My Adventures in Mohicanland!
by James Neel
... Part I
or, I'm In For It Now!
April 2, 1991, I was offered a job on Last of the Mohicans by Dale Fetzer, who had taken the position of reenactor coordinator for the production. Dale and I had worked closely together previously on Glory, where a big part of our job had been to train and lead the "core group" of non-reenactors; as well as organizing and coordinating the army of reenactors for that production. I also had previous experience on the TV miniseries The Blue and the Gray, and North and South, Part II; the Turner channel's Ironclads; and the IMAX production The Alamo - The Price of Freedom. For the latter, in addition to a one-line role as "Moses Rose", I had conducted one of the flintlock-armed companies of Mexican infantry! I also had experience as both a reenactor and in some of these productions organizing, training, and overseeing reenactor artillery. With that in particular; as well as my interest in the French Napoleonic era, I was supposed to be the Artillery/French "expert" among the reenactors on the production. I now appreciate just how much I was overstepping my bounds!
As during the three-month hiatus I'd taken for Glory, I quit my job as a salesman at Macy's ( again with the assurance I would be re-hired when I returned ); put all my belongings in storage so I could vacate my apartment; borrowed my Mother's new Buick; and set out for Asheville. I arrived May 20, after driving for two days from Dallas, welcomed the next day by Dale Fetzer and the other members of the "reenactor core". We were to be put up in unfurnished townhouses in a new addition, much like "dorm" living, with maybe a half-dozen or more to each unit. As one of the "older" members, I opted instead to rent cheap motel rooms by-the-week for just myself, to ensure my privacy and rest. That was an added expense for me only; but one I think was well-worth. It was at this time things began to get "interesting"!
A brief word about how reenactors are regarded by Hollywood: We are contract laborers, and are NOT employed directly by the production companies! That became Dale Fetzer's primary ( and eventually solitary ) function: he served as a private contractor; and we were therefore employed by him, NOT Forward Pass Productions! This is done to minimize the mountainous paperwork involved, especially in regards to Social Security/FICA deductions and records. This unfortunately colors the way reenactors are treated on the set by cast and crew ( particularly the PA's or production assistants ), who often seem to forget we are equally part of the production! It also was his very large responsibility to arrange for the numbers of other reenactors to appear as needed by the shooting schedule. Eventually being reduced to an administrative cipher, Dale Fetzer appeared less and less frequently on set; we were to miss the insulation he may have provided as the months wore on.
At Asheville, we were introduced to CAPTAIN Dale Dye, who the production company had put in charge of all military aspects of the film. In spite all I will say in regards to the good Captain, he provided one very important feature of our time here: continuous employment! We discovered after we'd arrived that even the "military core" were only to be paid for the time "on camera"! ( A sure feature of being considered by the "bean counters" in accounting as just so many contract day laborers. ) Therefore, until our filming actually began; and for the week gap between the "ambush scene" and the arrival at "Fort William Henry", we were supposed to just "cool our heels"! To his credit, Captain Dye persuaded the company to use the MONTH prior to filming our first scene for his "boot camp"; and the week between shooting to train the other reenactors who arrived en masse for the Fort/massacre sequences. He really kept us busy during that time we would otherwise have spent doing little or nothing, and probably NOT getting paid; of course, we were paid for all those days exactly as we were for time spent actually filming.
There were about 30 of us in the "military core", though not all were reenactors; as in the cases you have read here by Soldier I and Soldier II. I well remember both Gaston and Hurley, as well as others of our group who were not reenactors. Of those who were; not all were of the French and Indian, Colonial, or Revolutionary period. Dale Fetzer, James Permaine ( our drummer ), myself, and others were primarily Civil War reenactors. The idea was that we would form the basic background unit, including being used as the hapless company of the 60th Foot which falls prey to Magua in the "ambush" scene; then go on to expand and train and command all the other reenactors who would follow in the large Fort and massacre scenes. ( These add-ons WERE only paid for their time actually spent on set. ) We therefore, were the ones who bore the brunt of Captain Dye's ire during the notorious "boot camp" so well-described elsewhere. Since Fetzer and I were older than most of the rest of the group, somewhat less was expected of us; but we were likewise excluded from participation in the "ambush".
It was about this time during training that I received my most interesting and rewarding assignment, that of "artillery coordinator"! The very impressive cannon and mortars seen in the production were designed and built in California and shipped in pieces to Asheville, where they were assembled in a vacant lot by members of the set crew, since they were set pieces. Next they were hauled on flatbed trucks to the Fort set by transportation; then painted their various colors by the paint department. But since they also must be fired, that more or less made them the property of special effects, at least while the cameras were rolling. Yet it must appear that they were being "served" by their reenactor crews! ( They were loaded and then detonated electrically by members of special effects. ) The tools and implements used by those crews, since they were smaller items, "belonged" to props. And yet NOBODY seemed, as far as I could see, to have overall responsibility for this important element of the production!
