Book Review: “Dooley!”


A Novel by Charlotte Corbin Barnes

©2019 Barnes and Barnes Video Productions


The story of Tom Dooley and the murder of Laura Foster is one that has fascinated people for decades. The murder of an innocent girl, and who was actually behind the heinous crime, is a mystery that continues to inspire storytellers the world over. Charlotte Corbin Barnes is no stranger to the Tom Dooley legend, having been fascinated by the story when she first heard the Kingston Trio’s version of the popular ballad when she was a child. She amassed a wealth of information about the story, interviewing many people, and gathering as much historical documentation as is possible.

The plethora of information became the basis for her previous book, the history/autobiography The Tom Dooley Files: My Search for the Truth Behind the Legend. Now, she returns to the tale with her first novel, Dooley! A work of historical fiction, Mrs. Barnes uses the novel to tell what she believes happened on that fateful day in May of 1866, and in the years before and after.

Dooley! begins in the late Winter of 1868, when newspaper reporter Albert Deane Richardson is sent by the head of the New York Herald down to Statesville, North Carolina to cover the hanging of Tom Dooley for the murder of Laura Foster. Richardson has other reasoning for covering the story: having escaped the Confederate Prisoner camp in Salisbury, North Carolina, he was aided in his efforts by the people of the mountains, including a young girl named Laura Foster. Having written about his exploits, he changed names to protect the people that helped him and others escape. But he wonders if his work got Laura killed. Upon arriving in Statesville, he learns that the hanging has been postponed upon appeal by Dooley’s defense attorneys. With enough time on his hands, Richardson decides to make another visit to the village of Elkville. Taking on the persona of a schoolteacher named Robert Cummings, he returns to the place where he and other escaped prisoners were hidden, to find out for certain who killed Laura Foster.

Dooley! works as both a fascinating work of historical fiction, and as a murder mystery/suspense thriller, as the main character searches for the truth behind one of the first highly publicized crimes of passion. Combining historical figures and situations within a fictionalized story, Mrs. Barnes crafts a real page-turner, as she presents all the facts surrounding the case, and presents her arguments for who killed Laura Foster, and why. The novel does take a while to get going, as it takes the first third of the novel to get Richardson from New York, to Statesville, and finally to the village of Elkville. The novel then gets both compelling, and emotionally involving, as we are introduced to the people of the area, and the mountain settings that are beautiful in their descriptions, but also hide grim facts behind a people unwilling to consider themselves the defeated in a terrible Civil War, while also hiding the truth behind a murder that shocked a state.

While a work of fiction, Mrs. Barnes’ painstaking attention to the true details of the story allow her to create a work that is believable, allowing for a unique interpretation of the Tom Dooley/Laura Foster story. In it, she gives her reasons for why she believes Tom Dooley was innocent of the murder, and tells who she thinks actually carried out the heinous crime, and why. Minor Spoiler: Mrs. Barnes also takes some great risks with the novel. The biggest being that the title character of the book doesn’t show up until the very end, as he prepares to face the hangman on a hill overlooking Statesville town. Spoiler Ends. The book is also suspenseful, as Richardson undertakes his investigation, while also keeping his real identity a secret, as others begin to suspect that he is more than just a schoolteacher wanting to educate the people of the town.

Overall, Dooley! is an exciting, suspenseful novel that takes a unique look at one history’s greatest true-life murder mysteries. Fans of both the Historical Fiction and Mystery genres will find much to appreciate in Charlotte Corbin Barnes’ wonderful novel.

Grade: 9/10 (A-)

History and Hollywood Meet: The 25th Anniversary Screening of “Gettysburg”

It was a cool, overcast morning on Saturday, October 13th, 2018, as my Dad, my friend and fellow filmmaker JD Mayo, and myself packed the car for the seven-hour drive from Greensboro, North Carolina to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to attend the 25th Anniversary screening of the classic Civil War film, Gettysburg. For JD and me, this is the film that got us interested in history, and eventually led us to become filmmakers ourselves. Director Ron Maxwell, and several members of the cast and crew would be in attendance, giving us the opportunity to meet some of the people who were a part of this landmark film about the bloodiest battle in American history. For both of us, it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up!

We arrived in Gettysburg around 2 PM and got to our hotel room. We originally planned to relax for a little bit before heading out. However, Frank Beachem, a Civil War reenactor who we both worked with on JD’s films Our War and Fire in the Forest, told us that parking was already getting crazy in town, and to get their asap! So, we put on our best dress clothes, and were quickly out the door! Anybody who’s been to Gettysburg know that the worst thing about being there can be the traffic getting into downtown. I’ve heard some say that Gettysburg is the “busiest small town in the world,” due to the number of visitors who come to visit the battlefield. Well, they weren’t lying! Still, despite the traffic, we were able to find parking, and get to the Majestic Theater around 3:30, well ahead of the 5 PM start of the event.


