Wednesday, April 28, 2010

American History DVD's and more

One of the Civil War units I belong to is doing a presentation for the middle school building where I work. It's a great time for us and for the kids, for we do our best to bring history alive, and the kids really seem to enjoy it. They come out to the field in groups of around 50 each and begin their journey to the past with the military.

This is where they will learn about the everyday life of the northern American soldier of the 1860's: from their forage caps to their brogans, the complete uniform and accoutrements are explained in great detail. The firing of muskets also takes place, much to the delight of the young teens. And, finally, a description of the effects of a leaded bullet entering a body is told.

Then it's the civilians turn to explain life on the northern homefront.

A young farm girl of the 1860's explains to children her age from the 21st century about her chores, including spinning wool.

We will usually touch on the many local aid societies of the time - the Christian Commission and so forth - and of all the time and effort the folks at home put into ensuring as much care and comfort to the boys off fighting. Everyday lives of children their age is also discussed, including daily chores and games.
We will then spend time speaking of battle towns, usually of Gettysburg, and what happened inside that borough during and after the three day battle. We try to bring to life just what those that remained in the war-torn towns had to deal with afterward, including the bodies left on the fields, in the streets, and in the homes; the amputated body parts tossed out the windows of the makeshift hospitals, the excrement from over 150,000 men in a town that normally had a population of 2400 people. Dead and wounded horses. And then the stench of everything mentioned roasting in the hot July sun.
We try to bring the realities of that war to life for these kids who just seem to have to learn facts and figures without the human details.
The best part is, if you know anything about middle school kids, they can be quite a challenge. Their hormones are raging, they are stuck between being a little kid and becoming a teenager, and they have ATTITUDE!
But, by our words and even our actions during our presentations, we capture their full attention and keep a hold of it for the duration.

The preacher of the 21st Michigan, Mike Gillett, keeps the kids enthralled with his tales of a preacher's duties during the Civil War.

Normally, the school PTO will pay us to come there to put on our little living history exercise, and they plan to again this year as well. But, unfortunately, this will be the last time we do our event at this particular middle school, for it will shut its doors for good when school lets out in June. Because of the shift in population and the State of Michigan's lack of school funding, a number of schools throughout the state will be closing up for good come June. In this city, only one middle school will remain (from three only 25 years ago) come September.
So we in the 21st Michigan decided that we will take the money given to us and purchase numerous American history DVD's to donate to the one remaining middle school. We wanted to give to the kids a well-rounded selection of American History, showing the ups and downs of this nation.
I'd like to share with you what we selected as well as reviews of each:

Desperate Crossing - This History Channel presentation of the pilgrims is two and a half hours of a well-known and very important part of our American history, although you may not realize how little you actually do know of these separatists and of the times they lived. In fact, it certainly is more movie than documentary and, although interspersed throughout are historians filling in the gaps, this docu-drama is as engulfing and riveting as any full-length period movie I have seen. The lives and times of these early European settlers are authentically portrayed by use of English Shakespearian actors, and the quality shows. Never have I seen any other film put flesh on the bones of the pilgrims to the extent this one does. A social history extravaganza! The clothing, lighting, effects (especially while on the Mayflower), and, at times, even some of the speech patterns are reflected fairly accurately. I did not see the typical revisionist history so often reflected in many of today's historical depictions. They were very religious folk bent on keeping their practices, even if they had to cross the ocean to do it, and this movie shows that in no uncertain terms. The Indian dramatization was done very well for the most part, although I would have preferred to have their speech in their original (or close to their original) language and include the use of sub-titles. Oh well, can't have everything.
For teachers and lovers of history I recommend this docu-drama very highly. A wonderful way to learn about our early American history.

Three Soverigns for Sarah - (this review is from the product description) - This is a true story. Nineteen people were hanged and one old man pressed to death, while hundreds of others suffered in jail cells during the "witch hysteria" of 1692. Three Sovereigns for Sarah is the most accurate portrayal yet. Each character you will see actually existed, actually spoke many of the words you will hear. Original transcripts of the trials are woven into the dialogue. All of the costumes, locations, buildings and props offer a rare, authentic glimpse of the late 1600's in America. Each viewing will reveal something new, never before seen. Most important, it is a powerful and moving story about three loving sisters who are accused of witchcraft. Academy Award winners Vanessa Redgrave, Kim Hunter and Phyllis Thaxter portray those sisters. The youngest, Sarah Cloyce (Vanessa Redgrave), tried to clear her sisters' names.

The War that Made America: The Story of the French and Indian War - (this review is from the product description) - What if the French had won? Almost 250 years ago, French and English armies clashed in the primeval forest of western Pennsylvania as they struggled to control the most important piece of real estate in 18th century North America. The army that controlled the forks of the Ohio, a confluence of mighty rivers that would one day become Pittsburgh, held the gateway to the entire continent. Native Americans boldly tried to manipulate the balance of military power between the English and the French. It was the French and Indian War, and an inexperienced Virginian soldier named George Washington, serving under the British flag, learned battle-scarred lessons that would indelibly shape his life.

