Film

A Visceral Film's Deep-Seated Effect

Action hero: A film at Mount Vernon's new orientation center shows dramatic moments in Washington's life.
Action hero: A film at Mount Vernon's new orientation center shows dramatic moments in Washington's life. (By Dayna Smith -- The Washington Post)

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By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

You can lick snowflakes off your face and squint through a rolling fog as you cross the Delaware with Gen. George Washington. You can feel the mule kick of war cannon under your rump, as the nation's Founding Father and his citizen army rout the Hessian garrison at the Battle of Trenton, Dec. 26, 1776.

Yes, we said "rump." At Mount Vernon, you watch this "Revolutionary War Immersive Experience" in a plush, state-of-the-art theater rigged with snow and fog machines, strobe lights, three projectors and, yes, rumble seats. (The latter is thanks to technology used in those Universal Studios' thrill rides.) These and other vicarious sensations are part of a new audiovisual experience waiting for visitors in two new buildings at Mount Vernon, George Washington's storied estate.

The action in the 14-minute "Revolutionary" presentation comes from two screens: one on the wall and a smaller, oval-shaped screen that seems to float in front of it. The effect is exhilarating. You watch Continental soldiers and redcoats exchanging musket fire on the big screen, while maps and other military documents unfold on the other, angled one. It's as if you're watching the American Revolution from Washington's own strategy table.

If the "Revolutionary" experience is the crowd pleaser, "We Fight to Be Free" is the real headliner: a rousing 18-minute action film about Washington's life that greets visitors to the new Ford Orientation Center. Shown in rotation at two beautiful theaters -- with red fabric walls, red carpeting and cherry wood seating -- it covers high points in the first president's life and career. Washington (played by Sebastian Roché) skirmishes with Indians during the French and Indian War, outsmarts the British (again), becomes the nation's first leader and -- ah, yes -- meets the love of his life, Martha Custis (Caroline Goodall).

Eleven short videos (ranging from 45 seconds to six minutes), produced by the History Channel, quickly open effective windows into Washington's life and times. Sometimes literally: A video of Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben barking in German at nervous American recruits is shown through a cabin window at Valley Forge. Lying in front of that window is a wax figure of a sick soldier, wrapped in blankets, moving and coughing in his bunk. In the most affecting History Channel short, Martha Washington speaks to her late husband in a letter (a sensitive off-screen performance by Glenn Close), remembering the good, and not so good, times as she shared her husband with America.

And a touch-button exhibit allows visitors to hear contrasting views of what it was like to be one of Washington's slaves, this from historians, the testimony of descendants and the particularly insightful comments of Howard University professor Edna Greene Medford.

The museum succeeds in presenting video and film in innovative ways that will seem natural and in tune with visitors weaned watching images on their plasma screens, BlackBerrys and cellphones.

The tour culminates with "The Legacy Experience," a presentation in a circular room with an image that wraps halfway around, courtesy of several projectors. The video features narration by former secretary of state Colin Powell and presidential historian David McCullough. Sure, it's giddily over the top -- it concludes with a Fourth of July fireworks bombardment while the Brooklyn Youth Chorus serenades listeners with "America the Beautiful" -- but it's hard to fault the sentiment.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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