Majestic Theater in Gettysburg

On the drive up, JD kept up with the Facebook posts about the screening. Ron Maxwell posted that the event was sold out, bringing 800 people to see the film. Within an hour of arriving, that estimate seemed accurate. We were among the first to arrive. But by the time they started seating us at 4:30, hundreds of people were crowding into the theater lobby. Several reenactors who were part of the filming of Gettysburg back in 1992 were there, dressed in their uniforms, representing their units at the screening. Our first sighting of an actor happened about half an hour after arriving, when Patrick Falci, who portrayed Confederate General A.P. Hill in the film, arrived in his uniform for the event. Even 25 years on, he still looked the part of the General (He would reprise the role in Gettysburg: Three Days of Destiny, the 140th Reenactment Video). As we got our seats, and started to settle in, we started looking around. The only one we recognized at first was Brian Mallon, who played General Winfield Scott Hancock in both Gettysburg and its prequel, Gods and Generals.

The event began at 5 PM, with Bill Sellers, the President of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Trust, giving a few remarks, before introducing the Allen C. Cuelzo, who offered a few comments on the film’s historical significance, before he introduced the film’s director, Ron Maxwell. During his opening remarks, Mr. Maxwell talked at length about some of the experiences of making the film. His longest piece was about the great moment in the film where Confederate soldiers are cheering for Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) prior to Pickett’s Charge. He stated that the scene was not planned but was a spontaneous moment that was thankfully caught on film. Maxwell stated that the scene took place on a hot, demanding day. To boost the morale of the reenactors, he asked Mr. Sheen, who had a rare day off from the production, if he would sit through the 90-minute makeup process and ride out on set as Robert E. Lee. He agreed to do so. Less than two hours later, Sheen rode out on set as Lee, and the men, seeing not the actor, but Robert E. Lee himself, the men cheered wildly for the man, and the crew were able to get the cameras rolling to capture it on film.


Director Ron Maxwell at the screening.

The most surprising part of his opening remarks, and the most fun part, was when Mr. Maxwell played a trivia game with the audience, where he would quote a line from the movie, and the audience would say which character said it. Many people didn’t miss a beat, including myself. With each quote stated, somebody in the audience had the answer within just a second or two. Toward the end, Mr. Maxwell, a big smile on his face, stated that he “couldn’t stump this crowd.” Afterward, he introduced the cast and crew in the attendance that night. One by one, they all stood up: Brian Mallon, Patrick Gorman, Olivia Maxwell, Bo Brinkman, James Patrick Stuart, Patrick Falci, Stephen Lang, Andrew Prine, and Composer Randy Edelman. We looked around as they stood. We sat near the back, right in front of the projection screen. We looked to our right, and just twenty feet away were Mr. Lang, Mr. Gorman, Mr. Falci, and Ms. Maxwell. People who had been in a movie that impacted our lives, just twenty feet away! JD and I did fanboy just a little bit, haha!

Ron Maxwell then introduced Dr. James I. “Bud” Robertson, alumni distinguished professor of Virginia Tech, to introduce the film. Dr. Robertson is a historian I have admired for over a decade now. He wrote the seminal work, Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Myth, the Legend, considered by many to be the definitive work on the Confederate General. He also served as a historical advisor on Gods and Generals. In his terrific introduction to the film, he spoke about the importance of the film; how Ron Maxwell adapted Michael Shaara’s novel “The Killer Angels” for the screen, while also correcting some of the historical errors the book made. He also addressed the current move by groups to remove monuments, and by those trying to rewrite the history of men like Robert E. Lee. It was a powerful introduction to the film.

Following his remarks, the film began. I won’t go into too much detail about the film itself, as much has been written about this film, more so than many others in the genre. The one thing I will say about the film was the amazing restoration done on it. Before the screening, Ron Maxwell said that we would be the first audience to see the “newly-restored Director’s Cut.” When the 271-minute extended cut of the film was released on DVD and Blu-ray in 2011, there was quite a bit of criticism of the picture quality presented. Mr. Maxwell did state that this was not the version he would have released. But, thanks to the support of Warner Bros., he was able to go back and do a full-on digital remastering the film. And let me tell you, the version we saw that night looked and sounded amazing! I haven’t seen the film look that clear and amazing since the DVD release from the early 2000s.

In a way, this screening of the film, my first time seeing it on the big screen, brought me back to that time in 1994, when at 10 years old, I watched it with my Dad for the very first time. Even at four-and-a-half hours, the film remains moving, fascinating, and exciting, the powerful performances and terrific writing keeping the movie rolling along at a fast pace, never becoming dull. Such is the testament to Ron Maxwell, and the cast and crew, who made a true classic of the historical genre, which remains powerful, even twenty-five years later.

