Sunday, January 04, 2009
"Manassas: End of Innocence": Battlefield Park documentary is quite harrowing
Manassas National Battlefield Park, operated by the U.S. Park Service, offers an impressive 45-minute film “Manassas: End of Innocence”, filmed in 2002 by Congaree Productions, directed by Ben Burtt, and written by Ray Herbeck, Jr. The Park charges $3 a ticket for the 45 minute documentary even to pass holders because of a legal arrangement necessary to pay back debts associated with the film. (Yes, that’s one way to bail out a production company: ask the customers to actually pay for it’s product; sounds pretty logical under capitalism).
The film dramatizes the Civil War (War Between the States) Battle of First Manassas (July 1861) and Second Manassas (August 1862), also called the First of Bill Run and Second Battle of Bull Run).
The first battle involved a farmhouse belonging to Wilmer McClean (a Washington suburb is named after him); he would take his family south, to Appommatox, where in his own parlor the War would end (as covered in Ken Burns's "The Civil War").
Both sides, despite the amateur nature of their armies in the beginning, expected the First Battle to be the only Battle of the War. (Hence the film’s subtitle.) On a hill overlooking Bull Run, people from Washington (25 miles away) gathered to watch and have picnics. At the time, Union soldiers had 90-day enlistment contracts, and Lincoln feared that the contracts would run out before the War ended. A draft (with a $300 buyout) would follow (in April 1862), a point important to the film “Gangs of New York” (2002, Miramax, dir. Martin Scorsese) when the New York draft riots erupt. But at the time of this first Battle, nobody expected that.
Virginia landowners didn’t want their slaves to know “the meaning of the War” (although the “meaning” as much about the Union as slavery). Nevertheless, the slaves gradually learned the stakes. But the real heart of the film has a local wife going to the Stone House, converted to a field hospital, looking for her (Confederate) husband soldier, treated by a Union surgeon. Just before seeing her spouse, she sees a soldier’s leg being sawed off, without anesthesia or antiseptics, in a room with other organs and body parts strewn around, a gruesome scene and one of the most graphic I’ve ever encountered at the movies.
The film is quite realistic in other ways. Teenagers are shown training to become soldiers, and a teenage boy is asked to count the dead in a ditch but gets sick and stops. Earlier in the film, the gentry in Washington are shown, with the Capitol with its dome still under construction quite realistically shown with CGI programming. Lincoln decided to keep building the Dome to give the public confidence in keeping the Union together. (Had the Union lost, Washington might not have remained the capital of the North since Maryland had such a strong secessionist presence.