In `Generals,' a star isn't exactly born

An extra searches screen for proof he took part in filming

Observations

February 20, 2003|By John Coffren | John Coffren,SUN STAFF

HAGERSTOWN - I was perched on the edge of my seat in the historic Maryland Theatre watching Ron Maxwell's sweeping Civil War epic, Gods and Generals.

My tension was due in part to the moving narrative and my sense of foreboding: In a few moments, Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang) would keep a date with history in a nearby wooded tangle of the Wilderness, west of Fredericksburg. He would be shot off his horse by his own pickets, who mistake him and his entourage for Union cavalry, then die of pneumonia eight days later. Although considered a major victory for the South, Chancellorsville cost the Confederates dearly in leadership.

But the main reason for my anxiety stemmed from the fact that the Battle of Chancellorsville sequence also marked my film debut.

Nearly two years ago, the film's producers put out a call for thousands of re-enactors. I, among many others, answered - and worked for two days in the Core Company as a nondescript rebel infantryman in the famed "Stonewall Brigade."

On the screen, a long, panning shot of the woods showing the determined faces of the Southern soldiers had me searching for my own visage. Was that me behind the forked tree? I scanned wave after wave of Confederate troops spilling out of the tree line as Stonewall springs his trap. I watched a flood of gray troops, the divisions of Gen. Robert E. Rodes, Brig. Gen. Raleigh E. Colston and Jackson pass by.

Maxwell conveys the fluid, chaotic nature of battle with quick cuts and a barrage of images. Nearly all the scenes in which I took part made the final cut, but, at 24 frames per second, trying to single myself out from dozens to hundreds of others was like playing Where's Waldo strapped to the outside of a speeding bullet train.

I wasn't alone in this vainglorious pursuit. Seated all around in the 800-plus audience were people just like me canvassing the silver screen looking out for No. 1. We all had come last week to the Western Maryland premier of Gods and Generals. (An invitation-only Baltimore premiere is scheduled for tonight at the Senator Theatre, and the movie opens to the public Friday.) We hoped to catch a glimpse of director Maxwell, author Jeff Shaara and actors Lang and Stephen Spacek. But mostly, we just wanted to see ourselves.

Take Maria Dahbura, for example, who tried to get her 10-year-old daughter Juliana in the film and wound up getting a part for herself.

Dahbura accompanied her daughter to a casting call for extras at a local mall. The talent agency needed a photograph of Juliana and since the little girl was a minor, her mother had to be in the shot.

When the call from the talent office came, the agent said, "We don't want your daughter, we want you." And Dahbura became a hapless Fredericksburg refugee fleeing the war zone that was her home, trudging through the rain and mud to the relative safety found behind Confederate lines.

"They made us walk up and down that hill all day," she said. "It was cold and wet, but it was fun."

The Hagerstown resident and stay-at-home mom's budding film career didn't end there. Several months later she got a call to be an extra in the Chris Rock film Head of State, part of which was filmed in Baltimore.

"I had to be somebody from Kentucky at a bluegrass concert, so that was a pinch-me experience, too," Dahbura said. The agent said: "'Go to Wal-Mart to find your clothes, and you'll fit in,' and we did."

Dahbura made time for the projects because both were shot locally. Although she has no plans to head for Hollywood, her efforts have not gone entirely unnoticed in the entertainment industry.

"My husband's sister is an actress in San Francisco," Dahbura said. "She was jealous that I was on something so easily."

Mike Colosimo of Pittsburgh came to the Western Maryland premiere wearing a Union Army first lieutenant's uniform. The 22-year-old opted to stop studying history and re-create it instead: The fourth-year history major at the California University of Pennsylvania quit school for a semester to take part in the film.

"The chance for somebody my age to work on a Hollywood movie is the chance of a lifetime," he said.

Like most of the guys in Core Company, Colosimo changed his look, switched sides from North to South and back again and basically did anything to stay in front of the cameras and stop from "burning out," or being taken out of the film.

It must have worked because at a media screening in Pittsburgh the week before, Colosimo was spotted by a family member.

"I went with my mother, and she said, `There you are,'" he said. "Amazing. It was cool."

Earlier in the film, I had spied my file partner, Larry Jakob of Orlando, Fla., calmly folding his blanket while Jackson on horseback trots past.

But the undisputed heavyweight, the re-enactor with the most "face time," has to be Jerry Hornbaker of Mercersburg, Pa.

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