VMI Cadets Lose More Than Their Shoes

Update: Robert Moore has a post up that takes issue with aspects of this little review. It’s worth reading, though I am not sure what exactly Robert takes issue with re: my reference to “Old Judge.” I don’t doubt that there are aspects of his portrayal that reflect available sources. [There are passages in the quoted postwar source by Wise that beg for interpretation.] What I take issue with is the way in which the slave’s portrayal fits into the broader goal of getting these boys right on the issue of race and slavery.

The film, “Field of Lost Shoes”, is currently available on YouTube (at least for now). I watched it a couple of days ago and even though I’ve read some negative reviews I had hopes that there would be some redeeming qualities. Well, I was wrong. The movie tells the story of a small group of VMI cadets that includes Moses Ezekiel, John Wise (son of Henry Wise), and Garland Jefferson (yes, that Jefferson).

The story of VMI and the battle of New Market, which took place in May 1864 is well known to Civil War enthusiasts and actually offers a promising window into a number of aspects of the war. Unfortunately, the narrative fails to do anything more than reinforce tired Civil War cliches such as the young soldier going who is forced to abandon his new love for the battlefield and Ulysses S. Grant as the war’s butcher.

Even more disappointing is the movie’s obsession with getting these young VMI cadets (and by extension, Confederate soldiers and the Confederacy itself) right with slavery and race. In the opening scene we see a young John Wise exposed for the first time to the sale of a slave family in Richmond. At VMI the cadets befriend “Old Judge”, who is a slave on the school’s campus. The boys both fear and respect this individual. While on march “down” the Shenandoah Valley on what will be their rendezvous with destiny at New Market the cadets help a female slave, who is trapped under a collapsed wagon.

It all reminds me of the movie, “Shenandoah.” No one seems to care about the maintenance of a slave society. In fact, every effort is made to place the main characters on a trajectory toward seeing the immorality of it all.

In the final battle scene “Old Judge” comforts the youngest VMI cadet.

The whole thing is an absolute Lost Cause mess.

21 thoughts on “VMI Cadets Lose More Than Their Shoes

  1. Cullen Smith

    I took had hopes that this may be slightly different than most CW films. Like you, I was also sadly disappointed. Clearly what we see in a revisionist history of the CW, with the Federal cause not being fully explored whereas the Confederate cause is re-written to make one feel good for rooting for the “underdogs” (as we are prone to do with cinema).How can the general public root for a group of boys fighting for slavery? Simply have them change their views as the movie goes on, or they never had those views to begin with.I only watched bits and pieces of FOLS (feeling like I was missing Crow and Tom Servo to watch it with me), but from what I saw of “Old Judge”, it almost invoke “Mami” from “Gone with the Wind”…
    The last thing I can say about this is as someone who worked a couple of weeks on the film as one of the background extras, I knew there was something odd. I remember as we filmed the “ball scene”, people were told not to act drunk. I also remember hearing on set that those used in the auction scene (thankfully I did not work on that scene), the extras were told to “not act drunk at all!”Yes, because being a little tipsy from wine and whiskey is far more offensive than humans being treated and sold like cattle…

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      The over-the-top way in which they attempt to get Confederate soldiers right on slavery reflects just how much our memory of the war has changed in the past few decades. In the process, however, the writers turn these boys into feint echoes of what we know they were. As Peter Carmichael argues in his book, young Virginians from the slaveholding class who came of age on the eve of the war were some of the most vocal defenders of slavery and their cause.

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      1. James Hassinger

        It ain’t easy selling the nobility of the slaveholder.

        But of course the moneyed youth from the best families all were firm believers in the fact that their families, which had reached Rockefeller-type status in their society, wanted the preservation of that system. What’s impossible to believe is that they simultaneously saw the errors in slavery and went to war with the United States for a “higher cause.” Horse pucky.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Confederate soldiers in Virginia wrote extensively at this time about the dangers they and their families faced now that the war had shifted to including black soldiers and emancipation. These cadets exist almost in isolation from everything that is transpiring beyond their world.

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          1. Jefff

            I think you could probably say that as far as the movie wants to recognize it, its cadets exist in isolation from everything transpiring within their world, as well.

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            1. David Vazquez

              The cadets are 100 times whatever you are or will ever be. Though I was in the corps of cadets of Virginia Tech, a rival university, I have nothing but the utmost respect for the VMI cadets.

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              1. Kevin Levin Post author

                He is replying to how the movie depicts these men and not on the individuals themselves. Important distinction.

  2. Ian Michael Rogers

    Do we know if VMI endorsed this film? The opening and closing credits include contemporary VMI footage but it was unclear if the school officially approved of the film.

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  3. Greg Eatroff

    Some current (as of 2013) VMI cadets played their 1864 counterparts in the battle scenes. Some of the filming took place on the VMI campus. I don’t know if that counts as endorsement or merely acquiescence.