June 13, while still at the volunteer fire training camp, I was asked by Dale Fetzer, who was still a presence at this time, if I would be "artillery coordinator". He was paying me slightly more per diem than some of the others; and it gave a more active role than I otherwise would have enjoyed, so I gladly accepted. It did NOT, however, give me any sort of responsibility for or control over the guns; I was merely a consultant for the various different departments involved with them. I talked with the head of the set department and suggested he might want to build a gun gin for the fort. He asked what that was; I explained a gin ( short for engine - same as in "cotton gin" ) was a block-and-tackle suspended from a tripod, used to lift and place the tube ( barrel ) on its carriage. We also discussed the colors for the wooden carriages of the French guns and mortars ( madder red ); and also the English ones ( dark gray ). When we finally got to the Fort set, I was thrilled to see a rather rough-hewn looking log gin; and a very large and well-finished one stood by the French gun emplacements! ( Unfortunately, Michael Mann nixed the madder red for the color of the French gin and carriages, resulting in them being instead an ox-blood so dark as to appear a very dark brown. )
My most challenging task, however, was to devise a believable drill to allow the reenactors to simulate the actual crewing of the guns. Although I'd had several years experience with Civil War artillery; and having memorized the drill used on field guns, these were quite a different animal! Unfortunately that's yet another inaccuracy of the film: Although guns of the size of those in the French camp DID exist, their use was confined strictly to Europe; and only used in permanent fortifications, not to support armies in the field. The idea of sailing and then dragging these particular guns through the wilderness of upstate New York is simply ridiculous! ( I don't CARE if Henry Knox did manage to bring the guns of Ticonderoga to Boston in the winter of '76 - THEY WEREN'T THIS BIG! ) The largest guns in Montcalm's army were only 12 pounders - about the same size as most cannon you'll find today on Civil War battlefield parks. I believe the English guns in Fort William Henry are closer in size to the originals.
I sequestered myself in my favorite place to think/work - Asheville's IHOP - and using my knowledge of drill, plus the only appropriate sources I had on hand, a Xeroxed copy of the Brigade of the American Revolution's artillery manual ( for the proper period commands ), and the NPS handbook, Artillery Through the Ages, cobbled together a useable drill. Fortunately, I'd gotten to actually serve once on the crew of the 42 pounder on barbette carriage at Old Fort Jackson Park, Savannah, Ga. during the filming of Glory, so had some feeling for working a gun fully as big as the Mohicans fiberglass replicas. Also fortunately, the sample drill in the NPS handbook was for siege guns of the 1850 period; but perfectly adaptable on short notice! I had enough background in French to translate the simple commands for the drill. If any artillery enthusiasts of this period have any complaints about matters of authenticity in regards to any of this, I can only say mea culpa!
... Part II
The Pecking Order
I don't know if there was a deliberate attempt to segregate the various groups from one another, as suggested in other accounts I've read here. Perhaps there WAS, in an attempt to increase the tension when the military encountered the Hurons for the first time during the "ambush" sequence. I rather think, however, it was just a result of the very fragmented way in which productions such as these are run; as I've already indicated regarding the artillery. It tends to naturally insulate each of the various components from each other. Much of that can be laid at the door of the Union system; whereby each separate unit or department jealously guards their own prerogatives and functions. That serves to create isolation and a spirit of limited cooperation at best. Combined with a management style like Michael Mann's, who was serving as both director and producer, it can be a recipe for disorder if not disaster; despite his intent for overall total control.
Personally, I had virtually NO contact with him; normal for someone as far removed as I was from power or authority. My lasting memory of him is from the first day or so in the downtown production office, before we began any real work. Dale Fetzer and his group were visiting, probably taking care of some sort of paperwork in the outer office; I could see Mann standing in the inner office. Though I had not been introduced, I smiled and nodded; at which he quickly turned his back, pretending not to notice. After that warm welcome, I made it a point to equally ignore and avoid him whenever possible. During the course of the production, I was involved directly in one or two fairly intimate scenes where I was able to observe things from close-up; but received no direction from him as I can remember, being considered as merely so much "window dressing". One rather unusual decision of his had a very positive impact on my experience, however; even though I think it was to prove a real problem for him as the production wore on.
