RaphaelSemmes

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Reviews

Jim Thorpe -- All-American
(1951)

Good Story... But Factual Not So Much
As a self-confessed sports junkie, I enjoy sports films. To me authenticity is a vital component in sports movies, particularly when a film involves an individual of Jim Thorpe's stature. I don't think that it's sufficient, or worthy, to merely issue a general disclaimer professing that characters and events may be different than those portrayed in the film. It's my belief that the true greatness of a person's accomplishments are obscured when accuracy is not maintained. Thorpe's football accomplishments at Carlisle Indian Industrial School are legendary. A number of sequences in the movie deviate a bit from events that actually transpired. The movie chronicles a big game in the 1908 season between Carlisle and Penn. While it is accurate that Carlisle played Penn that season, the actual score was a 6-6 tie not the 13-13 tie asserted in the movie. In the film, Thorpe kicks a 50 yard field goal with 25 seconds remaining to tie the score. In actuality, Thorpe missed three field goals that day. The film contrives a rivalry between Penn's Tom Ashenbrunner and Thorpe. Problem is that there was no Ashenbrunner that played for Penn. In actuality, the Penn running back (star) was All-American Bill Hollenback. He was the Penn player who faced Thorpe that fateful October afternoon in 1908. In real life, Thorpe claimed that Hollenback was his toughest and fiercest rival. Pop Warner, Carlisle's coach, advises Thorpe that Allegheny College is searching for a coach, and that the school has narrowed the search to Ashenbrunner and Thorpe. Presumably, how they perform in the big game will determine who gets the Allegheny coaching gig. In reality, Bill Hollenback was hired by Penn State in 1909 to coach their team, not Allegheny. In retrospect, one must wonder if permission was denied by Hollenback to use his actual name in the film. Given the crowd shots, it could be implied that the Penn game was (seemingly) played at Carlisle and not Franklin Field. That implication is simply inaccurate. Carlisle routinely played road games against smaller, closer opponents (e.g. Muhlenberg College). Do any of these inconsistencies diminish Thorpe's achievements? I would claim they don't, but they certainly test the veracity of the film. If Ashenbrunner is fictitious, did Jim Thorpe actually set a particular record or complete in a certain Olympic event? As correctly indicated by various reviewers, Jim Thorpe was married three times, but only one wife is depicted in the film. The one son that we are introduced to in the movie, who tragically passes away, was actually one of eight children fathered by Thorpe and his three wives. Of course liberties must be taken so that a storyline has continuity and the audience is engaged. But omitting and altering facts is very disconcerting. Instinctively, I enjoyed Jim Thorpe All American. It's a likeable movie about an American hero. Burt Lancaster is a great actor, and his portrayal of Jim Thorpe is captivating. And Charles Bickford is a terrific coach/mentor Glenn S. "Pop" Warner. However, no matter how good Lancaster acted in his role of Thorpe, there will always be incessant issue of authenticity. That persistent foible of integrity was never overcome in this classic film.

Field of Lost Shoes
(2015)

A Flawed Premise, but Still a Great Film
The film Field of Lost Shoes is a wonderful, gripping picture concerning a group of VMI cadets and their valiant stand against grizzled Union veterans during the 1864 Battle of New Market. Jason Isaacs turns in a superb performance as General John C. Breckenridge, who during a particularly poignant scene prior to the battle, speaks frankly to the cadets. He asks each of them their thoughts on the war, and their dreams for the future after the war. Each of the main characters describes their future hopes, and why they are fighting. The cinematography with the battle scene is excellent, and is particularly surprising given the very limited budget used making the film. The only downside of the movie is the hackneyed perspective that the South fought the war solely to perpetuate the institution of slavery. Slavery was one of a many issues as to why the war was fought, but to single it out for particular attention is myopic. Taking this tact the producers acquiesce to current political correctness. That said, thankfully the film does not dwell on slavery for very long. This film is a real gem. It was well written, well filmed, and well acted. It is too bad that it has had a very limited release. The accolades that it receives are well deserved.

