Students make movie about Civil War battle


Rivaldo Oreliana as Gustav joins the Union soldiers, from left, Duncan Childress, Devin Low, Nate Smith, Elijah Hernandez, Kris Deller-Wolfson and John Cubas. (Ann Cameron Siegal/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
May 13, 2011

Sixth-graders at Stonewall Middle School in Manassas recently went back in time with their video cameras. Their goal was to bring the First Battle of Manassas (also known as the Battle of Bull Run) to life for other students as part of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary.

The student-written script focuses on July 21, 1861, and involves a magical musket, time travel, a pivotal point in the war and some powerful lessons learned.

Preparation

The students spent months on research. Primary sources, including diaries and news reports of the time, provided first-person accounts of that day. Presentations from Civil War experts fueled their imaginations. Who were the people involved in the battle? How did they talk? What did they wear? What was it like to be an officer, a soldier or to be wounded?

The script

The story unfolds through the eyes of two fictional young people.

Twelve-year-old Gustav is an immigrant from northern Europe living in New York, who joined the Union forces as a drummer, a position held by boys too young to fight. Drummers served as messengers between soldiers and their commanders. Different drumbeats signaled “march,” “retreat”or “listen up!”

Dezzy is a modern kid who, while on a field trip to the museum that stands at the battlefield today, touches a musket and magically awakens in a 19th-century tent as a soldier with Union General Irvin McDowell’s troops. When word comes that McDowell is heading from Washington to Manassas, Dezzy again touches the magic musket, which shifts him to the battlefield as a Confederate soldier.

The setting

Filming took place at Manassas National Battlefield Park, on the very spot where the real battle occurred.

Thousands of soldiers and dozens of commanding officers were involved that day, so the students narrowed their story to focus on just the part of the battle when Confederate generals Barnard Bee and Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson led young, inexperienced soldiers against McDowell’s equally young Union troops.

That was when the battle changed from an expected Union victory to a win for the Confederates. It was also memorable for another reason.

Rachel Habib, who played Dezzy, said, “I never knew how Stonewall Jackson got his name.” She learned that as General Bee’s men were under heavy attack, he spotted Jackson’s troops moving forward and reportedly hollered, “Look, men! There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. . . . Rally behind the Virginians!”

The lessons

History became real as students realized they were standing where General Bee was severely wounded shortly after making that remark. He died the next day.

As the story unfolds, Dezzy and Gustav learn valuable lessons. For Dezzy, it was to stand strong, even when a situation seems rough. For Gustav, it was about the important contributions made by individuals — even a young drummer.

Stephanie Flear, who played Gustav’s sister, said, “I didn’t know how hard it is to have loved ones go to war.”

The filming

Battles are unpredictable, and so is moviemaking.

Rachel McAllister, who practiced using a video camera at school, was surprised when she got to the battlefield. “Filming was harder than I thought it would be: dealing with different settings, lighting, weather and temperatures.”

Rivaldo Oreliana, who played the role of Gustav, was surprised when it took more than 45 minutes to film a one-minute scene. “I thought you just film a scene and you’re done.” Often, it takes many tries to make sure the actors’ facial expressions, actions and voices are just right for the moment. “Cry more!” “Do it again without the giggles!” commanded student directors.

And, of course, there were funny, unscripted moments. One “soldier” shrieked, “There are animal droppings in my tent!” And while setting up the scene outside the battlefield hospital, someone hollered, “Who has the blood?”

Yep, you can’t have a wounded-soldier scene without blood, so the students made some from corn syrup, food coloring and cocoa powder. It looked very realistic!

— Ann Cameron Siegal

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