(ARC ENTERTAINMENT/BOSCH MEDIA/TREDEGAR FILMWORKS/BROOKWELL-MCNAMARA ENTERTAINMENT (95 minutes/Rated PG-13); 2014)
I am a Civil War nut! I love reading and studying about the era. It is, without a doubt, one of the few truly defining moments in this country’s history. The events leading up to the bloodiest conflict in America’s relatively young past divided the Republic along, not only ideological lines, but territorial lines, as well. As the Southern States began to feel the economic pinch from the Northern States over – among other things – tariffs for their goods, states’ rights of sovereignty and slavery, plans were formulated for their secession from the Union. As has been well documented through historical records, in many instances, the actions taken on both sides of this divide led to fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins and best friends facing each other from different sides of the battlefield.
FIELD OF LOST SHOES (Sean Marquette, Nolan Gould, Luke Benward, Max Lloyd-Jones, Parker Croft, Josh Zuckerman) (photo courtesy: BOSCH MEDIA)
Over the years, there have been some really well made movies about the Civil War (SHENANDOAH, starring Jimmy Stewart, has been a long-time favorite) and some fairly crappy ones (okay… here’s where you get out your torches and pitchforks and chase me through the woods… GONE WITH THE WIND immediately comes to mind); FIELD OF LOST SHOES is poised to take its place as one of the best films ever about one of the worst times in American history. The film follows seven of the 257 cadets (all between the ages of 15 and 24) from the Virginia Military Institute forced into active service on May 11, 1864 and into the action at the Battle of New Market on the 15th. The Confederate commander, Major General John C Breckinridge (a brilliantly understated and tortured performance from Jason Isaacs), was loathe to use the cadets but, when reinforcements didn’t show up in time, he reluctantly sent them forward. Breckinridge gave orders to the VMI’s commanding officer, Captain Chinook (a character portrayed by Courtney Gains and who is, apparently, a composite of Colonel Scott Shipp and Captains Frank Preston and Henry A Wise, among others) to keep the cadets at least 300 yards behind the main force but, the might (and accuracy) of the Union’s artillery prompted the cadets to fill a hole in the Confederate lines, coming into direct musket and cannon fire.
FIELD OF LOST SHOES (Sean Marquette, Parker Croft, Luke Benward, Josh Zuckerman) (photo courtesy: BOSCH MEDIA)
Even though the creative team (headed by director Sean McNamara, of SOUL SURFER fame) went to painstaking lengths to be accurate (studying the few existing official records, as well as diaries and journals of some of the participants), with a movie based on an actual event, there are certain aspects added to the story – especially one that occurred more than 150 years ago – to enhance the entertainment factor. The fact that these enhancements meld seamlessly with the truth go a long way in making FIELD OF LOST SHOES the riveting film it is; the Captain Chinook character is a prime example. The movie opens in 1858, as Governor Henry Wise and his twelve year old son, John, are discussing events of the last several days, including John’s trip to Philadelphia with his mother, where they took in the play, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. Virginia’s chief executive wonders why the boy has not said anything about the play; “Because I do not agree with it,” comes the reply. The Governor, not holding to the precepts of slavery and well understanding his son’s true beliefs, takes John to a slave auction. He sends his child in to the “market” alone, hoping that he may better understand the true impact of trafficking in human lives, treating them as property, lower than even the animals of the field. In a heart-wrenching scene, a family is brought to the stage… a mother, a father and several children; the father, who had been hobbled with a broken leg, pleads with the “masters” to keep his family together. With the mother bringing only $400, the auctioneer asks the buyer if he will take the entire family; he says that he can’t really afford to feed the one he just bought and has no need for the husband and children, telling the mother, “You can have more children.” Young John Wise has his eyes opened as the devastated family are brutally ripped apart; their lives and his are forever changed.
FIELD OF LOST SHOES (Jason Isaacs) (photo courtesy: BOSCH MEDIA)
The movie moves ahead in time five years, with John (Luke Benward) now a cadet at the prestigious Virginia Military Institute. From this point forward, the film focuses on Wise and his “band of brothers,” five fast friends – as diverse as the nation that spawned them – and a new cadet, a “rat,” as they were (and still are) called, whom they take under their collective wings, saying that forevermore, he will be known as “Sir Rat.” As the political rhetoric and the war intensify, we are privy to the inner turmoil brought to bear on these seven young men and, indeed, the entire populace of the VMI, including its instructors and staff. They are torn between their commitment and pledge to the United States military and their allegiance to their home, the Commonwealth of Virginia… a scenario that was actually played out from the very top of the Federal government to the ranking officers of the country’s military to the farmers and businessmen throughout the land, including its territories to the west. This conflict of conscience and loyalties is nowhere played out as well as a particularly touching and telling four minute scene where Breckinridge, the former vice president of the United States, meets the seven cadets on the eve of the battle. I don’t usually quote a lot of dialogue from the films I review, but this exchange is so well done and poignant that I can’t help but quote it nearly in its entirety.
