Entry 40: Brothers In Arms

Image result for men go to battle

Men Go to Battle. Directed by Zachary Treitz. Written by Kate Lyn Sheil and Zachary Treitz.

Release Date: September 13, 2016.

When I heard someone had made a small indie Civil War comedy, I was naturally intrigued. America’s bloodiest conflict doesn’t lend itself to laughs, with the shining exception of Buster Keaton’s The General. If judged strictly as a comedy, I’m not sure Men Go to Battle is a success. It mostly offers subtle cringe-humor, without the obvious punchlines and payoffs of The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm. There is a light feel overall but it’s used to tell a surprisingly accurate and interesting story about two yeoman farmers in in rural Kentucky from the end of 1861 to the end of 1862. Indeed, despite its vague comedy trappings, this is one of the most realistic Civil War movies I’ve seen.

Our two protagonists are brothers, the Mellons, living in the fictional town of Small’s Corner. We know by the establishing “November 1861” title card that this takes place during the Civil War, but there are few signs of the conflict in the film’s first half—a mention of Simon Buckner raising troops here, a few Union soldiers marching by there. The humor comes from the brothers incompetently running their surprisingly large farm. Francis (David Maloney) schemes to improve their situation, especially by selling portions of their farm or getting in good with the local dominant family, the Smalls, but inevitably fails. His brother Henry (Timothy Morton) is more adrift and less motivated but shows slightly more capability, such as easily besting Francis in an impromptu ax-throwing contest. Neither seems good for the other, as Henry’s lackadaisical attitude undermines Francis’s schemes and Francis’s schemes interrupt the simple life Henry seeks. This sounds like a pretty broad comic set-up, but the film plays it so subtly that these traits come off as more genuine than ridiculous.

Most of the film consists of watching the Mellons fail and your tolerance for it will depend on how endearing or annoying you find them. The only real narrative disruption occurs near the middle, when Henry makes a clumsy attempt to woo Betsy Small (Rachel Korine), fails, and runs off to join the Union Army. The last half mostly follows Henry’s military career, serving during the occupation of North Alabama and coming back to Kentucky to help repel Braxton Bragg’s 1862 summer invasion.

Henry’s time in the army is the film’s most interesting stretch, as military life provides him with direction and purpose. He learns to read, write, drill, and do other camp activities. Seemingly content, Henry floats through camp even as the camera wanders to peripheral horrors like disease and martial punishment. He eventually becomes a participant in the Battle of Perryville but his first major combat experience mirrors Tyrion Lannister’s: he gets clubbed in the head almost immediately and misses the whole thing. When Henry wakes up, he’s surrounded by dead bodies and signs of carnage. Disenchanted, he deserts and heads home. Back in Small’s Corner, Henry finds his brother has also benefited from the separation—making the farm profitable and marrying Betsy—but there’s a new distance between them and Henry sets out on his own.

It’s tempting to get carried away finding broader symbolism in this simple story. This could be a national parable about brotherly separation and cooperation, but I don’t think so. More likely, the overall point is to give us a realistic and de-romanticized depiction of the sort of agrarian Civil War experience Hollywood and pop culture rarely acknowledges. The Mellons are not Jimmy Stewart’s super-efficient yeoman Anderson family nor are they the glorious planters of Gone With the Wind. They aren’t even Nicole Kidman’s Ada, transformed by the war into resilient, independent farmers. The war certainly does benefit Francis and Henry, but only coincidentally. Henry’s motivation remains minimal, with army life forcing him to learn certain skills, and Francis’s advancement seems mostly due to luck, taking advantage of a power gap left when the Union Army displaces the Smalls. This is an accurate depiction of how war sometimes touches the lives of those who live through it only in random, small, unexpected, and often undramatic ways.

But it’s the little touches in Men Go to Battle that really impressed me. We don’t see much of Small’s Corner, but its conception as a small town named for the family who owns the general store (and probably founded it) is a surprisingly realistic bit of detail. I can’t count the number of times I encountered similar civic origin stories when I was researching early Illinois for The Papers of Abraham Lincoln. The characters also read like actual people, instead of romantic figures from a historical past that was much less glorious than we like to believe. Henry’s military service is equally unromantic, as he spends almost all of his time in camp and the one flash of battle is solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.

So, I’m giving Men Go to Battle surprisingly high marks for historical accuracy. It was an interesting watch even though its meandering, mostly eventless story makes me think I probably won’t watch it again. It might produce good discussion if shown in class or as part of a public program, as it gives us an unrepresented view of the war. It is Zachary Treitz’s directorial debut and clearly made with a very small budget (some scenes are almost unwatchably grainy), so I’m curious to see what he does next.

Additional Dispatches:

  • The new job has me pretty busy, so I’m spending less time with this blog. Hopefully, I’ll get things back up to speed in the near future.
  • I’m starting to realize there’s an entire subgenre of indie films set in the Civil War Era. Already for this blog, I’ve watched the similarly low-budget but historically set Better Angels and The Keeping Room. Maybe this is because the era can be re-created relatively cheaply (you just need costumes and some cooperative historic homes) but still provides ample opportunity to show off a rising director’s skills.
  • There are lots of closeups, probably as a costsaving measure, but they allow Treitz to overcome one of the most persistent problems when filming reenactors. By keeping the camera tight on Henry, especially at Perryville, we hardly notice most of the men around him are too old to be Civil War soldiers.
  • I’ve praised the film’s historical accuracy, and having the soldiers sing a lot was a nice touch. However, it commits the same mistake as the recent Roots remake by having a band play “Marching through Georgia” years before the song had been written. The men also sing “Alouette.” This is chronologically possible but seems like an odd choice for Civil War soldiers. I’m curious to know where Treitz got the idea. Maybe he knows something I don’t.
  • Does it mention slavery? Like other aspects of the war in this film, slavery is just on the periphery, barely noticed by the characters. The only enslaved people we see are in the Small mansion. There are a couple of political moments, one as an African American woman briefly glances out the window at Union troops with a hopeful look and another when a visitor sees one of the Smalls’ slaves and remarks, “lucky they don’t kill you in your sleep.”

Next Entry: “Jingle Bells” and “Up On the Housetop”

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