During the intermission, we were able to meet, and get photographs with, Patrick Gorman and Brian Mallon. When I introduced myself as Steven “Hancock,” Mr. Mallon said: “Ah, Hancock! That’s a good name.” I talked a little bit with Mr. Gorman, who played Confederate General John Bell Hood in the film, and got my photo with him as well. I returned to my seat and waited for the second part to begin. JD came back a few minutes later, saying that he got his picture taken with Olivia Maxwell as well. Despite the event running late into the evening, the excitement we felt going in never waned through those several hours.

With Patrick Gorman and Brian Mallon

Unlike most screenings like this, where the cast and crew stand come up during the end credits, Mr. Maxwell wished for us to sit through the entirety of the film’s closing credits, so the reenactors in the film could see their units listed toward the end, and cheer for them. Although neither of us were a part of the production, we still cheered when Dad and I saw our reenacting unit, the 49th North Carolina Troops, listed amongst the units who took part in filming. Following the screening, which ended around 11 PM, Mr. Maxwell and the cast and crew went up for a proper curtain call, and each member of the cast and crew introduced themselves to the excited audience. They all took a bow, and afterward, we were invited to come back out to the lobby, for autographs and pictures with the stars.


Curtain Call with Cast and Crew. L to R are: James Patrick Stuart, Andrew Prine, Patrick Gorman, Bo Brinkman, Brian Mallon, Patrick Falci, Olivia Anne Maxwell, Stephen Lang, Randy Edelman and Ron Maxwell.

Dad and JD each brought their copy of the Collector’s Set of Gettysburg and Gods and Generals to sign. For myself, I brought my Blu-ray digibook edition of Gettysburg to have signed. Without intending it, this provided a little bit of amusement to the proceedings. First to sign was Brian Mallon, who looked for a spot where he could sign his name above a picture of him and the Union officers in the film. Next to sign was Patrick Falci, who I had sign the inside of the front cover. Andrew Prine and Olivia Maxwell signed there as well.

The next two in line were Bo Brinkman, who portrayed Major Walter Taylor, one of Lee’s aides in the film, and Stephen Lang, who portrayed Confederate General George Pickett (And would give an equally-great performance as “Stonewall” Jackson in Gods and Generals). I opened the book up to a picture of the Confederate officers in the film, in which Mr. Lang and Mr. Brinkman are featured. When I handed it to Mr. Brinkman, he flipped through the book.

“I haven’t seen this version before,” he said. “When did this come out?”

“Came out the same year the collector’s set came out,” I replied.

“That’s awesome,” he said, before signing his name. He then handed it to Mr. Lang, who looked through it as well for a second.

“That’s pretty cool,” Mr. Lang remarked, before signing his name. It next went to James Patrick Stuart, who portrayed Confederate Colonel E. Porter Alexander in the film. Mr. Stuart had the same reaction that Mr. Brinkman had to the digibook, before signing his name next to a photo of him with Tom Berenger as General Longstreet (Who sadly was not in attendance that night).

Next, Mr. Gorman signed his name in the front. “What is your name again,” he asked?

“Steven, with a V,” I replied. He then signed it with the message: “Steven, thanks for coming, Patrick Gorman. J.B. Hood.”

Last, but certainly not least, was Mr. Ron Maxwell. The man who devoted fifteen years of his life to getting Gettysburg made, and created a film that has withstood the test of time for 25 years. I had him sign his introduction to the film and booklet. He looked through the digibook for a second. “I almost forgot about this one,” he said. He then looked at the picture of him with Mr. Sheen and Mr. Brinkman.

“Almost didn’t recognize myself for a second,” he said, as he signed below his name.

“That comes with age, I’m afraid,” my Dad remarked.

I almost felt embarrassed for a moment, before I heard Mr. Maxwell chuckle. I had hoped to have a few moments to talk with him about his films, and how they inspired us to become both historians and filmmakers. But given the lateness of the hour, I just thanked him for making the movies, and got a quick photo with him, before we departed.


With Director Ron Maxwell (R)

My one regret from the night is I didn’t get photos with any of the other actors, including Mr. Lang! But, JD was able to snap a photo with him, and you could see the top of my head in it. So, I was in a photo with Steven Lang, haha!


JD with Stephen Lang. My head can be seen over JD’s shoulder. Bo Brinkman sits to Mr. Lang’s left, about to sign my Blu-ray of the film.

It was after midnight when we got back to our hotel. We were exhausted but had a great time at the event. The staff of the Majestic Theater did a great job of organizing the event with the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Trust. It was a night that none of us who were there would ever forget. Seeing the film on the big screen for the first time and getting to meet some of the cast and crew who worked on this amazing piece of cinema, was a truly memorable experience. And the weekend was just starting, as we would be visiting the Gettysburg battlefield the following day. But, that’s another story…

ADDENDUM: Ron Maxwell said at the event that the version of the film we saw that night will be available digitally very soon. So, keep a look out on Amazon and other streaming devices for the fully-restored version of the Director’s Cut!

