Blue and Gray on the Silver Screen

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2010, All Rights Reserved

Michael Kraus, curator of the Pittsburgh Soldiers & Sailors Monument and Museum, offered a very interesting and original program at the Roundtable’s October 14 meeting. He spoke about the Civil War on film, and his own involvement in the productions of Gettysburg and Cold Mountain. Hollywood turned to the Civil War as a dramatic topic very early on, with dozens of movies (most of them very short) being made about the war annually by the 1920s. Kraus discussed how Lost Cause mythology took early root on the Silver Screen, with both Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind sympathetically reflecting it. (He was intrigued afterwards when I told him that a 10-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. had sung with the Ebenezer Baptist Church choir at the segregated premiere of GWTW in Atlanta in 1939.)

He said he usually has only a few weeks’ notice when a production company needs his help as a consultant. He got involved in Gettysburg, for instance, on very short notice. The 1993 Turner Entertainment film was originally called by the Michael Shaara novel’s name of The Killer Angels, but studio research showed that the title confused potential audiences, so it was changed. Much of the movie was filmed on Pennsylvanian countryside near Gettysburg that was very similar to the battlefield itself, but Pickett’s Charge was filmed on the actual hallowed ground. (The on-set rumor was that Ted Turner used his White House contacts to get an order for the Park Service, with great reluctance, to let them film there). The scene of Gen. Robert E. Lee riding along the lines and being cheered by his men was completely spontaneous, with cameras rushed in to capture it. Kraus said that actor Martin Sheen, as Lee, was a little taken aback – if not scared – by how loud and excited the troops were.

Tom Berenger as James Longstreet in Gettysburg

With a laugh, Kraus wisely offered no defense of Tom Berenger’s beard as Gen. James Longstreet, and said by the time he and other historical consultants had been brought on board, too much footage had already been shot of the actor in the terrible beard to redo it. Berenger also hated his big floppy hat so much that he took it off whenever he could. Kraus showed slides of the same horse being ridden by several different actors (including himself when he appeared as an extra in either blue and gray, as needed). The movie horses were all old and tired, he said, and had to be spurred hard to get them to go anywhere; on the plus side, they were not bothered by simulated explosions and gunfire. There were also fake equine and human corpses that would be loaded on trailers and strewn about the set each morning, then picked up again at the end of the day’s shooting. One of Kraus’s jobs, he joked, was keeping the pudgier reenactors away from the cameras except in long shots; canny troops came to realize that if they stood near a flag they had a better chance of making it onscreen.

Cold Mountain, based on the best-selling novel by Charles Frazier and released by Miramax in 2003, was filmed in Romania, as the director decided there was not enough of North Carolina left unspoiled to portray the state in the 1860s. It was also much cheaper to film in the impoverished European country. A replica Petersburg Crater was dug, larger than the original, but on screen it looks about right, he thinks. Local craftsmen built many of the props and painted the regimental flags, including one which spelled “Pennsylvania” with an extra “n.” Much to Kraus’s delight, it was a replica of the flag of a regiment in which one of his ancestors had served. The hundreds of troops, both Union and Confederate, were actually Romanian Army soldiers. They would be marched out from a nearby barracks every morning, sing the Romanian national anthem, and then be turned over to the production company for the day.

Although proud of his involvement in these two films, Kraus thinks Glory is still the best Civil War movie yet made. He said he knows of no Civil War-themed movies now definitely on a production track. Manhunt, based on the James L. Swanson book about the Lincoln assassination and Booth’s escape, has been in the works for awhile, with Harrison Ford rumored to be starring. Kraus has heard that there’s been some location scouting for it in the Washington, D.C. area. ( now suggests it might become an HBO miniseries.) He also said Steven Spielberg’s project, which was to star Liam Neeson and Sally Field as the President and Mrs. Lincoln, seems to be stalled, at least for the moment.

Editor’s note: The Steven Spielberg project mentioned in the article was eventually completed and became the movie Lincoln.