Field Of Lost Shoes (a film review by Mark R. Leeper) (2014).

September 24, 2014 | By | Reply More

‘Field Of Lost Shoes’ recounts the story of the 1864 Civil War battle of New Market. In Virginia, this battle is remembered primarily because student-cadets from the nearby VMI were pressed into service to fight the battle with some laying down their lives. Sean McNamara directs a script by Thomas Farrell and Dave Kennedy. Some of the style is reminiscent of Ronald Maxwell’s films ‘Gettysburg’ and ‘Gods And Generals’. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

The Battle of New Market, Sunday, May 15, 1864, is not generally considered to be one of the most important engagements of the American Civil War. Ulysses S. Grant’s plan was to come between Robert E. Lee’s army and the Shenandoah Valley, the valley being the agricultural source of much of what Lee’s army needed to eat. The battle might have shortened the war had Grants plan succeeded, but the plan was foiled by troops under General John C. Breckinridge. Lee was still able to collect the harvest in the valley.

What is best remembered is that the battle took place near VMI, the Virginia Military Institute and that student cadets at VMI as young as 14 had their studies interrupted as they were called to fight in a real battle. Some of the cadets had not just their studies but also their lives stopped. They are still revered on the campus with a monument and six graves across the street from the parade grounds at VMI. There were 247 cadets who fought, more than 50 were casualties and 10 were killed. The cadets who gave their lives and all 247 who fought are remembered each year in an annual memorial ceremony at VMI.

John Wise (played as a boy by Sean Ryan Fox and as a cadet by Luke Benward) is growing up in Virginia the son of a governor who believes in the abolition cause while young John is more loyal to the State of Virginia. Early in the film, the father makes his point effectively. We flash forward to when John is one of a small group of friends training at VMI.

After a little rough treatment to an incoming freshman, they adopt him into their group. From there, the film shows a little bit of what life was like for the VMI cadets including some romantic entanglements. But before it grows tiresome, the story turns to the federal troops under the command of General Franz Sigel invading the Shenandoah Valley. As a military necessity, the entire class of VMI was called to fight together with the southern troops led by General Breckinridge, a former vice president of the United States.

In writing a Civil War battle film, it is nearly impossible to avoid the issue of slavery. That was a great deal of what the South was fighting for. In ‘Gettysburg’ (1993), writer/director Ronald Maxwell had some detached conversation on both sides about slavery, but the conversation was kept on an academic level and did not do much to viscerally involve the viewer. In ‘Gods And Generals’ (2003), again written and directed by Maxwell Stonewall, Jackson has a good faithful slave who travels with him and together they talk about the time when the slaves will be freed.

Neither film grabbed the viewer and rubbed his nose in the inhumanity of slavery. In fact, no notable film I know really did that to the viewer until ‘12 Years A Slave’ (2013), which was why we needed that film. ‘Field Of Lost Shoes’ cannot show the worst excesses of slavery, but what it does show is realistic and bad enough to make its point. This film’s writers could not devote the entire story to that issue as ‘12 Years A Slave’ did. Still, they could confront the conflicting principles head-on unlike Maxwell’s approach. ‘Field Of Lost Shoes’ in the first minutes of the film tells us in no uncertain terms what kind of holy horror slavery was. The film then shows the cadets from VMI as being gallant in their way but at the same time only one had really thought of the serious issues of the war. We see both sides without equivocation and the viewer can decide how to react.

Field of Lost Shoes (a film review by Mark R. Leeper) (2014).

Field of Lost Shoes (a film review by Mark R. Leeper) (2014).

Much of this film appears to have been shot in and around the VMI campus where the story takes place. It may look just a bit too spic and span and civil war soldiers seem unrealistically to be in well-laundered uniforms. Familiar faces in the cast include Keith David, David Arquette, and Tom Skerritt as General Grant.

Frankly, it is a real pleasure to see a new film in which the heroes wear Civil War uniforms and not superhero spandex. I would rate Field of Lost Shoes a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.

Mark R. Leeper

© Mark R. Leeper 2014

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