Book Review: “The Tom Dooley Files”

The Tom Dooley Files: My Search for the Truth Behind the Legend

By Charlotte Corbin Barnes

©2016 Barnes and Barnes Video Productions, Inc.

By the summer of 1865, the American Civil War was finally coming to an end. Confederate soldiers imprisoned at places such as Point Lookout were finally being paroled and allowed to return to their homes. For many of these soldiers, they simply wanted to return to the life they knew before the war and live out the rest of their lives in peace. But for Thomas C. Dula (aka “Tom Dooley”), a veteran of the 42nd North Carolina Infantry, those dreams of a peaceful life would not come to be. Within a year of returning home, he found himself the main suspect in the murder of a young girl named Laura Foster, and on the run from authorities. He would eventually be arrested in Tennessee and stand trial twice for the murder. Despite having nothing but circumstantial evidence against him, he was ultimately found guilty of the crime, and sentenced to be hanged. On May 1st, 1868, he was hung in Statesville for a crime that he swore he was innocent of until the very end. To this day, the events surrounding Tom Dula and the murder of Laura Foster remain a subject of North Carolina folklore and legend. The story would receive worldwide fame in 1958, when the Kingston Trio released their version of the folk ballad “Tom Dooley,” which became a worldwide hit for the group, and ushered in the folk music revival.


One of those introduced to the story through that folk hit was Charlotte Corbin Barnes. Bedridden for months due to illness, and fearing she may die, she identified with the song’s main figure, believing that he was innocent of the murder. In the mid-1980s, after she and her husband Bill had relocated to North Carolina and started a video production company, she would discover that the story behind the folk ballad was indeed true, starting her on a thirty-year journey to discover the truth behind the tale. Mrs. Barnes chronicles her journey, and the info that she’s uncovered, in her first published work, The Tom Dooley Files: My Search for the Truth Behind the Legend, published in 2016. The book is already being described as the “Tom Dooley Bible,” and received the 2017 Book of the Year Award from the North Carolina Society of Historians.

The book tells two separate, yet fascinating, stories: Charlotte Barnes’ life and journey into researching the Tom Dooley story, and the story of Thomas C. Dula and the events surrounding his arrest, trial, and execution. Both stories are told simultaneously, but the narrative never become confusing. Instead, the reader joins Mrs. Barnes on her journey, as she attempts to uncover all the facts surrounding the Tom Dula case and discover for certain what happened in May of 1866. Through her fascinating narrative, Mrs. Barnes introduces us to the three main players in the story: Tom, the philandering ex-Confederate; Laura Foster, a pretty girl who became one of Tom’s many loves, and the tragic victim of the circumstances, and; Ann Foster Melton, a cousin of Laura’s, who despite being married to another man, also vies for the affections of Tom. As the story unfolds, jealousy, sexual immorality (culminating in all three apparently contracting syphilis), and anger lead to the tragic murder of Laura, and Tom is soon after implicated in the crime. Throughout the book’s 500 pages, this story is built upon, as more and more information come to light about the events surrounding this tragic affair.

As part of her research, Mrs. Barnes and her husband conducted several video interviews with descendants of the key players in the story, historians, and others who kept the stories and folk tales going throughout the centuries, all of which would be amassed in a documentary about the story. All these interviews are presented in their entirety in this book, giving us many different variations on the stories, and how legend and history became intermixed over the years. Although a number of these stories aren’t entirely based on fact, it is fascinating to see how legend and folklore mixed into the story over the years, and how the stories are still as potent and dramatic today as they were in 150 years since the story took place. To have these interviews preserved here is a testament to the enduring legacy of the Tom Dooley story in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina.

In addition to these interviews, Mrs. Barnes also uses The Tom Dooley Files to showcase the many primary documents unearthed through her research. Going through hundreds of books, newspaper and magazine articles, genealogical records, state records and censuses, and the existing trial records and testimonies, Mrs. Barnes amasses a plethora of documentation, shedding light on the story in greater detail than any work has done before. The writer also sheds light on the political situation in North Carolina between 1866 and 1868, as the events of reconstruction may have played a hand in how the trial played out. One of the aspects covered is how former Confederate Governor of North Carolina, Zebulon B. Vance, went from being held prisoner, to ultimately being allowed to resume practicing law, and ultimately taking on the case of Tom Dula and Ann Foster Melton (Who was tried as an accessory in the murder). It is an element of the story that has never really been detailed before but is done so here with great success!