John Adams - Upon reading many of the reviews of this series I am having a difficult time understanding the reviewers who do not care for this set. It seems there are three main reasons for them not to like it: *It's all drama* *the quirky camera angles and shots* *the 'stiffness' and language of the actors* First off, yes, it is mostly drama with very little physical action. But that does not make it bad or boring - instead this is what brings the viewer in. And, with the inclusion of the (mostly) period-style language, one feels almost as if they were in the company of our nation's fore-fathers themselves. It seems that people in today's society need blood and guts action for them to like a movie. That's unfortunate, because just like in "Gods & Generals" (the Civil War flick), it's the drama that greatly enhances this movie. Yes, I would have liked to have seen a couple of battle scenes, but showing the wounded after the battle was just as moving. As for stiffness of the actors: someone stated in one of their reviews here that ordinary people of the late 18th century didn't act like the people shown in this series. Research shows that, yes, folks did act very similar to what's portrayed. You have to watch a movie like this not with a 21st century mindset but with the realization that people didn't always socially act the way they do today. It amazes me how so few people understand this. And speaking of personalities, I believe that all the actors - sans one - fit their parts well, especially Benjamin Franklin. The one I was slightly disappointed with was the actor chosen to portray the younger General George Washington (during the 1770's). Although working well as the older PRESIDENT Washington, I feel they needed a younger man to play the part during the Rev War. The man chosen is just too old for the 1770's scenes. But, Thomas Jefferson was spot on! I do agree to an extent with other reviews that the way the film was shot can get a bit frustrating: angle left this scene - angle right the next - run with the camera the next scene...a little too overdone. But, you learn to over-look this. A minor thing in my opinion. By the way, the sets (computerized and otherwise) were so accurate - the details were amazing: true candle lit rooms, pulling the curtain past the door to help keep the cold out, the hat racks, framed silhouette pictures, the furniture and the rooms of the houses themselves, the "extra's" in the streets (vendors, animals, etc.)...I could go on and on - all as accurate as I have seen in any movie. And the clothing was perfect as well. Not a detail was missed. It seems as much went into the sets and clothing as into the acting and dialog. How refreshing. All things considered, this is a phenomenal work that has just blown me away. The best American History film I have seen yet.

The Crossing - (this review is from Amazon) - Every American knows that George Washington crossed the icy Delaware River in the War of Independence, if only from Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's famous 1851 painting. The made-for-cable-TV historical drama The Crossing, scripted by Howard Fast from his novel, corrects at least one piece of historical invention--Washington did not stand and pose for the occasion of Leutze's portrait--but, more importantly, it frames the event in the real-life drama that made it a decisive moment of American history. Jeff Daniels makes a fine General George Washington, the quiet, dignified, and increasingly desperate leader of the volunteer Continental Army. By December 1776, six months after the Declaration of Independence was signed, the tired and hungry army had retreated to the far banks of the Delaware River, a mere fraction of the original 20,000-strong force. Knowing that defeat means the end of the revolution, Washington takes the offensive in a dangerous surprise attack that turns the tide of the war. Like the sprawling Civil War epic Gettysburg, The Crossing takes one incident of the Revolutionary War and digs into the whys and wherefores that make it vital history. It brims with rich historical detail and comes alive with the stories of officers, soldiers, and a very human George Washington.

Gods & Generals / Gettysburg - (this review is from the product description) - Key battles of America's Civil War thunder across the screen in two richly scaled, rigorously authentic, powerfully compelling epics based on acclaimed historical novels by Michael Shaara. Gods and Generals reveals the spirited allegiances and fierce combat of earlier Civil War struggles, framing its tale with the fateful clashes at Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. The tide of the war changes during three fierce days of combat at Gettysburg, the gripping saga of the tactics, command errors and sacrifices behind the bloodiest battle ever fought on U.S. soil. These sprawling films remind us of the people, passions and heroism that fanned the flames of a country at war with itself.

It's with these films/dvd's that a variety of American History can be witnessed, as accurately as available, and will hopefully give the middle school kids a greater understanding of times past in this great country.
What do you think? Any other possible suggestions for historically accurate (as far as TV and films go) movies?


Robert said...

As much as I enjoy going to schools and showing off theres one thing I hate about it. Once you tell them everything its a waste of time because when you fire the muskets there brains litteraly get farted out there butt. I went to do a presentation and got some thatnkyou letters. Half of them or even more 75% i would say said "thankyou so much for telling us about the Civil War. I really like it when you shot your guns". The ones I like are "thankyou for comeing and telling us about the Civil War. I really like the forage caps". Or something along that line.


Historical Ken said...

Huck -
I absolutely know what you mean. Same here.
But, there have been those that would come up to me a few years later and remember our presentation. They forgot all of the other silly assemblies, but they remembered the one we put on.