Bill Oberst Jr. on the Making of Sherman’s March

Sherman_marching_with_his_troopsThis is a guest post by Bill Oberst Jr. who played William T. Sherman in the History Channel’s movie, Sherman’s March.  The show will air tomorrow evening at 9pm.  I want to take this opportunity to thank Bill for agreeing to share his thoughts about the making of the movie along with his very poignant thoughts about memory and Sherman.  My review of the movie will follow later today or tomorrow morning. 

Playing William Tecumseh Sherman for The History
Channel’s Sherman’s March was an
exercise in dichotomy.  Often, no significant character development is required for
a documentary portrayal. The standard documentary format calls for more
re-enacting (i.e., characters performing motions that visually reinforce the
narration; their dialogue audible only in snippets) than acting. But writer and
director Rick King was
attempting a new hybrid of documentary and drama. Using words from the
historical record, he had created several bonafide dramatic scenes with real
interaction and dialogue.

Which brings me back to dichotomy. I was born and raised in South Carolina, and grew up hearing stories (many apocryphal) of the march. There was both sadness and glee in the telling
of these inherited tales, nearly all of which were told from a woman’s point of
view (rapes and near rapes; the ripping open of feather mattresses with sabers;
the disinterment of recently buried loved ones, etc.) The old women at church told us that our belly buttons were "where the Yankee shot you."

Year later, when I read Faces
of The Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination
by Sam Keen, I thought of Sherman and wondered
if he (or the idea of him) had served some unifying purpose in the Southern
reframing of the late conflict, fragments of which were still around when I was
a kid. So encountering him as an actor was ironic.

The promos for this project featured a simplified version of
the question regarding Sherman:
"Hero or Terrorist?" (there are other choices, of course, but too
many choices make for bad sound bites). I thought that Rick King’s script lent
itself to the notion that Sherman was a bit of both. Under Rick’s direction I played him as both.

And so, as Sherman and his officers watch the burning of Atlanta, I tried to flash
a haunted look across his eyes before he turns to his men and justifies the
destruction. As he speaks to the elder statesman of a slave community, I tried
to play his assertion that "We are your friends" with a hint of glib
transparency, given Sherma’s
well-known views on the inequality of the races. Rick had written a
conscientious and compassionate script; a sort of prequel to his 2005
documentary Voices
In Wartime
The victim’s point
of view was never far out of the frame.

Whether such nuances come across in the context of flipping
channels on a Sunday night in America is another question. I have made my living portraying historical figures in
their own words onstage (and teaching about them in schools) for a dozen years,
and have seen our collective capacity to accept ambiguity and duality decline
along with our attention span. I have read Twain’s acerbic War Prayer
to students and performed it for adults, only to be met with the same puzzled
expressions at the tale’s seemingly contradictory last line. I have stood
onstage as John F. Kennedy speaking of an America that is respected “as much
for its civilization as for its strength,” and have known instinctively that
they only heard the strength part. And that’s on a stage with real people no
more than twenty feet away. The difficulty of presenting a layered portrait of
a contradictory human being to 21st century Americans is infinitely
greater when historical figures are subjected to the standard documentary
treatment or worse, the one-note docudrama treatment.

At this writing, I haven’t seen the finished program. But I
love history, and for the sake of that love, I hope Sherman’s March
rises above the standard. I hope it represents an evolution in the form. I hope
it raises more questions than it answers. A war, even a long-ago one, is not a product. It is the collective story
of real people who could never forget the hell that they lived through. We owe
it to them to remember, and to try and get it right.

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3 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Apr 22, 2007 @ 2:17

    Brooks, — As someone who has spent a great amount of time with Sherman I appreciate you weighing in here. I would suggest that Jim locate a copy of your edited volume of Sherman’s correspondence. As you rightly put it, his views the role of secessionists in bringing about the war are crystal clear.

  • Brooks Simpson Apr 22, 2007 @ 0:01

    Sherman was very, very clear that secessionists were at fault for the coming of the war.

  • Jim Apr 21, 2007 @ 14:38

    “given Sherman’s well-known views on the inequality of the races.”

    I gather that Sherman thought highly of the southern system of slavery, and that slavery was just a pretext for going to war. Many narratives seen in today’s media can’t or won’t explain this fact. I’ll be watching the show tonight.

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