Another fascinating element of this book is Mrs. Barnes’ account of her encounters with others who wrote about the story. Among those other writers she dealt with was John Foster West, a historian from Appalachian State, who published the book The Ballad of Tom Dula in 1970. Unfortunately, Mr. West never endeared himself to the people of the area where the story took place, practically calling those who kept the story alive through oral histories liars. Still, Mrs. Barnes interviewed Mr. West for her research, and shared some of the information she collected, which Mr. West would later use for a second book on the subject, Lift Up Your Head, Tom Dooley, published in 1993. The story of her interactions with, and reactions to, John Foster West provide some of the book’s most entertaining elements, actually adding a level of humor to the proceedings.

But the book’s greatest strength, outside of the amazing collection of interviews and information presented, is the story of Mrs. Barnes’ relationship with Edith Ferguson Carter. It was an article about Mrs. Carter creating a Tom Dooley Museum in the area in 1986 that led her to start her own journey. The book chronicles how Charlotte and Edith first corresponded, and how their shared fascination with the Tom Dooley story led to a friendship that would last until Mrs. Carter’s untimely death in 2014. That friendship shines through poignantly in The Tom Dooley Files, as Mrs. Carter helps the author in her research, and encourages her to write this book on the subject. The chronicle of Mrs. Carter’s funeral, and how her life impacted all around her in positive ways, is the book’s most touching moment, leaving those who didn’t know her feeling the importance of this woman, and her impact on the area.

With The Tom Dooley Files, Charlotte Corbin Barnes has written a book that works both as a historical narrative, and as an autobiography, telling of her many years of research into the story, and the new evidence that she uncovered during that work. Despite the many different story elements that are presented, the narrative never falters, or becomes confusing, keeping the reader fascinated through the book’s nearly 500 pages. If you have a fascination with the Tom Dooley story, or are just looking for something great to read, then The Tom Dooley Files is a book that you’ll find more than worth the time put into it.

Grade: 9/10 (A-)

ADDENDUM: Charlotte Corbin Barnes is currently at work on a historical fiction novel entitled DOOLEY!, which chronicles the story from the perspective of the newspaper reporter who covers the hanging. With this work, Mrs. Barnes will rely on the plethora of information she’s collected on the story, to tell what she believes happened during that fateful Spring of 1866, and in the years that followed.

MOVIE REVIEW: “Union Bound” (2016)

Union Bound (Uptone Pictures, Moving Box Entertainment, Weathervane, 2016)

Starring: Sean Stone, Randy Wayne, Tank Jones, Trish Cooks

Written by John Errington

Produced by Michael Davis

Directed by Harvey Lowry


The Civil War is a period of American history that is full of amazing stories waiting to be told. The four years between 1861-1865, in which 750,000 lives (New estimates based on recent research) were lost, has many tales of heroism, tragedy, comedy, and excitement. One such story is that of Joseph Hoover, a Union Sergeant from New York. Captured by Confederate troops during the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864, he was shipped off to Andersonville Prison in Georgia, before being transferred to other prisoner of war camps, before ultimately being taken to South Carolina. From that camp, he escapes with a soldier named Thomas Ryan, and with help of local slaves, makes his way back to the Union lines. He serves until the end of the war, is wounded, and eventually wins the Medal of Honor. The story of his capture and escape are the subject of the film Union Bound.

Beginning with the Wilderness fight, Union Bound focuses on the time in which Hoover (Sean Stone, son of filmmaker Oliver Stone) is taken to the prisoner camp in South Carolina, from which he makes his escape with Ryan (Randy Wayne), making their way toward Union-controlled New Bern, North Carolina. Along the way, they are aided by several slaves, including Jim (Tank Jones), who ends up joining them for a time in their quest to freedom. The trio face many obstacles along the way, and there are moments when it looks like their efforts will be in vain.

The story of Hoover and his journey to freedom is definitely a compelling one. And the fact that he was aided by those men and women in bondage makes for a well-rounded story. But sadly, the film does not do that story justice. The major problem with this film are pacing issues. Clocking in at an hour and forty-three minutes (Quite long for an independent movie), Union Bound feels like a rough cut that wasn’t edited properly before other elements were attended to. Certain scenes in the film tend to drag at times, while others offer nothing to the furtherance of the story, and could have been cut altogether. Because of these unnecessary moments are left in, the film drags along too often, and the film never fully justifies its running time. Had 10-15 minutes been removed, these pacing issues would’ve been resolved for the most part.

The acting is also an issue with the film. Though he has proved himself as a good documentary filmmaker (His documentary Fight Against Time, about the making of his father’s film about Alexander the Great, is a great piece), Sean Stone’s acting talents leave a lot to be desired. Although he is not a terrible actor, he seems to be coasting along as Hoover in the film. Trish Cooks, who plays a southern plantation owner (And owner of the slave Jim), gives the film’s most questionable performance, which is sadly emblematic of most of the acting in this film.