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  4. M.D. Blough

    It really is beyond incredible that a son of Henry Wise would be ignorant of slave sales, including of families. Henry Wise was one of the most fanatical secessionists and a vocal defender of slavery. The quote from his son in the Moore column fits well within the claims of the slavery as an absolute good school that slaves were happy in their subordinate position.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I am glad Robert brought up the Wise account because I forgot about it, but I was surprised that he didn’t make much of an effort to interpret it within a postwar context.

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      1. Robert Moore

        Actually I made no effort to interpret the Wise quotes. The quotes were simply used to show what Wise actually said about “Old Judge”, and (at least for those who have seen 5he movie) to identify just how much the movie embellished. Wise is pretty straightforward, as I see it. If anything I’d like to see something about him from more cadets, and even how his passing was detailed in the local paper. Until such things can be found an interpretation of Wise’s description wouldn’t be properly served.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Good points, Robert. Thanks for reminding me of Wise’s account. Like I said in a previous comment, I don’t doubt that there are aspects of his portrayal that reflect the historical record. What I take issue with is how his portrayal, including that final scene, fits into the movie’s broader interpretation of race and slavery.

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    2. Robert Moore

      I’d argue that Henry A. Wise wasn’t always outwardly “fanatical”, but often misrepresented himself and his actual, personal interests… most especially to those he often represented. I think the apex of his fanatacism showed up in his dramatics in the final days of the Virginia Convention.

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  5. London John

    My only quibble with what’s been said is that I don’t see anything unlikely about the boys saving a trapped slave: I imagine their motivation would be that she’s the property of someone like their fathers.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      No disagreement, but I am interested in how such scenes function within the broader narrative. What message are these individual scenes about the relationship between VMI cadets and slavery intended to communicate to the audience? I think it’s pretty clear.

      Reply
  6. John Betts

    I missed this one when it came out in the theaters and now after reading everything here am wondering if I should just skip it…

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  7. John Betts

    Ok, I couldn’t resist watching the movie to see what all the fuss was about. On the positive side the cinematography was amazing and it was great to see the beauty of my home state on the Big Screen like this. I haven’t been to Lexington in about 20 years now so seeing VMI and the surrounding area again was nice. It was also nice to see Jason Isaacs portray a military leader far more likeable than a knock-off of “Bloody Ban” Tarleton (movie “The Patriot”). As a war movie this one was alright I guess, though a bit plodding at times. I’m not as familiar with the Battle of New Market as I should be so many details in the movie which might have been inaccurate probably escaped my attention. Having said all this, I did notice some things that I took issue with:
    1. The issue of slavery was papered-over, no ifs, ands or buts about it. Why these cadets fought may have had more to do with defending the nation they knew (i.e., the Confederacy), their families and homes, but I cannot believe that slavery wasn’t in the mix somewhere.
    2. The initial meeting between Lincoln and Grant seemed very contrary to what I’ve read about it. In the movie Lincoln was seen as being reluctant to welcome Grant because of his reputation as a “butcher”. Yet the real Lincoln was eagerly looking for someone like Grant who was willing to take on Lee directly so was very happy to welcome the man.
    3. A fight is shown between Cadet John Wise and another cadet (“Jack”), in which the latter claims that Wise’s father was opposed to secession. That is blatantly false. Henry Wise was not only an ardent supporter of secession, he pressed the Secession Convention prior to Fort Sumter to move forward on the issue and even drew up plans on seizing Federal installations in Virginia.
    4. It’s extremely doubtful that the real General John C. Breckenridge would have praised Henry Wise as a general prior to Petersburg, Wise had been relieved by Jefferson Davis and was relegated to minor assignments till then.
    One interesting item is about John Wise. The scene in the beginning of the movie where he witnessed a slave auction and this led to his budding anti-slavery views may be false (I don’t know for certain), but the gist of it may not be too far off the mark. He served as a US District Attorney and later as a US Congressman after Reconstruction while a member of the Readjuster Party, a biracial Virginia coalition that was eventually defeated by the resurgent conservative white Democrats. Still later he was Republican, which would have been seen by many in the defeated South as near-treasonous, and lost the race for governor to Fitzhugh Lee. I do not know what the man’s specific views were on race and slavery, but his actions after the war do tell us something about him. He wrote a book late in the 19th century called “The End of an Era” apparently about the Civil War period, which I found on Internet Archive so will be check this out soon to see for myself.

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  8. Rob Baker

    I’m finally getting to watch this movie for the first time. I’m curious however, how do you interpret the scenes where the VMI cadets are openly agreeing that slavery is the root cause of the war. This is one of the first movies I’ve watched, which has a strong Confederate perspective, that makes that distinction.

    Reply

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