“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.




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