Randy Wayne, as Hoover’s companion Thomas Ryan, does some fine work in his role, presenting a character who is a bit of a scoundrel, but still likable in his own way. But as far as the acting goes, Tank Jones gives Union Bound its finest performance as Jim. Jones does a great job at accurately portraying a slave from the period, and his performance elevates the film from a lot of its issues. His character is the best developed, as we see him deal with devastating blows (Including the death of his mother at the hands of her master), and go from being reluctant to help Hoover and Ryan escape, to one who is willing to risk his life to help others to freedom. It is a role that is well-written, and Tank Jones certainly gives his all in portraying the character.

Another strong element to the film is the music. The score by Craig Brandwynne and Dane Bryant Frazier is wonderful to listen to. The main theme at the beginning of the film is a powerful piece, and that theme is heard throughout the film, and over the closing credits. The composers do great work, and add some good emotion to the film.

However, the great performance by Tank Jones, and the amazing score for the movie, can only do so much with a film that has overall hit-and-miss acting, and a plot that moves at a snails pace. In closing, Union Bound is a decent film that could have been much better, but a plodding pace, and some lackluster acting, keep it from being the powerful film it could have been.

Grade: 5.5/10 (C)

MOVIE REVIEW: “Free State of Jones”

Free State of Jones (IM Global, STX Entertainment, Huayi Brothers Media, 2016)

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Kerri Russell

Running Time: 139 Minutes

Film Rating: R for Brutal Battle Scenes and Disturbing Graphic Images



By October of 1862, the American Civil War was entering a new phase. With Confederates being pushed back from Maryland and Kentucky, Lincoln issues his Emancipation Proclamation, freeing those slaves in the states in rebellion. In the South, the Confederacy begins conscripting men into the army (A similar practice also goes on in the north, in the name of the “draft”). However, this conscription also comes with the “20 Negro Law,” meaning that those families with 20 or more slaves could be exempt from it. This policy would lead to great turmoil in the south. In particular, the state of Mississippi would see one of their own, a deserted soldier named Newton Knight, lead a band of former slaves and white subsistence farmers and other deserters against the Confederacy. For a time, Knight and his band successfully drive Confederate forces out of Jones County, and other counties, in Mississippi. With no aid from either Confederate or Union armies, they set up their own “country,” calling it the Free State of Jones County. The subject of Knight and his guerrilla band are the subject of the film Free State of Jones, a dramatic film from director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit, Pleasantville).

The film begins in October, 1862, as we see Confederate and Union forces engaged in brutal fighting near Corinth, Mississippi. Here, we are introduced to Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a soldier who’s helping bring wounded from the battlefield back to the hospital camps. When his nephew arrives after being conscripted, he does his best to keep him safe. Sadly, during trench fighting, his nephew is shot, and his attempts to get him aide at the hospital fails, ultimately leading to his death. Despondent, Knight decides to return the body back to his home, ultimately becoming a deserter. While at home, he sees the affects of the war on the people there, as the Confederate Army takes food and livestock from local farmers, leaving them with little to subsist from. Knight ultimately joins a band of freed slaves, who are soon joined by more deserters and other white farmers, who ultimately join together to fight against the Confederacy, and drive them from Jones county. We then follow Knight and his friends through the post-war period, as Reconstruction threatens to return men and women of color back into slaves, and attacks from the Ku Klux Klan send fear to all who oppose them.

Whether you view Knight and his band as heroes, fighting an oppressive system in the name of freedom, or as villains enacting brutal attacks against the government they took an oath to, there is no denying that their story is a very dramatic one, and ripe for a big-screen offering. The ideas that it espouses (Freedom and liberty, the right to own your own land, and keep what you grow for yourself, and sacrifice) are themes that are still important to this day. Knight truly believed what he fought for, and the men and women who followed him were willing to fight and die for those same ideals, even if they didn’t always agree with Knight.

It’s just a shame that this little-known story from the American Civil War couldn’t have been presented in a better film. While it is far from a horrible film, it is a disappointing one for certain. A lot of the weakness boils down to the screenplay for the film. While the film covers over fourteen years of time, it does so in a way that is downright dull at times. The filmmakers chose to devote most of the film’s screen time in the first hour to the buildup to the events leading to the creation of the Free State. While this does give us time to get to know Knight, the people he would come to lead, and how the situation affects them, it spends a little too long getting there. It is just a series of meetings between people, discussions and speeches about how things are, and what should be done about it, and long glances and walks from place to place.

