Thursday, May 08, 2008

Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg offer outstanding short history films

In Virginia and the colonial areas of America in general, museums can be a source of good short films. I’ve already reviewed some Newseum (Washington DC) short films.

Yesterday I visited George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, on the Potomac River 10 miles south of Alexandria, and the visitor is first shown an introductory film in the luxurious auditorium of the Ford Orientation Center.

There is a seven minute video tour of the property (which is privately owned by a non-profit historical foundation, similar to Colonial Williamsburg) followed by an 18-minute film “We Fight to Be Free,” directed by Kees von Oostrum, from Greystone Films and financed by Ford. The 18-minute film sets up the crossing of the Deleware River on Christmas Eve, Day and Night of 1776, and looks back to the time when George Washington (played by Sebastian Roche) met Martha Custis in 1758, and then when he took battlefield command in the French and Indian Wars from Gen. Braddock when the latter was killed in a skirmish (a major road in Fairfax County is named after him). The film implies that had he not gotten command then, the outcome of the Revolutionary War would have been different. He looks to old to be 26 in the 1758 flashback.

The film is shot in full 2.35 : 1 and with such precision that it looks like a 70 mm print. The theater turns off the credits before the technical information is shown. The film is made in the visual style of the Cinemascope or Cinerama historical spectacles from Fox and MGM in the late 50s and throughout the 60s, but with modern dolby digital pinpoint sound and a postromantic full orchestra score by South African (and British) composer Trevor Jones, that would yield an effective concert suite.

Another good museum film is “Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot” (1957) at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center, directed by George Seaton, a 34-minute film from Paramount in the original VistaVision process. A delegate and his son struggle with questions of conscience and the prospect that war could destroy their plantation. I saw this film on a high school field trip in the spring of 1961.

The Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville Battlefield memorials in Virginia show 20 minute films about their respective Civil War battles, with the Fredericksburg film narrated by James Earl Jones and showing the sacrifices of their citizens, some of whom left pianos in the street.

Update: July 2

The Education Center at Mt. Vernon offers some other short film experiences, sometimes with other media.

George Washington: Commander in Chief (Moore Productions, 14 min) is shown in a stadium style auditorium with sensurround and even Kleenex snow. The screen comprises a regular 2.35:1 surface, with an ovoid form below. The film covers the battles of Boston, Trenton (the Deleware River 1776 crossing at Christmas) and Yorktown. The film consists of animation and drawings, with embedded live-action shots from the battles, and various figures on the oval form, like the stripes of colonial flags. The final battle of Yorktown is depicted as a long siege, with Washington laying out a jigsaw line and slowly encroaching. The Americans won "with home field advantage" despite enormous British military power in the beginning. No wonder the concept of the "Yankees" was born.

Eulogy (6 min) is a tribute to George Washington at his passing, with a children's choir singing patriotic hymns. The images are shown on a Cinerama-like screen.

A Most Private Romance (10 min), narrated by Glenn Close, is a retrospect of his forty year marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis, who was already widowed when he married her in 1759. They raised John and Daniel, two children of her previous marriage, but never had their own children. There is one scene where they are playing a chess game and he resigns his position! (She has White.) He stopped at Mt. Vernon only once during the Revolutionary War, to plan the final battle of Yorktown.

Although a total coincidence, I visited Mt. Vernon today on the same day that the news media released a story about the archeology of the ruins of George Washington's boyhood home in Stafford County, VA, near the Rappahanock River. Eventually these will be visible to the public.

No comments: