A key event in history Filming: For two days at Fort McHenry, men in War of 1812-era outfits 'battled' amid smoke. But the real shooting was done by TV film crews.

July 10, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Dressed as a citizen-soldier from War of 1812-era Baltimore, ++ Chuck Ruth set out for his post atop Fort McHenry's outer wall with just one parting wish.

"Don't call us re-enactors," he pleaded. "We do living history."

Fair enough. If Ruth and his companions don't want to be confused with the several thousand re-enactors who put on the big show up at Gettysburg last week, who's to argue?

Unfortunately, it turns out that Ruth -- one of 10 "soldiers" helping cable's History Channel film a documentary about the flag that inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- was talking to the wrong person.

"I've been a re-enactor 20 years myself, so I know what you are going through," director Gary Foreman told his assembled troops, by way of drumming up enthusiasm for the shoot that was about to begin. "I want to capture the feel of this time. You know what the stakes are. It's been an unpopular war, but now everyone seems to be pulling together."

Oh, well. Truth be told, the men didn't seem to mind being called re-enactors, so busy were they staring across the harbor pretending the Lehigh Cement factory was a fully armed British warship lobbing shells their way.

"This is about you feeling threatened," Foreman continued in his exhortation. "This is about you looking out on one of the most incredible fleets on the planet."

If Fort McHenry had only 10 defenders in 1814, Francis Scott Key would never have become America's most famous lawyer/songwriter and we'd all be speaking with Liverpool accents.

But these 10 men were enough to make history come alive, albeit briefly, as the History Channel's seven-member crew spent Wednesday and yesterday filming in Baltimore, not only at Fort McHenry, but also at the Flag House on Pratt Street, the Baltimore Brewing Co. on Albemarle Street and in Fells Point. With the 185-year-old Star-Spangled Banner set to undergo extensive conservation work beginning in the fall, the channel and the Smithsonian Institution are working together to highlight the flag's history. The documentary will air sometime in the fall.

Filming began Wednesday morning at the Flag House, where Mary Pickersgill in 1813 turned 440 yards of bunting into the largest flag ever to fly over a U.S. Army post -- a monster 42-by-30 feet. She was paid $405.90, a not-inconsiderable sum in those days. For more than an hour, Overlea/Rosedale resident Eliner Elgin played Pickersgill, repeatedly pushing her needle and thread through a full-scale reproduction of the fabled banner.

As the cameras rolled, Elgin sat patiently under a portrait of the real Mary, based on a photograph taken late in her life (she died in 1857). Her eyes riveted on the flag draped across a table in front of her, Elgin pressed on with her sewing, careful not to look up as Foreman shouted directions from outside camera range.

Filming was finished around lunchtime, and then it was off to Fort McHenry. There, under the watchful eye of park ranger Bill Caughlan (assigned to ensure that the fort emerged from filming none the worse for wear), the History Channel folks set about re-creating Baltimore, circa September 1814.

And that wasn't easy. For instance, there was the weather. High winds kept the replica flag grounded for much of the day; it's so huge, a good wind gust could make it snap the flagpole in two.

Overcast skies didn't threaten the shoot itself; in fact, said Senior Producer Alison Guss, not only is it easier to shoot when the skies are clouded over, but the weather was overcast the day of the battle.

No, the problem was far more mundane: The men's replica hats are dyed, and the dye runs when it gets wet. Fortunately for them, the rain largely held off.

More important, the fort has changed considerably since the British stopped their shelling and Key committed his patriotic musings to paper. Construction dating to the 1830s added a second story to some of the buildings -- meaning that Foreman and his crew, who strive for as much historical accuracy as possible, would have to station their cameras so only those parts of the fort that actually witnessed the British attack would appear on film.

That meant a lot of low shots from behind earthworks or carefully calculated camera angles that kept anything remotely modern out of range.

Even more difficult than obscuring the modern parts of a fort are obscuring the modern parts of a city. Tight shots, eliminating much of the background, helped. But hiding the modern waterfront entirely proved impossible -- which is why Newport, R.I., will double for Baltimore in parts of the completed film.

"Unfortunately, Baltimore's been built up over the years," producer Guss said.

But not to worry, Foreman assured his cast. You're going to like what you see.

L "No one has told this story properly," he said. "Until now."

Pub Date: 7/10/98

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