When events do finally move toward driving Confederates out of Jones County, it is done, and over very quickly. What should’ve been the main focus of the film takes up just twenty or so minutes of screen time. The last forty minutes or so of the film deals with Reconstruction, and how Knight attempted to fight the return of slavery in, albeit by another name, and getting men of color the right to vote. While this part of the story is compelling, it feels by this point that the filmmakers are just wanting to tell as much of Knight’s story as possible in one film. This ends up hurting the film, as it starts to feel like too much on the plate.

What’s more, the filmmakers also chose to include a subplot with one of Knight’s descendants in 1947. The subplot tells of Davis Knight and his getting married. However, because Davis was the great-great-grandson of Knight and his wife Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a black woman, that made him 1/8 black, and therefore, a black person not eligible to marry a white in Mississippi at that time. He was sent to prison for this “crime,” but the conviction was eventually overturned. While it is also a compelling and powerful story, it deserves to be told in its own film, and not in a film whose focus was on a completely different story altogether.

And therein lies the central problem of Free State of Jones. At the end of the day, the film attempts to tell three different stories in its 139-minute running time, making it a film with very little focus. For those who might not be familiar with the era and its people, this might make the film difficult to follow. And despite these different stories, the story drags from time to time. It definitely feels more like something that should’ve been a History Channel docudrama, with historian interview thrown in (Replacing the film’s use of text titles to explain events).

However, despite these issues, there is much to admire in the film. It’s beautifully-shot, and has a very powerful cast. McConaughey does a fantastic job as Newton Knight, bringing this character to life with a realism that does make you admire what he stood for. Mbatha-Raw gives a very effective performance as Rachel, the slave and healer who eventually becomes Knight’s wife, and joins him in his quest. Mahershala Ali, as the runaway slave Moses, gives the film’s most subtle performance, understating his character’s desire to be treated as a man despite the color of his skin.

In probably the film’s most powerful moment, when Knight asks Moses why he wants to be free, he gives the film’s greatest sentiment: “Because you cannot own a child of God.” It is this scene, and the interaction between the characters, that really makes Free State of Jones come alive. We understand these people, and care for them. So, when brutal acts come to them, we are saddened and angered by their loss.

The few action scenes are well-shot and edited, giving the film a visceral impact. The recreation of the fighting around Corinth, is well-staged, exciting, and brutal. There are a few historical quibbles (Formations seem to not be consistent between shots, in addition to uniforms and equipment looking a little inaccurate), but it conveys the brutality of war, and its impact on the individual.

However, despite all the good it has going for it, this is not a film I can fully recommend. While it does have great performances, and some great technical merits in how it’s shot, Free State of Jones squanders its opportunity to tell a powerful story by delivering a film that lacks a focused narrative, and is boring at times. Only those with a real interest in the period, and learning more about this story, will find something to appreciate. But even for history buffs like myself, it leaves a lot to be desired. In the end, Free State of Jones is neither a good experience, nor a bad one. It’s just a middling experience.

Overall Grade: 5/10, or C.

Surrender at Appomattox: The (Beginning of the) End

As Robert E. Lee was riding away from the home of Wilmer McLean after meeting with Ulysses S. Grant on the afternoon of Sunday, April 9th, 1865, one thing was clear to most of those involved: The major fighting in Virginia was finally coming to an end. With Lee surrendering to Grant, the Army of Northern Virginia, which at that time numbered under 30,000 men, would soon evaporate, and enter into legend.

The meeting between Lee and Grant at Appomattox.

The meeting between Lee and Grant at Appomattox.

It had been an ending long expected to happen, but at times it seemed a near improbability. At its height, the Army of Northern Virginia numbered over 70,000 men, and seemed poised to deal a major blow to the Union forces in the war. But their major defeat at Gettysburg, followed by Grant’s continual pressure on the army between May of 1864 and April of 1865, slowly brought this once mighty army to it’s knees. And with his army virtually surrounded at Appomattox Court House on April 9th, Lee knew that the only options available to him were to disperse the army, and carry on guerrilla warfare, or surrender. Fighting his instinct to carry on the war, Lee chose to instead meet with Grant, and surrender his forces. Although his men were willing to carry on with the fighting, Lee knew that to do so would be fruitless slaughter for his men.

But as Lee rode away from the meeting, another thing was very clear: the war was not yet over. Although the main Confederate army had been surrendered, there were still roughly 100,000 Confederate troops still in the field. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston still commanded a small but formidable force of troops in North Carolina, while in the distant west, Confederate forces were still wreaking havoc on Union troops. And Confederate President Jefferson Davis, along with members of his cabinet, were on the run from Federal forces following the fall or Richmond on April 2nd.

In fact, the final battle of the war would take place over a month after the surrender at Appomattox. On May 12-13, 1865, Union forces under Theodore H. Barrett attacked a Confederate force at the Battle of Palmito Ranch in Texas, near the Mexican border. A small battle where forces on both sides numbered less than 500 men, the skirmish ended in a Confederate victory. So, in one of the great ironies of the war, the Confederate army won the final battle in a war that they would ultimately lose.