Normally, any production such as this works a six-day week, with at least one 24-hour period off, usually Sunday; this is mandated by the unions. But for some reason, Mann decided instead to have a five day work week, with two consecutive days off! This decision no doubt contributed greatly to the eventual time and cost overruns, as described in other accounts. Due to the intensity and arduous conditions we experienced, no doubt this was a very welcome decision to most of the cast and crew; but obviously cut our productivity by 1/6, a major factor for the studio backers. This worked out GREAT for me, however! On our days off, I would take off alone in my car to explore the region and its historical sites. With two days, instead of only one like on previous films, I could go pretty far afield, spend a night away; and have plenty of time for sightseeing before my return.
My interest in the Colonial/Revolutionary periods was relatively new at the time, and I've always felt that the best way to learn was by visiting the places where history was made. So, the very first weekend off, I made the pilgrimage to King's Mountain, Cowpens, Ninety-Six, and Chimney Rock. The following weekend, however, I was so exhausted from "boot camp", I remained closer, only looking around the Asheville area as far as Mount Mitchell via the Blue Ridge Parkway. Looking back at the datebook I kept during the period, I see names such as Guilford Court House, Alamance, Hillsborough, Old Salem, the Bennett Place, Blowing Rock, and Boone in North Carolina; Columbia, Camden, and the Waxhaws in South Carolina; and Greenville, Sycamore Shoals, and Rocky Mount in Tennessee. I managed to return to Cowpens at least twice! And all this I owe to Michael Mann's questionable decision regarding the filming schedule.
The only person I encountered during the entire time who was universally despised was Michael Waxman, the First PA ( production assistant ). He was not in any way prejudiced, however: it seemed he went out of his way to be insensitive, rude, arrogant, obnoxious, and overbearing equally to everyone! He is the one member of the crew about whom I can think of absolutely nothing good to say. It may be that was merely his way of enforcing the director's will; or an ingrained personality flaw. Everyone else seemed in their way professional and accommodating, as I found in my position as "artillery coordinator". Of course, by the time filming began, most of the department heads had already quit in disgust or been fired, as described elsewhere. More about the effects of that as I saw it later.
As members of the "military core", we were most closely associated with Stephen Waddington and Maurice Roeves among the cast. They both spent time with us at the voluntary firefighter training field's "boot camp", participating in the PT and running. We found both to be very friendly and approachable, not at all "Hollywood". I remember seeing Madeline Stowe and Jodhi May there as well, practicing their riding. I have a couple of distant photos of Daniel Day-Lewis, stripped to the waist, being instructed in tomahawk fighting by the head of stunts, Mickey Gilbert. At the camp we eventually practiced the manual of arms for the musket, using Humphrey Bland's Excercise for Militia. The third week, one of the British guns was delivered so that we could try the drill I had contrived. At some point, we were visited by the "Huron core"; our first look at our adversaries.
I suppose the climax of our "training" was the day we were visited by members of the production office, probably including Mann, to see for themselves how things were progressing. ( No doubt to make sure they were getting their money's worth! ) This was prior to any filming by our group, and the hope was that we would perform in the machine-like way envisioned for the "ambush". We did all our best routines, including the artillery drill; and everyone seemed happy with our progress. All this time, we drilled in our civilian clothes, with perhaps a few pieces of reenactor headgear, uniform bits, etc.; using only the production company's muskets and accoutrements. At some point, the British uniforms were delivered to wardrobe; so we went for fitting. All except the breeches, that is! So there's a picture somewhere in the photo galleries of the "military core", taken from the waist up; if you look you can see the tops of jeans, etc. on the soldiers of the 60th Foot.
All except ME, that is - for some reason I found myself excluded from the beginning, told I wouldn't be needed onscreen for the ambush. Possibly it was AGE - at 44, I was probably the oldest member of the group ( almost as old as Captain Dye! ); the excuse given was that I was being "saved" for extensive use during scenes in the French camp. Needless to say, that never happened. When we FINALLY made it to filming, FOUR WEEKS after I arrived in Asheville; I was shunted aside to work with the reenactors who worked on the prop crew, mainly Ray Giron and Kelly Farrah, with whom I'd worked on several other productions including Glory. So I at least got to see another aspect of the production! Ironically, what was to have been the first day of filming for us was rained out; a portent of what was to come. Working alongside the prop crew, I missed all the long hours laying in the cold mud; but like everyone else, still came down with some sort of "bug", possibly food-related. It was during this time that we stayed at the Pixie Inn near Linville Falls on the Blue Ridge Parkway, so as to avoid a very long commute back to Asheville. At the end of this filming, I was out ill a day or two.
