Here's my take on the National Geographic special called “Extreme Civil War Reenacting” that debuted on Thursday, May 10.
I watched the program with bated breath, for I had a big “investment” in it (in time and energy, rather than money), because I was videotaped by National Geographic for over 26 hours at no less than five events in preparation for it –plus I had “invested” countless other hours in preparations for some of their videotaping sessions, such an all-day affair at my house in Maryland that included setting up TWO complete primitive camps and a cooking fire (for about five pounds of beef that I turned into jerky with a primitive cooking rack). I felt all of that unpaid work was strictly for the benefit of the hobby.
But much to my disappointment, not a single "foot" of all those personal efforts ended up in the final broadcast, so I apologize to those people I encouraged to watch the program with the hope they would see me discourse on a subject that has been near and dear to my heart since 1988.
On a very personal level, I feel totally disappointed, totally deceived and totally taken advantage of, but all that will pass. However, the next time a filmmaker approaches me for cooperation with some future project, more than likely I shall go back to my original policy on the matter: do NOT ever work with any Hollywood types. Ever.
All the same, I have been asked for my “professional” opinions on the “Extreme” effort, so here is my review:
In general, the documentary was well done, probably better than almost anything else that has been broadcast to date about reenactors and the hobby of Civil War reenacting, even though the documentary focused on perhaps the smallest segment of the reenacting community. But what we saw on screen showed respect, admiration and, well, love, for the subject.
Art Stone revealed to the world what most of us in the hobby already knew: He is a great person, a veritable Reenacting Treasure, and he rightfully became, for all intents and purposes, the central core of the National Geographic on-screen narrative.
The same can be said for other sages/treasures in it, like Joe Bordonaro, Johnny Lloyd and Jeff Grzelak.
Travis Brooks, the young recruit in the film, can feel justifiably proud of his camera presence --at the tender age of 16, when most other teenagers can barely articulate more than two very short cogent sentences. And his knowledge and dedication to the subject of history are truly admirable, though he is prone to some stumblings, as we will see in a few moments.
The story of Zack Forsythe was most moving, and well handled (perhaps "extremely" well handled) by the National Geographic filmmakers and editors --all the way from the beginning of the show, when Forsythe explains the reasons why he reenacts, to its emotional conclusion, as he visits a Florida cemetery to render honor to some of his fallen comrades in Afghanistan and Iran.
The production values of the documentary, for the most part, were quite good, though there were some very obvious and flagrant flaws.
I didn't like the name of the program including the word "extreme." Too needlessly sensationalistic, in my opinion. Before I had seen the program, it seemed like a sinister omen, of something that would focus on the more unappetizing aspects of reenacting, as many previous such shows have done.
There were far, far too many instances of “massive groups of lefties,” onscreen, because some portions of the footage had been evidently “flopped,” thus making everyone look left-handed.
Specific examples of this shortcoming:
Virtually *every single segment* of the program contained at least one scene of large masses of “left-handed” troops. As a filmmaker myself, this practice bothers me immensely, because I consider it akin to editorial laziness, to say nothing of the fact that it constitutes downright fraud on the unsuspecting viewer, because the filmmaker is showing as "truth" something that has been distorted.
One Confederate officer orders his troops to “fire!” at the start of Pickett’s Charge, I believe, by swinging down his sword, held with his LEFT hand. Was everyone else on that scene lefty, too? Probably. I couldn't tape the show, so I have only seen the original broadcast once.
Early in the segment on First Manassas, Johnny Lloyd appears carrying his officer’s sword on his LEFT hand. Twice! I didn’t have time to notice whether other reenactors around him had, likewise, turned into “lefties,” but I’d bet they looked that way, because I know Lloyd is righthanded. Those were more examples of needless “film flops.” A minute or two later, Lloyd is shown with his sword on his right hand and, finally, on his death scene, Lloyd falls to the ground, staring fixedly at the camera in a very tight closeup, with his sword by his right side... where he probably held it throughout the engagement. So why show him as a lefty at all? Editorial laziness, in my opinion.
Travis Brooks, who was featured throughout the documentary, always appears as a right-handed fellow, which he is, because I know him personally. Yet, immediately prior to his "death scene" he is carrying his musket as a left-handed soldier. Yet more laziness on the part of the filmmakers, for that was a staged scene that they could have filmed from a variety of angles, but evidently they didn't.
In 26 years of reenacting photography, I have NEVER witnessed a reenactor "switch hands" during an event, much less during one battle, whether he is carrying a sword or a musket. It may happen briefly, perhaps when the person needs to carry out some essential temporary duty, such as to wipe his brow, to write something down, to
take a drink of water, etc. Then they go back immediately to their regular grip.
>Part 2 follows...