So, while Appomattox was not the true end of the American Civil War, it is safe to say that it was the beginning of the end. With their most formidable army now gone, Confederate officers still in the field saw the folly of continuing conflict. In the weeks and months to follow, other armies would be surrendered. Before summer set in, the war was all but over, and reconstruction set to begin.

MOVIE REVIEW: “Field of Lost Shoes”

Field of Lost Shoes (Bosch, Tredegar Filmworks, Arc Entertainment, Brookwell McNamara Entertainment, 2014)

Starring: David Arquette, Keith David, Lauren Holly, Jason Isaacs, and Tom Skerritt

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Film Rating: PG-13 for War Violence and Some Thematic Elements

poster-30inx40in-h-frontIn the heart of the Shenandoah Valley lies a little town called New Market. It is a peaceful, quiet little village. But on May 15th, 1864, the peaceful hills would be witness to the horrors of war, as Confederate and Union forces clashed. The battle has never had the fame of Gettysburg, Antietam, or Shiloh. But for the men who fought this horrific battle, the impact would be no less horrific. Perhaps no more so than for the 274 Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, who marched 80 miles to serve as relief troops for General John C. Breckenridge’s Confederates, only to be ordered to take position in the center of their lines. For the only time in American History, an entire student body would come under enemy fire, and prove their mettle in a dramatic charge that turned the tide of battle. The story of those cadets from VMI, and the impact it had on the battle, is the subject of the film Field of Lost Shoes.

Directed by Sean McNamara (Soul Surfer), and featuring a mixed cast of fresh faces and well-knowns, Field of Lost Shoes won the Best Dramatic Feature Award at the GI Film Festival. Sadly, the film came in under the radar, when it received mixed reviews, and an all too brief theatrical release in September of 2014, following a release on DVD and Video on Demand earlier this month. However, after viewing the film, I cannot help but feel that this movie deserved a better release strategy. For this is, in my humble opinion, the finest film yet made on the events of the American Civil War. From the very beginning of the film, to its closing moments, the movie serves as a moving tribute to the Virginia Military Institute, and the cadets who served at the Battle of New Market.

While the film does cover some of the strategic, political and social aspects of the war, the film keeps most of its focus, and rightfully so, on seven members of the Corps of Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute; seven young boys and men who would go on to fight in a battle that would change their lives. Six of these men are based on actual cadets who fought at the battle. It is through these boys that we get to see the affects of war on the men who fought it, and how these young lads, men who had never before been in battle, showed true bravery in the face of an enemy. Making their story the main story, showing the hopes, dreams and beliefs of every single one, gives the story its soul, and creates a very powerful, dramatic, and tragic film.

From an historical standpoint, the film is definitely one of the more historically accurate films made on the war. Like the film Glory, the actual story of the VMI Cadets at New Market is dramatic in itself, and needs little embellishment. The attention to detail in terms of drill, uniforms and equipment is truly remarkable. The Battle of New Market is dramatically recreated, showing the horrors and tragedy of armed conflict without becoming too graphic, making it a film that children over the age of 10 could be shown.

Casting wise, the film does a great job. All of the young actors who portray the Cadets focused on in the film doe a great job in their roles, making us understand who they were, what they believed in. The believability of the actors in their roles makes us care for them, so when the battle comes, and they come under fire, we actually worry about their fate. Of the supporting roles, all are good. But the standout of the cast is Jason Isaacs (The Patriot, the Harry Potter series) as Confederate General John C. Breckenridge. His portrayal of the former Vice President of the United States is truly wonderful. Isaacs has done his homework, and his performance is truly the highlight of this film.

The script for the film, written by David Kennedy, Thomas Farrell and Ron Bass, does a terrific job of presenting this wonderful story in a 96-minute film. Surprisingly, despite covering the story of the Cadets, as well as the overall story of the battle itself from the points of view of Breckenridge, Union Captain Henry S. DuPont (A surprisingly convincing David Arquette), and others who play a part in the making of this battle, is told in a way that anyone who sees it will not need to know the history of the war to understand what is going on. The rest of the crew, and the amazing cast, do a great job of conveying the story.

In closing, Field of Lost Shoes is the finest film ever made on the events of the American Civil War, and the young boys from the Virginia Military Institute who fought at the Battle of New Market on May 15th, 1864. It connects us on a personal level with the characters, making the events more relatable, and more tragic. It presents the story in a way where all those who view it will understand the political, social and military aspects of the story without it becoming confusing, or impersonal. Anyone interested in American history, or in exciting, dramatic stories, will find much to love in Field of Lost Shoes.

Overall Grade: 10/10, or A+