“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!





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s