Lincoln
(2012)

Lincoln... As Seen Through The Rosy Spectacles of Steven Spielberg
Spielberg's Lincoln is subtly inaccurate, and for that reason it is insidious and dangerous. There are also glaring omissions in the story line which serve as a detraction. To John Q. Public, who probably has a cursory knowledge concerning Lincoln and the Civil War, this film will reinforce the biased Union perspective that is generally taught in secondary education. The skewed prism that Spielberg looks through in making this film is an anathema to any historian who has done a scintilla of research concerning the war.

The centerpiece of Spielberg's Lincoln involves the political machinations concerning the passage of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. To Spielberg's credit he paints William Seward and Lincoln as the conniving politicians they both were. Their "ends justify the means" approach to the passage of the amendment is depicted without any remorse concerning the morality of buying off potential undecided votes. It is Seward who conspires with Lincoln suggesting that they employ the services of W.N. Bilbo, and others, to corrupt the process and pass the amendment. Basically, Lincoln finds himself twenty votes short for passage of the amendment. Through the auspices of Bilbo and his band of rogues, they systematically bribe each undecided Congressman before finally obtaining the requisite number required for passage.

Spielberg's Lincoln is very passionate about the 13th Amendment. But does this passion actually jibe with what transpired during the war? Lincoln's famous quotation to the New York Tribune on August 22, 1862 would seem to contradict Spielberg's curious passion of 1865. In 1862 Lincoln stated, "I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union…

Should we believe the Lincoln of 1862, or the Lincoln of 1865? Lincoln cultists would argue that Lincoln simply evolved to this more "enlightened" position concerning slavery. However, it's my belief that's much too easy a jump to make.

In Spielberg's Lincoln no mention is ever made of Lincoln's plan to repatriate slaves, and other blacks, to Liberia. In 1862 Lincoln invited a group of free black men into the White House and requested that they lead by example and leave the country. The men were greeted by the Federal Commissioner of Emigration J. Mitchell, who explained that a sum of money had been apportioned by Congress "for the purpose of aiding the colonization in some country of the people, or potion of them African decent". Lincoln is quoted as asserting, " You and we are of different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. This physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both and affords a reason at least why we should be separated. It is better for us both, therefore, to be separate". That assertion is a decidedly different tenor than the movie attempts to convey.

Another highly debatable, accuracy challenged segment in the film is the final meeting (in early 1865) between the Confederate Peace Commissioners and Lincoln. At the meeting Spielberg's Lincoln asserts slavery is dead. The Confederate commissioners, led by Vice President Alexander Stephens, break off the negotiations ostensibly based on Lincoln's comments. Stephens subsequently replies that the South's agrarian economy is based on slavery, and that abolishing slavery would have a crippling effect on its existence. In actuality, that meeting was much different than what occurred in the film. What did occur, and is verifiable, was that Stephens asked: "Is there no way of putting an end to the present trouble, and bringing about a restoration of general good will and harmony?" Lincoln replied, " There is but one way... for those who are resisting the laws of the union to cease that resistance". He offered 400 million compensation for the freed slaves, but emphasized: The restoration of the Union is a "sine qua non" with me.

Spielberg's Lincoln, portrayed in the film by Daniel Day Lewis, attempts to depict Lincoln in a folksy, homespun manner. Lincoln uses his charm with friends and detractors invoking whimsical yarns at every opportunity. In reality, the stories are used to obfuscate the real issues at hand. At one point in the film one of Lincoln's own cabinet members, Edwin Stanton, becomes so frustrated with the incessant "yarns" he abruptly leaves Lincoln's presence. Of course Spielberg's motivation in spotlighting the yarns is to create a more sympathetic character in Lincoln. Spielberg's Lincoln also elicits sympathy through glimpses into his dysfunctional marriage to Mary Todd Lincoln, portrayed by Sally Field. Spielberg's mining for sympathy is a disservice to anyone who has done any real historical research and is aware that the war, which killed over 600,000 of his fellow American citizens, could have been potentially avoided by Lincoln.

