27 August 2010

The Angel of Marye's Heights - A Review

A Review of the film, The Angel of Marye’s Heights (Right Stripe Media), written and produced by Michael Aubrecht and Clint Ross. Directed by Clint Ross.

This thirty minute Civil War documentary film opens with black and white still shots as a narrator opines that modern day Civil War battlefield visitors need something to relate to “beyond silent cannons, stone statuary.” With this story, viewers get exactly that. Watching the opening credits and listening to the musical score, I got the distinct impression I was about to be treated to a high quality drama about the War Between the States with A list actors portraying the likes of Lee, Jackson, Grant, et al. And though this story contains plenty of drama, it is not a “Hollywood drama”--it is a first class documentary that accurately tells the true account of Richard Kirkland--the Angel of Marye’s Heights.

The film introduces viewers to this incredible story by telling of Kirkland’s background and upbringing on the family farm in South Carolina. From there, the film moves quickly to the opening of the war and, fortunately, avoids falling into the popular trap of suggesting the war was solely over slavery--or solely over state rights. The narrator correctly states that “issues over states’ rights and the institution of slavery became the mainstay of ardent debate and dissension.” From that statement, it moves on, as causes of the conflict are not what this film is about. It was, nonetheless, refreshing to see a contemporary Civil War film avoid over-simplifying the causes that divided our great nation.

As lead-ins to the main story line, John Brown’s raid is discussed, as well as secession and Lee’s decision to decline Lincoln’s offer to command Union forces. The narration explains that Kirkland’s decision to fight for his native South Carolina was based upon the same principles which guided Lee's decision: “to defend its homes and firesides if his duty were called upon.” Kirkland’s decision was not surprising as military service was not foreign to the Kirklands--at least ten of Kirkland’s ancestors had fought for the colonies during America’s War for Independence.

Enlisting with South Carolina’s Camden Volunteers, seventeen year old Kirkland made a choice that would lead to him becoming, in historical memory, immortal--albeit not for the same reasons most Civil War soldiers are remembered. Though certainly a brave soldier, Kirkland would be remembered for an act of mercy, rather than his prowess in battle.

The film does an excellent job of explaining the positions of the Union and Confederate lines during the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg and how Union soldiers were exposed to an unmerciful slaughter by the Confederates resulting in what one Confederate soldier described as, “weird, unearthly, terrible to hear and bear the cries of the dying soldiers filling the air -lying crippled on a hillside so many miles from home-breaking the hearts of soldiers on both sides of the battlefield.”

The anguished voices so moved young Kirkland that he petitioned Confederate General Joseph Kershaw for permission to leave his position so that he could offer water to the wounded and dying. Though advised against it, permission was granted and Kirkland loaded as many as a dozen water-filled canteens over his shoulders and began assisting those in need.

The combination of period stills, historical art, modern photography of battlefields, along with the captivating use of motion graphics and 3D digital map imagery; all work together to make this film visually absorbing. The narration and story line moves along at a good pace, keeping the viewer engaged and interested. Add the expert commentary by local historians Michael Aubrecht, John Cummings, and others; and the final result is a first rate documentary. My only criticism is that the film was too short. I was left with the feeling that I wanted to see more. And, hopefully, that is what we will get with future projects from Messrs. Aubrecht and Ross.

See the film. You won't be disappointed.

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