I really looked forward to watching and writing about this month’s Film Club feature, Men Go To Battle. Now that I find myself here at my computer, I’m perplexed. How do I interpret this film in a meaningful way? Set in the Civil War era, I expected a stronger story arc and a greater sense of immediacy regarding the effect of the war on the lives of ordinary, middle class citizens. What I found instead is actually a sub-genre of film called “mumblecore.” This is new terminology for me although I recognize the style and I think you will too. According to Wikipedia, mumblecore films tend to revolve around characters in their twenties and early thirties who are usually single, and rather aimless in both their professional and personal lives. Generally low budget, indie films, plots are often concerned with difficulties in romantic relationships, exacerbated by the characters’ inability to articulate their own desires. “Aimless” certainly describes the characters in this film and knowing what enormous forces were at play within their milieu, their seeming lack of awareness is what made it difficult for me to wholeheartedly engage with the story. Nevertheless, the film has redeeming qualities, particularly in its detail around setting and costumes, while the characters are not totally unlikable. Entertainment reviewer Joe McGovern put it this way: “Though the film never deeply transcends its basic thesis about the ramshackle lives of frustrated men, the final minutes are improbably touching for how they eschew uplift in favor of a more honest conclusion. Battlefields, both real and imagined, then and now, will always be filled with aimless dudes.”
Centered around brothers Francis and Henry, the two live together on their floundering farm in Kentucky where unknown events have brought them to an economically depressed and virtually untenable place in their lives. Likely suspects for this set of circumstances are crop failures, poor decision making, and lack of support from a surrounding community that clearly views them as dim-witted country bumpkins. Also, what is often missing in sweeping Civil War epics is the fact that small farmers like Francis and Henry depended on the North for trade and economic stability. Even the run-up to the war must have stressed to the breaking point whatever prospects the brothers had going for themselves. I found myself feeling sympathetic toward both characters, Henry in particular, and further found myself longing for the story – whatever it was – that preceded the film’s narrative.
Men Go To Battle was written, directed and co-produced by Zachary Treitz and Kate Lyn Sheil. This is the first feature film for both of them. Treitz says, “The project first started as a family story about a part of my family’s history in Kentucky. These people had come from South Carolina in the early 1800s and started a farm, which grew into a town and then became a prosperous area of rural Kentucky. But it was middle-class prosperity; it wasn’t Gone with the Wind. During the Civil War, so the story went, they were decimated…we wanted to find out what was true and what was apocryphal.” Their research led them to various public and private archives in the South, particularly in Louisville, that yielded a treasure trove of unpublished, first-hand accounts from the 1850s and ’60s. Treitz and Sheil stayed on budget by filming on location actual Civil War battle reenactments. The work of these young screenwriters shows great promise, and for this reason alone, the film is well worth watching. Screening begins at 6:15 pm on Wednesday, Jan. 25th, in the library’s second floor meeting room. ~Lynne