Quantrill's Raiders
(1958)

Border War History Perversion
Quite simply, this film is despicable. It's despicable because it perverts American history and what actually transpired in Lawrence, Kansas circa 1863. Of course the antagonist in the film, William Quantrill, portrayed by Leo Gordon, is a nasty, hard drinking, boorish leader of a gang of border ruffians. Director Edward Bernds creates such a detestable caricature of Quantrill, that it makes one wonder why so many men followed him? Clearly, the film's agenda was to paint Quantrill in the most simplistic terms as evil and loathsome. This film simply does not have the even handed perspective of Ang Lee's "Ride with the Devil", which far more honestly describes the life and times of an 1860's Missouri bushwhacker.

The film is completely biased in its perspective. Judge Wood laments in one scene, "I wonder what would cause a man to be a traitor", referring to a past acquaintance who decided to side with the South. There's never a mention of atrocities committed by the "Kansas Red Legs". In fact there is no mention of them at all in this film. Sadly the movie falls in to the category of, "never let facts get in the way of a good story".

The plot line builds to a crescendo of the final scene with Bill Quantrill and his men attacking Lawrence, Kansas. In this fantasy version of the events that took place on August 21, 1863 in Lawrence, Kansas, Quantrill is repelled by the Union forces in town. In reality, Quantrill sacked Lawrence thereby achieving a great Confederate victory. Contrary to published reports at the time, the individuals killed in the Lawrence Raid were nearly all Kansas Red Legs or partisans, whose notorious malevolent excursions in to Missouri were well documented. The film does allude to the fact that Quantrill maintained a list of Red Legs in Lawrence, whose prior actions he felt deserved retaliation. As a matter of record, Quantrill asserted that his motivation for burning Lawrence came from the Osceola, Missouri Raid of 1861 in which all but three of that town's eight hundred buildings were torched. Led by Kansas Jayhawker and future Kansas senator James Lane, nine local citizens were summarily rounded up in Osceola, and after a brief trial, executed. There's no mention of the sacking of Osceola in this film. Also not mentioned is the Kansas City jail collapse of August 14, 1863, where four Southern civilian women, kin to Quantrill's men, were killed. Nine civilians were seriously injured in the jail collapse.

For his part it should be noted that Senator Lane escaped probable death during the Lawrence Raid by running in to a corn field in his nightshirt and hiding. Most historians would agree that retaliation is simply part of war and ascribing a sinister intent to Quantrill's actions is unjustifiable.

In an attempt to hold the interest of the 1950's wife who was dragged to the theater by her husband to see another quasi-Western, there is a romantic interlude between Captain Alan "Wes" Westcott", portrayed by Steve Cochran, and Sue Walters, portrayed by Diane Brewster. Westcott warnsthe town's people of Quantrill's imminent raid, and thereby saves the federal munitions depot. Shortly thereafter he gives himself up to the authorities. Judge Wood quips to Sue Walters that her love interest will spend some time incarcerated in a prison camp but will return to her after the war. This was a convenient and happy way to end the film, but is patently inaccurate as to the period and events.

The Hunley
(1999)

The Hunley - Snapshot of Southern Valor
Quite simply, "The Hunley" is the best made for television movie of all time. The film accurately depicts a moment in history, (1864), when Charleston, SC. was being savagely bombarded by the Federal navy. Of course, I'm quite certain that individual aspects of the film have been purposely embellished to make an already interesting story even more captivating. For example, the scene involving the bombardment of the "open air" orchestral recital was very stirring, but in actuality may have never occurred. I also wonder if the fascinating conversations between Lt. Dixon and General Beauregard ever transpired. While General Beauregard did have oversight over the Hunley mission, I wonder if there was any point in time when he seriously considered scuttling the project, given the dire straits of the Confederacy at that point in the war. It's all open to conjecture. What we do know is that the men aboard the Hunley served valiantly, and gave the ultimate sacrifice for Southern Independence.