FIELD OF LOST SHOES (David Arquette) (photo courtesy: BOSCH MEDIA)
After asking the cadets to sit, Breckinridge tells them, “Well, the purpose of this little visit is because it’s my fault you’re here. In many ways, it’s my fault that everyone is here in this valley, because when I was vice president, I tried to solve this problem and I could not. Now, good men from the North and South will die here and I will have some difficult decisions tomorrow, some of which may involve you.” He asks for the cadets’ thoughts on the war and their future plans. Jack Stanard (Zach Roerig), young Wise’s nemesis before the order to march, offers his opinion first, “We find ourselves invaded by a conquering army who I must consider foreign invaders. Defending our homeland is an imperative and I can’t understand anyone who thinks otherwise.” Next, cadet Thomas Garland Jefferson (a descendant of President Thomas Jefferson, played by Parker Croft) sums up the feelings of many of the landed gentry of the south: “My family’s owned a plantation for close to a hundred and fifty years, so I’m defending my heritage and my future. But, that ain’t the whole of it. I believe folks of a certain class have a heavy responsibility. We must use our position to see that the common folk among us are cared for.” In a line that could have been quite condescending, Isaacs’ quiet, unassuming Breckinridge replies, “Well, we common folk sure do appreciate that.” Sam Atwill (Max Lloyd-Jones) eloquently states the feelings of most men in any war: “I think war is stupid and cruel and nowhere near as necessary as those leading the fighting like to tell themselves,” to which the General asks, “I see. And do you think I can negotiate my way out of this tomorrow?” Pausing for reflection, the cadet answers, “No. Not anymore. We will stand with you and fight.” Sir Rat, the freshman cadet Robert (a fine performance from MODERN FAMILY’s Nolan Gould), tells Breckinridge, “I will fight Grant’s bullies, sir. I tell everybody that I’m going to be a farmer but, if Mister Wise will let me, I’d like to help him be governor.” “My family and my home were burned,” relates the quiet, reflective Benjamin “Duck” Colonna (Sean Marquette), “I’ll kill as many blues tomorrow as God permits, sir.” Sir Rat introduces Moses Ezekiel (Josh Zuckerman) as a “genius artist” before Moses tells him, “I would like to try my hand at sculptor.” Ezekiel’s statue, “Virginia Mourning Her Dead,” a memorial to the VMI cadets who fought in the Battle of New Market (of the 257 called up, 10 were killed and 47 wounded), sits on the academy’s campus. General Breckinridge’s final thoughts to the group relate his feelings about the situation he has put these young men in and the belief that there is a better day coming: “I know that you must be afraid and I know because I am afraid… This war will end, I swear to you and you boys… you are the future of this country and having met you, the future will be bright.”
FIELD OF LOST SHOES (Nolan Gould, Zach Roerig, Max Lloyd-Jones) (photo courtesy: BOSCH MEDIA)
The film is filled with many equally poignant moments, maybe none more so than the sight of Sir Rat and the VMI’s black cook, “Old Judge” (Keith David in a memorable role), sifting through the mud and the dead, collecting the shoes that were lost in the battle. You see, like the movie, the place where the cadets met the Federal forces is known as “the field of lost shoes,” because several days of nearly torrential rains had turned the area into a muddy morass and many on both sides sank up to their ankles in the sucking ground, losing their shoes as they advanced. One chilling scene, as the cadets charge the Union artillery positions, sees the infantry defending the position realize, “They’re just a bunch of damn school boys! Kill ‘em all!” The battle scenes are especially well done, not pulling any punches in showing the brutality of long-range cannon and musket fire, as well as vicious hand-to-hand combat. In the background of a scene at a “field hospital,” a home where the wounded and dead are brought, you get a glimpse of a surgeon amputating a wounded man’s leg. The entire film is beautifully shot and masterfully staged; pay close attention as the cadets are marching toward the Shenandoah Valley and John Wise meets the gaze of a very familiar face. Heck, even the prerequisite love interest is well done (with Mary Mouser as the coy Libby Clinedinst), though, inevitably, as we know from the start, doomed. Aside from the young stars, you can look for Lauren Holly as Libby’s mother; Tom Skerritt as a particularly grizzled Ulysses Grant; and former World Championship Wrestling heavyweight title holder, David Arquette, as Union Captain Henry A DuPont. FIELD OF LOST SHOES is rated PG-13 and the only concern I would have for letting kids under 10 or so watch is the very real looking battle sequences and, especially, the resultant battlefield carnage. While not centered on one family like the aforementioned SHENANDOAH (and not as melodramatic), the film is every bit as touching and heart-wrenching in its depiction of the Civil War and far more historically accurate.