New Civil War movie 'The Conspirator' has strong ties to the state

The first woman executed by the U.S. was a Marylander

  • Tom Wilkinson (right) -- shown with James McAvoy -- plays U.S. Sen. Reverdy Johnson of Maryland in Robert Redford's "The Conspirator."
Tom Wilkinson (right) -- shown with James McAvoy -- plays U.S.… (Claudette Barius, MCT )
April 15, 2011|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

It wouldn't be a historic anniversary if there wasn't a Hollywood tie-in of some sort. Turner Classic Movies network has scheduled a whole month of Civil War programming. And the History Channel is filled with documentaries, interactive online features, DVD set specials and even online games, like the National Civil War Student Challenge.

Coincidentally timed to open in theaters nationwide Friday is "The Conspirator," Robert Redford's story of Mary Surratt, the Marylander who was implicated in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and was eventually executed by the federal government. The movie was produced by the American Film Co., which is dedicated to making historical movies, says COO and Bethesda resident Alfred Levitt. "Real life is often more compelling than fiction," he says.

Surratt was originally from Maryland, from what is now known as Clinton. What other connections to the state are there?

Surratt was originally going to be defended by Reverdy Johnson, who was a U.S. senator from Maryland. As depicted in the movie by Tom Wilkinson, he basically decided he was a good ol' Southern boy and there was no way he could effectively defend Surratt in this trial because of the passions of the time. So he conscripted Frederick Aiken to defend Surratt instead. Johnson, though, remained a consigliore throughout the trial process. In Maryland, there's also the museum at Mary Surratt's farm, which is called the Surratt House.

Was the movie filmed here?

The movie was shot in Savannah, Ga., because historians uniformly agree it is an accurate proxy for Civil War-era Washington, D.C.

There's always been lot of interest in the Civil War, but do you think it's particularly heightened here?

I do think that while the story has resonance for people in the United States, the Mid-Atlantic region is an area that has always been fascinated with Civil War-era stories in general because so much of the story lives here. There's a lot of organic interest. We premiered the movie at Ford's Theatre in D.C, and the opening scene is the Lincoln assassination at Ford's Theatre. It was a very interesting thing.

How did the company stay true to the historical record?

Part of the mandate of the company is to have historians consult with us in the project's development and during physical production. We had three historians on "The Conspirator": James McPherson, who has written on the Civil War; we had Fred Borch, the regimental historian of the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps, and a former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo; and then we also had a professor, Tom Turner, who specializes in the Lincoln assassination specifically. They consulted with us through the process, and now they're on our website where they've written different blog posts and are engaging people in dialogue about the movie.

But how accurate is the movie in the end?

If we took any liberties with historical events, we'd get smacked on the heads by people. Our mandate was to stay true to the facts. Where the historical record is known, we stay true to it. And where it isn't, we took informed guesses. When you're making a movie, you're compressing a longer period of time into a two-hour experience. The events in the movie take place over two months, so by necessity you make certain judgments. But they're very modest.

Can you be more specific?

The clothes people are wearing might be from 1864 rather than 1865. But Frederick Aiken's final defense speech is taken verbatim from the trial. Pieces of dialogue are snippets taken from newspapers from the time. There was a lot of thought and deliberation into all those things.

Can modern viewers take lessons from the movie?

We are carefully not in the lesson business. … For us, "The Conspirator" is a deeply personal story within the Lincoln story that is widely known. It speaks to a period of time that many don't study. There are contemporary parallels. Mary Surratt was tried before a military tribunal, a subject that has obviously been in the news recently. But our view is to not overstate the parallels because there are important differences. Audiences and critics may find these parallels and find them interesting, but our hope is to produce an entertaining and engaging movie.

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