A TV cameraman in the early 1970s finds and films two civil war stories. 1,675 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Paul was very young, only 20, and this was to be his first film. He had saved enough money to fund it by working as a TV cameraman at former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s TV station in Austin, Texas. He wanted to produce a short anti-war fable and he was excited. The Vietnam war was raging, and many of his friends were fighting, and some had been killed. Paul had been graced with a high lottery number, so he wouldn’t be getting drafted. But the war was constantly on his mind, and he thought his allegory using the Civil War as a foundation might speak to viewers. It would be done in stark black and white, merging his influences of Ingmar Bergman and Sergei Eisenstein. He had projected a lot of their films in university classes serving as a teaching assistant in the Radio/TV/Film Department.
The story Paul outlined was simple. A wounded Confederate soldier is chased by a troop of Yankees and stumbles onto an isolated cabin in the woods where he is taken in by the kindly Old Man who lives there. Far away from battle, the soldier thinks he is safe. The Old Man shelters him, hiding him from his pursuers, binding his wounds and, when he is healed, watching him return to the war. The story was about paternal care and kindness found even in the heart of battle. It was also about the bleak cycle of violence in combat. There would be no dialogue: just simple action and emotion communicated through faces. And Paul knew that all his skills as a photographer and filmmaker would be required to pull this off.
He needed to find the perfect cast. His younger brother had a friend who was in the drama school at the university and would play the wounded Confederate soldier. The young actor was studying Shakespeare and Chekhov, all the great classic plays. Paul was lucky to have him.
He needed one more actor to play the Old Man, a Good Samaritan type. He searched for him everywhere. He wanted someone with gravitas and a special face. One day Paul drove up to a mini-mart to buy some beer, and an old man came out with white hair and a beard and eyes that almost twinkled. Paul asked him if he had ever thought about doing some acting because he had such a great face. The old man said he had done some community theatre many years ago. His name was Max and he was a beekeeper. Paul knew immediately Max would be perfect as the Good Samaritan.
He began to search for the cabin location. He needed a specific feel — very old, isolated if possible. Max solved Paul’s problem by taking him to a little town near Austin called Buda where a half-toppled cabin was sitting in the middle of an empty field. When Max opened the door, he discovered the place was filled with bees and overflowing with honey. Max had forgotten he had put some hives out there over a year ago, and now the amount of honey was a bonanza for him. He told Paul this must mean good luck for the movie.
They talked to a farmer about permission to shoot there. He was suspicious of Paul’s motives and asked if he was just trying to show how bad things were? Paul told him no, he just loved the look of the old place and that it resembled the Civil War to him. Max assured the farmer Paul could be trusted, so the man said okay, and Paul gave him $50 as a rental stipend.
The crew was small, consisting of mostly friends Paul had recruited from the university. He brought sandwiches and beers and Cokes in an ice chest for lunch. Somehow the passion of making the film was contagious. Everyone worked really hard and listened to what he needed. He also was very persuasive, helped by the bold passion of youth.
They shot on 16mm black & white film, using a French Éclair camera with a zoom lens. They recorded sound on a Nagra. Later they would be editing on a Movieola. All the equipment was borrowed, some from the university, some from the TV station where Paul worked.
There was a joy to filming this way: basic, economic, spares. He needed a clear intent for every shot. There was no room for waste. The group all acted as one unit. The actors gave all they could and imbued the film with quiet emotion. It was about their faces and eyes.
The movie begins with haunting flute music and a stark landscape. Dark trees are silhouetted against the sky. The Soldier in Confederate grey is on the run through the trees. He holds his bloody arm. He is being chased by mysterious Dark Riders, obviously a troop of Yankees. They keep their distance. The Soldier runs across a field of torn-down trees and stumps that resemble a graveyard. The Horsemen disappear. The Soldier has eluded them and gotten away. Eventually, he stumbles onto a lonely cabin in a field, and he collapses in the yard, unconscious. An Old Man is chopping wood, but he stops when he sees the Soldier. He walks over to the body and sees he is not dead. So the Old Man carefully lifts the Soldier into his arms and carries him to the cabin. He places him on an iron bed. He cuts the bugle from his neck. He sticks his knife into the flames of an oven and, when heated, applies the blade to the Soldier’s wounds. The Young Man screams.
On the first night, the Old Man keeps watch out his window. He thinks he hears animals out there, maybe even horses, but he isn’t sure. He bathes the Soldier, then feeds him. The Soldier sleeps. Days go by and the Soldier’s health improves. On other nights, the Old Man keeps watching from his chair by the window. But they are alone. They never speak, as if there is nothing to say. The Old Man goes quail hunting in the bushes and tall grass. He prepares the birds and they eat together at the table. The Soldier is much improved and can finally use his wounded arm again. Now his eyes keep drifting outside. One day, he takes a short walk in the thicket. He is overcome with emotion in the trees. Because he has survived.
Now the Soldier must leave. He will return to the war. The Old Man is sad to see him go, but the Soldier is stoic. He walks away, and the Old Man watches him cross the field. But then the Good Samaritan hears something loud and disturbing in the distance, the Dark Horsemen. Their horses are ridden right up to the cabin door, and they throw the body of the Soldier onto the ground, at the Old Man’s door. The Old Man looks at them with sad resignation. He knows there is no escape. He steps to the body — and the film ends.
Paul and his crew shot the film for four weeks but only on weekends. When they were done, they all felt they had accomplished something that would turn out to be special.
Paul edited at night, usually beginning at midnight after the TV station closed up. The station managers let him use an empty editing room and an old Movieola. As he worked, he realized he was creating a dream. It was all fitting together perfectly, just as he had imagined it. Sometimes, the beautiful intensity of his actors’ faces made him quietly weep.
During the day, Paul was still a cameraman for the local news shows and also for a kids show called Packer Jack. “Jack” was an old prospector who told kids stories about the Old West. Paul also shot footage for the news out in the community, sometimes racing to a crime scene and filming someone getting arrested. Once, there was a fire he shot. And as this was during the Vietnam period, he shot footage of anti-war speeches, when they occurred.
One day there was a massive demonstration against the war on the lawn in front of the Texas State Capitol building. Thousands and thousands of people were there, community residents as well as students. Paul was roaming through the crowd shooting faces, listening to discussions. Speakers addressed the crowd from a makeshift stage set up on the tall marble steps of the Capitol building. In the middle of one speech from a Vietnam veteran who had quit the Army and given back his combat medals, the crowd heard noise that was trying to drown out the speaker. It was a great many Texas Rangers on horseback who had ridden up and surrounded the protesters and then moved through, trying to scatter the crowd.
In a panic, many protesters ran away. But the Texas Rangers kept on. They fired tear gas canisters at people. This all caused great havoc and fear. Some of the protestors were backed against the Capitol building, so they ran through the foyer to get away. High above them on the upper floors, state workers were watching. Paul filmed them looking, then tilted down onto the people scrambling on the ground. Suddenly, several Texas Rangers rode into the foyer, their horses whinnying as they chased the demonstrators. One horse lost his footing on the slick floor and fell, throwing his rider off as they both slid across the way. Paul got it on film. He zoomed in close on the frightened horse. The demonstrators yelled angrily through their coughing and tears from the gas. Paul kept zooming into their disturbed faces. He knew what he had was very dramatic.
That night, the station ran Paul’s riveting footage on the news. People from all over the state were surprised to see such profound action against the war coming from these citizens and their pursuers. Once again, Paul had captured the bleak cycle of violence in combat.