I thought that overall the casting was creditable. Armand Assante was fine as Lt. Dixon, and the rest of the crew was capable, although I did have concerns with Seaman Collins' brogue which came off as stilted and forced. Donald Sutherland does not look very much like P.G.T. Beauregard, but I believe that he captured the essence of the man, particularly in his derision of President Davis, who he unflattering labels "a politician".

"The Hunley" is an outstanding movie. You do not need to be a history buff to enjoy its drama. It is well acted, with a good script and excellent cinematography. Like another WBTS film, Glory, The Hunley has an important story to tell of courage, loyalty, and service.

Hunter's Raid: The Battle for Lynchburg
(2010)

Hunter's Raid - A Historical Documentary Well Worth an Hour
If there is an Oscar presented for "Historical Documentary", Hunter's Raid should certainly be nominated for consideration of best in its category for 2010. The extensive research and interspersed quotations used throughout the documentary are extremely effective in conveying the mood of the time, and the people. A well worn adage asserts that, "Winners write history". This is especially true when it comes to revealing, or revisiting, war time atrocities. Hunter's Raid is unabashedly Southern centric in its perspective, but when delving into a topic such as the Battle of Lynchburg, that certainly should not be considered a negative. It's not politically correct to promulgate the notion that Union forces, during the War Between the States, acted in a barbarous manner concerning innocent Southern civilians. Prior to watching the film I possessed very little knowledge regarding Union General David Hunter and the Battle of Lynchburg. After watching it, I have an understanding and appreciation of the vitriol that some Virginians then, and now, have concerning General Hunter and his march through the Shenandoah Valley in 1864. The film does a marvelous job in depicting the ruthlessness of Hunter and his henchmen. Hunter's band of marauders, the Army of West Virginia, routinely looted, pillaged and torched everything in their path. Their cruelty was virtually limitless and unabated. In one scene, without benefit of due process, a civilian, David Cree, is shown grotesquely hanged from a tree for the killing of a Union soldier in self defense while defending his family. The film aptly describes in detail Hunter's practice of "total war" against a nearly defenseless civilian population. Had the North not won the war, in all likelihood, Hunter would have been tried as a war criminal.

As a strategic hub for the transportation of war matériel, the City of Lynchburg was rightfully considered a plum by Northern strategists. General Ulysses Grant devised a plan to have Philip Sheridan attack from the south, eventually meeting up with David Hunter's forces in Lynchburg, thereby creating a pincer effect. Prior to Lynchburg, Hunter's thugs had experienced a relatively easy time rampaging through the Shenandoah Valley. That was until he came up against a force of battle-hardened, veteran Confederate troops, including the legendary Stonewall Brigade led by General Jubal Early. As with most bullies, once squarely confronted, Hunter withdrew. Interestingly, a ruse used by Confederate forces had the desired effect of making Hunter believe that General Early had more forces at his disposal than he actually had. During the night of June 18, 1864 Confederate forces ran a locomotive in and out of the Lynchburg depot, accompanied by train whistles and raucous cheering from Lynchburg's citizenry. Hunter naively believed that he was vastly outnumbered.

Over the years movie goers have grown spoiled watching panoramic battle scenes. The grandiose cinematography in films such as Gettysburg and Gods and Generals act to provide a standard as to what audiences should expect when watching a film involving large battle scenes. This is unfair, since most producers do not have limitless resources to film battle scenes with any measure of authenticity. Gregory H. Starbuck, the director of Hunter's Raid, handles this potential problem well. Even with a limited budget I never got the impression that the battle action was contrived or inaccurate, like for instance the battle scenes shown in the film, The Blue and the Gray.

In recommending Hunter's Raid, the film served to broaden my knowledge concerning the forbearance of Lynchburg citizenry during the waning months of the War for Southern Independence.

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