Filming history: ‘Making of an American Army’

Story by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers Live

Continental light infantry troops take fire from British cannons during the Battle of Yorktown during a scene from “Making of an American Army.” (U.S. Army photo via Cortina Productions)

The off-and-on drizzle turned the field to mud. Three British infantry soldiers stood on a hill, their red coats standing out in stark contrast in the expanse of beige. Smoke hung around their ankles. An American voice cried out, “cut!” and the movie set sprang to life.

The National Museum of the U. S. Army, in cooperation with Cortina Productions and the Army Multimedia and Visual Information Directorate, filmed several productions in State Farm, Va., for use in the museum. On November 13, 2012, the film crew was shooting for one of the larger productions, “Making of an American Army.”

“We are filming the 1776 Long Island sequences,” Andrew Rakowski, historical re-enactor, said.  “It was not a good day for the Americans; pretty good day for the British. The Americans got beat up pretty bad during all the sequences. So, right now we’re dressed out as British light infantry.”

Actors and re-enactors in full revolutionary regalia, complete with muskets and powder, trudged through the mud from the central tent to the row of trucks distributing gear. Prop masters, decked out in all-weather jumpsuits, handed out ammunition boxes, belts, hats—you name it—before lining the extras up for a practice drill. It started raining again, and the whole troupe headed back over to the main tent, where they could practice under shelter. The prop masters directed the cast to hold the musket under their arm to keep the rain out of the powder pan and increase the likelihood the guns would fire during filming.

The tent itself was a jumble of tables and chairs, camera gear, production crew and a green screen. Production assistants scrambled to reorganize tables to give the cast a dry place to practice.

Rakowski, who has been a re-enactor since 2002, typically works as American militia. He is normally able to bring his own gear, but for this film, he had to borrow a few things from the prop department to be a historically accurate British soldier.

“When you get the film shoots, it’s very different from a reenactment,” he said. When he re-enacts a battle, he will stay on the field in tents and eat period foods. Film shoots are the opposite. “You’re not really living it—you’re staying in a hotel, you’re eating catered food, you’re not sitting there (eating) the salted meats or whatever the food you’re getting is,” he explained.

On the other hand, participating in a film provides a few experiences you don’t get as a re-enactor, such as mock explosions and squibs, which simulate bullet impact.

“A lot of times when you do a reenactment or a display at a museum, you’re not having things exploding all around you. So you get some of these interesting experiences where you have all kinds of explosions and smoke and all this going on, where you don’t get that at your normal reenactment,” Rakowski said.

The production brought in re-enactors to help give the film a sense of realism. They have studied and trained with 18th century fighting techniques, and understand how to handle weapons from that time period. Rakowski explained it helps save the production time because if the cast was made entirely of actors, they would all have to be trained on the appropriate drills.

“Since this film is being made not for artistic merit, but as a piece to show in a museum, we need to be as authentic as we can possibly be,” Harris J. Andrews, artifact historian with the Museum Project Office, said.

Andrews identifies artifacts for the museum and was on set to help authenticate costumes and period military drills, as well as behavior. He reviewed takes with the director and made suggestions on how to improve a particular shot. He hopes that the finished film will convince the audience they are really looking at the past.

Kim Crosslin, director of Museum Advancement and the production project manager, said the film will help enhance the artifacts displayed in the museum.

“The AV productions are meant to enhance that story, to not only entice and maybe excite the average visitor, but to bring a little bit more to teach the public more about the Army history,” she said.

The film, which follows the transformation of the Army from a “completely green, untrained citizen militia,” to the bona fide Continental Army, will magnify the exhibits by discussing the history and heritage of the Army, Andrews explained.

To recreate authentic battle sequences, the production crew had to replicate obstacles and weather conditions that were present during the Revolution. Valley Forge sequences were recreated with an abundance of fake snow, real mud and a log hut—built at Andrews’ suggestion—using a mud and straw mixture for mortar.

Rakowski explained that the day they filmed the Valley Forge sequence was already cold, but the set dressing made it frigid.

“It was just a really neat sequence. You get to see how bad it really was for these guys. We were wearing a lot of distressed movie clothing. It was pretty rag-tag clothing, so it kind of showed you how hard it was for them to live in that situation,” he said. A fellow re-enactor spent most of the day walking around with just rags around his feet, which was not uncommon for the Soldiers of the time.

Another challenging sequence for cast and crew alike was filming the Battle of Yorktown, where cast members had to storm a redoubt — a type of earthwork fortification — and fight hand-to-hand in the trenches. Andrews explained the British built the redoubts along the York River, not as part of the main fortifications, but simply to slow the American attack. He said the most challenging scene they had filmed so far was the storming of the redoubt.

“(It) had to be assaulted by bayonet point at night, with pioneers cutting their way through the obstacles … and then up into a ditch, and then up a probably 15 foot embankment, with a friese — which is sharpened stakes,” Andrews said.

Filming that sequence changed Rakowski’s perspective of history.

“You see how hard it would have been to actually climb the redoubt, because you have this high redoubt, but then there’s this trench or ditch right in front of it. So, you have to climb into the ditch and find a way to crawl on top of (the redoubt) and it would have been really scary to do, because you’re going to be at a very exposed position when you’re doing this,” he said. While crawling up the fortification, Soldiers wouldn’t be able to carry their weapons, leaving them defenseless. It drove home how dangerous this kind of attack was.

The Army is producing 42 pieces for the museum, Crosslin said, “Making of an American Army” being one of the largest productions.  Some productions, including this film, have been in production for almost three years, from treatment to post-production.

“We’re getting to the point this year and into, well, a year from now, where they are all going to get done,” she said. It’s been a rush the last six months to pull things together and she credits the production companies, like Cortina, for making it as easy as possible. “I’ve got a good team of people working with all of this to get everything in place.”

Rakowski hopes the film will give museum patrons an appreciation for how hard it was for the Army to be built, especially for the Soldiers during the Revolution. “There were times when men were literally just starving,” he said.

“Any museum is part entertainment, but education through entertainment,” Andrews said. “And what a view of the past provides is an endless source of parables for the present, an endless source of educational stories for anybody visiting, and that’s why we’re telling some of them through films.”