Emotional power of Antietam drains film crew Battle documentary emerges in painstaking detail at Maryland field

September 21, 1997|By Edward Colimore | Edward Colimore,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

SHARPSBURG -- With musket barrels gleaming and flags flying, a long column of blue-clad soldiers snaked down the hillside, then paused at the edge of a country lane.

Lying in heaps on the road before them were the bodies of the "dead" and "dying," alongside guns, canteens and haversacks. "Wounded" men writhed on the ground.

And the cameras rolled, capturing scenes for a movie that will be shown at the national historic battlefield and will be part of a television documentary.

No one had seen that sight in 135 years - not on this once-blood-soaked Civil War battleground where more American casualties occurred than on any other single day in U.S. military history.

The Union re-enactors carefully stepped through the "Confederate" casualties toward a cornfield, while spectators and National Park Service Rangers watched in reverential silence.

"Cut! Great!" said film director Brad Graham.

The onlookers applauded. Were it not for the film crew, cameras and other modern equipment, they could have easily convinced themselves last week that they'd somehow stumbled into the Battle of Antietam.

Here, on the rolling land of Western Maryland, filmmakers re-created the ferocious fighting of Sept. 17, 1862, with a painstaking attention to detail that's rarely seen.

For the first time, hundreds of Civil War re-enactors from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and states across the country "fought" at the so-called "Bloody Lane," the deadly Burnside Bridge and other sites where more than 23,000 fell in battle.

Macadam roads were covered with truckloads of earth, monuments were camouflaged as tree stumps and shrubs, nonhybrid corn was planted in 1862 patterns, uniforms were duplicated down to the thread and buttons, and special cannon shells were fashioned so artillery pieces realistically recoiled when fired.

The film company, Historical Films Group, a subsidiary of Media Magic in Lansing, Mich., also constructed a small country church, using period windows, to replicate the Dunker Church, once in the tornado of battle and now surrounded by modern intrusions.

The company built a narrow rural road, bordered by split-rail fencing, to represent the Hagerstown Pike where Confederate soldiers were flanked and cut to pieces by Union troops.

The result, filmmakers say, will be a three- to four-hour documentary on the battle, taking Civil War history another step beyond Ken Burns' epic groundbreaking PBS series "The Civil War," which used photographs, sound effects and period music so effectively.

'Quite spectacular'

Marsha Cipriani, the movie's executive producer, said the company will produce a 30-minute film for the Antietam National Battlefield and expects to sell the longer version to a cable TV network such as the History Channel. A book, using black-and-white photos of the battle re-creations, along with period photos, also is being considered.

"What I see is quite spectacular," said tourist Norm Kiel, 64, a Grand Rapids, Mich., man whose tour bus happened to stopped at the Bloody Lane while film was being shot. A bloodcurdling war whoop went up from Union troops as they charged down a hill toward the Bloody Lane.

"You get a feel for the bloodshed and terror," said Kiel. "It's kind of spooky ... to think they [Confederates] stayed here to meet certain death."

The filmmakers didn't sign up just anybody in blue and gray when they started the project several months ago.

Director Graham said the re-enactors had to apply for their parts in the movie and include photos of themselves in uniform. Scores of them didn't make the cut.

"We wanted everyone to look like they belonged here - their physical build, their age, their haircuts, their lack of having shaved, even their dirty-smelly quality," he said. "One of my military advisors said, 'I don't want them to just look dirty. I want them to smell dirty.'"

John Howard, superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield, said they didn't need much imagination - even in scenes where there was no opposing fire, one of the park's safety rules. Scenes involving simultaneous fire from both sides were filmed off park land.

"You just look at the emotion in their eyes," Howard said, as he stood near the Bloody Lane. "The Confederates [re-enactors in the Bloody Lane] could easily imagine in their minds the 69th New York [unit of Union troops] coming over that rise. All you have to do is stop and you can hear them. They're here everyday."

Howard said he and others felt emotionally drained after witnessing the early scenes shot along the Bloody Lane. "That's how realistic it is," he said.

The federal army under Gen. George B. McClellan launched a series of uncoordinated, piecemeal attacks on Sept. 17, 1862. It first struck the Confederate army's left flank, then the center along what became known as the Bloody Lane, and finally the right, over a picturesque stone bridge. The Southerners, under Gen. Robert E. Lee, barely withstood the assaults, but did not withdraw until the following day.

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