how things looked.) Avenues of twine marked off the “company streets” where our canvas was to be pitched; straw bales and wood piles were there to be carted to the campsites. We hurried to put up enough canvas to keep the hay and wood dry. The area in which the Seventh’s men camped was one of the farthermost from the feeding and sanitary facilities, something that, while inconvenient, meant we enjoyed relative quiet at night. In the pre-cell phone age, the three public telephones installed nearby received quite a workout as long lines of re-enactors formed early in the morning and late at night to spend a few minutes checking up on life back in the Twentieth Century.

Everyone worked at making their little piece of the Keystone State comfortable. After erecting one’s tent, straw is spread over the “floor,” then a rubber blanket is placed on the straw. Together, these items provide a layer of insulation that does a good job of protecting the tent’s occupant from moisture and cold ground. (Given that we were to spend six nights on site, quite a few re-enactors opted to bring along modern sleeping bags, too.) Putting in blankets, muskets, accoutrements and other gear completed the picture.

Old friendships were renewed and new ones were made as more and more re-enactors filtered into the separate Union and Confederate camps. As evening came on the rain stopped and we were pleased with the quality of our first catered meal. Firepits were dug and the first campfires of the week were laid. Before retiring all the re-anactors had changed into their period clothing; it was hard to go to sleep, on account of excitement and a surprisingly chilly night.

Information included in the “Gettysburg” registration packet stressed that, since Pickett’s Charge was to be the film’s dramatic high point, the presence of a lot more Rebs than Yankees would be required. Consequently, men that owned uniforms for both armies readied themselves to wear either Federal blue or Confederate gray or butternut, depending on the shooting schedule’s needs. This practice, called “galvanizing,” took its name from the historical term used to describe ex-Confederate soldiers that took the oath of allegiance to the United States. While galvanizing helps redress the imbalance of opposing forces during some re-enactments, at Gettysburg some dyed-in-the-wool Rebels accused the producers of favoring the disguised Yanks when it came to being filmed close-up!

Five o’clock reveille on Monday morning came all too early. We bumbled about in the dim light of lanterns, collected our gear and set off for breakfast. An hour later we took school busses to the day’s first filming in the battlefield park, on Seminary Ridge. This was the jumping off point for the Rebel assault. Busses aren’t spacious in the best of circumstances, and it took a lot of maneuvering of one’s bayonet scabbard, cartridge box and musket to be seated.

This was to be the only time our group would set foot on the actual Gettysburg battlefield, an experience the re-enactors looked forward to with eager anticipation. Disembarking, we resembled a sluggish stream as we meandered over to the line of cannon opposite the Union position on the ridge, where the Confederate troops had formed for the assault. National Park Service rangers and TNT employees buzzed around the re-enactors on ATVs, chattering on their radios. Working artillery pieces were manhandled off trailers and into position, and their crews readied them to fire volleys of blank cartridges.

The laborious process of forming the infantry began, as thousands of men were arranged by companies into a wide gray line. The TNT crew was busy, setting up cameras and reviewing the forthcoming action with the re-enactor liaison. The Gettysburg National Military Park is chock-full of memorials to the units and commanders that fought in the battle, and a lot of effort went into camouflaging them as trees. We had the first of many encounters with the “Dirt Lady” or “Dirt Man.” These production crew members were equipped with bags of fuller’s earth, intended to make us look appropriately swarthy. A generous amount of fuller’s earth was patted onto our hands, with instructions to smear it on any exposed flesh. A cooking oil-based spray was then applied to the hair to achieve a fashionable, “sweating like a stuck pig” look. The weather in July 1863 was quite hot, with daytime temperatures in the nineties and high humidity. The soldiers suffered terribly in their woolen clothing from the heat and physical exertion, and water was scarce. By contrast, the early fall weather there in 1992 was ideal, with highs in the eighties, relatively low humidity, few insects and cool nights.

Anyone that’s been involved in making a movie will tell you that a lot of time is devoted to just waiting around while equipment is set and all manner of instructions are given. Director Ron Maxwell explained his intentions to the re-enactor liaison, then they would negotiate how to film it in as authentic a manner as possible. The first action of the day consisted of Pickett’s Division marching through the Rebel artillery line and crossing a broad field to reach Emmitsburg Pike. This road was effectively the halfway point of the actual charge.

