The Reenactor's TV Guide
by Jonah Begone
For a reason I know not, my Reenactor's Movie Guides have attracted the most favorable comments of anything I have written. Now the masses cry out, "Jonah! What about TV material? What is good for us to watch?" I have heard your pleas for help and hereby respond.
The Blue and the Gray (CBS, 1982): About a war artist who has ties to both North and South
and who apparently meets everyone of importance in the war and is present at all the great
moments. In discussing this production with pards around the campfire, I have heard nothing but
scorn. Yes, I will agree, the plot is weak and the lead character is an annoying pacifist wussie.
The battle scenes are minimal and the level of authenticity ranges from laughable to barely
acceptable. HOWEVER, this mini-series came along at a point in my life when I was ready to
resume my high school interest in the Civil War. Seeing this series got me back into the subject,
and into reenacting. Were it not for "the Blue and the Gray," reenacting would not have Jonah
Begone. Truly, a debt of gratitude is owed CBS. Give it a try. The death scenes were affecting,
and the theme music was cool .
The North and the South (ABC?, 1986): Peeeeee-eeeuuuuuwwwwww. I can only remember
four things about this production: 1) Patrick Swayze's authentic dirty dancing with Leslie Anne
Down, 2) The line delivered to Kirstie Alley's incredibly annoying abolitionist character by a
slave: "Missy, does yew wants t' lie wid me?" (Lt. Saavik takes him up on it), 3) Hezekiah Bent,
who gave reenacting the comic dialect of 1986: "Mah tactics have been compared to Napoleon,
suh!", and 4) That babe who collected West Point uniform buttons for each cadet she, uh,
subverted. Lotsa cleavage, if you're into that. Reenactors played extras in the battle scenes,
which were okay. Not worth sitting through all the fluff for, however. Didn't bother watching
"The Passerby" (a Twilight Zone episode - CBS, 1961): This episode is a classic. A company
of Civil War soldiers who believe they are marching home from battle find themselves... Can you
guess? Dead! They're really dead! They just don't know it! Confirmation comes when Abe
Lincoln closes up the rear, the last man on the road. When I first saw this as I kid I thought it was
the coolest thing ever. Mrs. Begone groans at the mention of it.
Beulahland (Who cares?): Chick flick, and a real bosom-heaver. Also features cruel overseers
and poorly treated slaves. For Harlequin Romance readers only. Too bad Fabio wasn't available
to portray Stonewall Jackson or something. ("There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally
'round those pecs, boys!")
Private History of a Campaign that Failed (PBS, c. 1983): Part of a series of Mark Twain
stories, this one is autobiographical and deals with Twain's two weeks' service in the Civil War
with the Missouri "Marion Rangers." It would have been great had the producers resisted the
temptation to tack on Twain's "the War Prayer," a completely different story, at the end as an
epilogue, with the man killed in the "Private Campaign" part returning to deliver the sermon as a
ghost. Would Twain have approved? I doubt it. The war prayer was the product of an old,
embittered Twain. The Twain of the Marion Rangers is a youthful, idealistic man. Combining the
two is an artistic failure, in my opinion. Still, this can be defarbed by stopping the videotape at
the end of the first story, and viewing the epilogue - the war prayer - separately! Seen apart, they
are excellent: Convincingly acted and well produced.
The Civil War (PBS, Ken Burns, 1990): Years in the making and of unprecedented length.
Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Yeah, yeah, I know - the public went frothing at the mouth nutz for it,
consuming Civil War-related goods at a frenzied clip and packing reenactments like tubby
bearded guys at a bacon giveaway. Still, I found it boooorrrringg, and so did most of my pards.
Others complain of inaccuracies, like the black historian claiming simplistically that the war was
caused by slavery. Okay. I never made it past the somnambulistic pace of the first couple of
installments. Programmatic Nytol.
The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd (CBS, 1980): Dennis Weaver played the maligned doctor. Or was he?
Reb or Union Man? The teleplay views him sympathetically, a victim of the fear and rage which
followed Lincoln's assassination. This was an excellent production, as I remember, and
concludes nicely with some information about Jimmy Carter's review of the case. One of those
CBS historical interest productions done well. As with "the Blue and the Gray," I'd certainly
have to give them credit for trying.
The "Red Badge of Courage" episode of "Wishbone" (PBS, 1996): This show is mainly for
kids but it's great! Wishbone, a Jack Russell terrier, portrays characters in TV adaptations of
classic books. For this one, the production company dressed him up as Henry Fleming in a little
doggie Civil War uniform, with a little doggie cartridge box and a little doggie musket to take
part. (You can see an image of him on my web page.) A great scene from this one is Wishbone
crawling away on all fours saying "I'm outta here!" Reenactors took part in this filming. I'm told
a funny moment was seeing a stagehand manipulate a prop paw to simulate Wishbone's pulling
the trigger on the musket.
Let's give the Civil War a rest for awhile...
Black Adder (BBC, 1982-1989): A favorite among reenactors, and for good reason. This is one
of the funniest, if not the funniest Britcom ever. Rowan Atkinson ("Mr. Bean") stars in six
episodes in each of four English historical periods: Late 15th C., Elizabethan, Regency and Great
War. My personal favorites are the Elizabethan episodes - Miranda Richardson plays a
hilariously over-the-top queen. The reenactors I've spoken to generally favor the WWI episodes,
which are also excellent. Slamming foreigners, razor wit and comments directed at the inbred
servant Baldrick are all constants. Rowan Atkinson delivers his lines with a rare perfection. You
have got to see these - I can't talk these up enough!
Clarissa (BBC, 1991): A swell Masterpiece Theater show about a woman of virtue living in
1740's London who is relentlessly pursued by a Rake played by Sean Bean. Everything about
this is memorable, especially the weird incidental music, the costuming, huge powdered wigs
and the scene where a high-class tart smiles to reveal a mouth full of yellow teeth! (Nobody ever
said authenticity was pretty!) Beware: The rape scene is graphic, making this one of those BBC
productions you'd want to clear the kids out of the room for. Yes, poor, put-upon Clarissa kicks
the bucket at the end, apparently of stubbornness.
Sharpe (BBC, 1993 - present): From Bernard Cornwell's books, and the best thing to happen to PBS since, well, Black Adder! Sharpe (played by Sean Bean, who was the rotter in "Clarissa") is a Napoleonic era NCO promoted by Wellington to lieutenant, who fights with an elite rifle company in Spain. Sharpe seems to have direct and constant contact with Wellington - there's a touch of bogusness about this, but what matter? This series is rip-roaring fun, despite the fact that Sharpe has an Irish sidekick. My favorite episodes have Pete Postlethwaite as a deranged sergeant leading a ragamuffin band of British deserters. His performance as a loathsome scofflaw and arch-enemy to Sharpe is a standout, and, I'm told, a big hit among the reenactors in Britain. This series is essential because one of the episodes depicts a Congreve Rocket company. The rockets predictably become unpredictable, and hilarity ensues. I'm told Cornwell has written a Civil War series which may make it into TV production someday - I can't wait to hear those Brits doing Southern dialects! (Maybe they can contact Hezekiah Bent for tips.)