At last the director announced “Action!” The cannon bellowed and we stepped off toward the Union defenses on Cemetery Ridge, a mile distant. A remotely-controlled camera platform resembling a helicopter flew overhead, filming the mass of advancing troops. The stop line for the shot was a road running through the field, where the officers would turn and bring down their swords to halt us. Waist-high grass, deep ruts and fixed bayonets made for rough going.

Upon reaching the stop line Director Maxwell ordered us to return to the starting point for the scene with “Back to one!” This phrase was to be heard often, as all scenes involved multiple takes. In this manner glitches were corrected and the editors had plenty of film available to piece together for the final cut. “Back to one” soon became a byword among the re-enactors. It was expressed with the same frequency (and sincerity) as “Have a nice day.”

Part 4 of this series starts with an event that threatened to nix any further filming in the battlefield park. Stay tuned!





“Back to one!” (Part 2)

IMG_1198Civil War re-enactors adopt the identities of actual units that took part in the war. Mine, Company B of the Seventh Michigan Volunteer Infantry regiment, formed at the town of Mason in September 1861. The Seventh, comprised of men from throughout Michigan, fought in all the major battles in which the Army of the Potomac took part. These included Antietam, Fredricksburg, Gettysburg, The Wilderness and The Siege of Petersburg. As often happened during the Civil War, nearly as many Seventh Michigan troops died from disease as perished from wounds.

Before “Gettysburg” came along, re-enactors had lent their presence and expertise to films (“Glory”) and made-for-television projects (“The Blue and the Gray,” “North and South”). While some of these endeavors were more memorable than others, re-enactors’ involvement assured them a modicum of accuracy.

Dramatizing “The Killer Angels” had long been of interest to Civil War buffs. The novel’s gripping, personal account of the titanic Battle of Gettysburg through the actions of some of its major protagonists made Michael Shaara’s book a favorite text of American history classes in colleges. Through time a couple major television networks had discussed dramatizing the work: such plans fell through, in part because of the expense that would be incurred in assembling the “armies” needed.

Finally, Atlanta cable television mogul and Civil War enthusiast “Terrible Ted” Turner stepped into the breach. He committed to film “The Killer Angels” for broadcast on his TNT network in 1993, the year marking Gettysburg’s 130th anniversary. Almost at once a series of controversies over the filming rocked the re-enacting community. There was concern over the re-enactors chosen to act as liaison with the production company, worries that TNT wouldn’t take re-enactors’ counsel seriously and skepticism that the script wouldn’t be historically accurate. In addition, while TNT promised the re-enactors on-site meals, showers, porta-johns, firewood, water and a travel allowance, they would receive no pay.

Given TNT’s cornucopia, why was money a sticking point? At the time, the typical infantry re-enactor invested around $1,000 in procuring the essentials needed to go to battle (uniform, cap, leather accoutrements, brogans, canteen and reproduction bayonet and rifled musket.) Add in learning the manual of arms and how to march, and perhaps it is easy to understand re-enactors’ interest in being paid for their time. Throughout the first half of 1992 ofttimes heated philosophical arguments raged in the pages of magazines dedicated to the hobby over whether any self-respecting Civil War re-enactor should take part in “The Killer Angels.”

While the controversies simmered, TNT began marshaling its resources to tackle the project. The National Park Service is mandated with preserving and protecting many Civil War battlefields. TNT conducted lengthy negotiations with the NPS resulted in its receiving permission to do a limited amount of filming within Gettysburg National Battlefield Park; however, virtually all filming would take place on privately-owned land adjacent to it.

A number of modifications were made to the private land to push back the hands of time. Paved roads were covered by a layer of dirt and had rail fences installed on either side of them; modern buildings were altered to mid-Nineteenth Century appearance; pits were dug for FX (special effects) springboards and ground charges; and a replica of the Federal defenses on Cemetery Ridge was constructed.

An impressive line-up of Hollywood talent was signed to star in “Gettysburg,” a title given to the movie that, it was felt, would be more recognizable to the public than “The Killer Angels.” The lead roles included actors Martin Sheen and Tom Berenger portraying Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet, and Jeff Daniels as Union colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Other roles were filled by Sam Elliott, Stephen Lang and Richard Jordan. Ted Turner got in on the act, appearing in a cameo as a Rebel officer. Documentary film maker Ken Burns also appeared briefly, as a Yankee officer.

The stage was set. Now all that was needed was the arrival of those nettlesome re-enactors!