One of the stranger reasons I've heard put forward as to why this film was shot in North Carolina instead of where it actually took place was that "It looked so much like upstate New York". That sounds rather stupid, until you understand it means "like upstate New York USED TO LOOK"! The Adirondacks were largely destroyed in the 1870's and 1880's logging boom: The original old-growth forest virtually disappeared at that time. Fortunately for the production, filming coincided with a financial crisis for the Park Service; they had lost a lot of funding in scale downs and cutbacks. For the first time, outside interests were allowed to conduct private business on park properties ( like making movies! ), under strict government regulation and restrictions; and for a sizeable FEE, of course. This opened up areas like the Linville Falls Unit of the Blue Ridge Parkway for use as locations. I remember one tourist who was irate because the usual path to the falls was closed off, being used as the scene for the ambush. He said he was going to write and complain to his congressman because he had to take a detour to the overlook!
It was while working on props that I had the first and best opportunity to observe members of the cast; all of whom were unfailingly nice to us, as far as I ever saw. We had been told cameras on the set were not allowed; so I kept my trusty Kodak DISC in my jacket pocket ( or later, when finally in uniform, my haversack ) most of the time. But here there were opportunities to use it, as long as I wasn't too obvious about it. Whenever the troops and cast went "Back to one", or reset themselves for another take, no one else seemed to be paying any attention to me as I just watched from the sidelines. I hadn't been around any of the actors, other than Waddington, but was able to get both him and Wes Studi to somewhat "pose" for me! Between takes, I asked Stephen to put his CIGARETTE behind his horse's neck, so it wouldn't be seen; and so got a couple of shots of him on horseback. Wes was lounging against a tree in his Mohawk garb; and when I showed him the camera, straightened himself and looked right into the camera. Sadly, the ONLY photo I took of Madeline or Jodhi during the entire filming was one of them together riding down the trail "Back to one".
... Part III
How Mistakes Happen
Time to take the gloves off! How DO mistakes happen in the course of something supposedly so carefully thought-out and planned as this complex production? Some are through ignorance or misinformation; others are the result of deliberate choices, made usually at the top level, for artistic or some other effect. This will deal with various errors of both omission and commission as I witnessed during particularly the French and English military scenes in and around the Fort William Henry set; and the French camp and siege lines. And we ourselves were sometimes at fault!
As has been previously noted here and elsewhere, Michael Mann had lost, either through resignation or firing, most of his immediate subordinates. These were the creative staff, designers who had immersed themselves in the details of the areas for which they were responsible. How did this happen? One example I can readily remember involves the construction of the French siege lines: In one of my photos, taken from the end of the completed works, it appears almost as if the gun platforms are on stilts, raised well above the level of the ground; that's because THEY ARE! I was told Mann waited until AFTER the ground was prepared, and the lines built, to decide it wasn't "right" for the camera angle he wanted, showing the fort in the background looming over the French lines. So the gun platform had to be raised to conform with the new "vision"; is it any wonder his immediate subordinates left in droves! ( I'm not sure this particular incident was the deciding factor in this case; but you get the idea. ) This left the various departments in the hands of subordinates or replacements who weren't always prepared for the tasks ahead. I will concentrate on the travails of one of these unfortunates, the Wardrobe Master, whose name I unfortunately have forgotten.
The costume designer on a production is usually the head of that department, and pretty well does what the title implies, with the approval of the director. It is the function of wardrobe to actually house the costumes, and outfit the cast. For a large production such as this, that can be quite a daunting task in itself. Notice that the wardrobe master has NO part in actually designing the costumes; so should not be held responsible for what is "correct", just how it fits. His job is simply to see that the cast is clothed, under the direction of the costume designer. I do not know what happened in this case, but the costume designer was out, leaving the poor wardrobe master to "muddle through" as best he could. Of course, we reenactors were SUPPOSED to know something about the uniforms, so we attempted to "help" him as we could, sometimes with unfortunate results!
It had already been decided the British troops depicted were to consist of the 35th Regiment of Foot; 42d Highlanders; and 60th Foot; so only those uniforms had been ordered. There were only about 30 for the company of the 60th that gets ambushed at the beginning. Uniforms for the foot regiments only differed in their facing colors, those of cuffs, lapels, and turnbacks ( the lining of the tails when they are turned back ). When this scene was complete, the uniforms of the 60th were to be returned to wardrobe to be retailored into those of the 35th for the Fort scenes; this involved changing the facing colors from dark blue to the buff used by the 35th. Oddly, we thought, the turnbacks only of the 60th's coats were already buff; what kind of mistake was THIS? So at our behest, wardrobe obligingly changed the turnbacks, covering the buff with blue to match the rest. Somewhere, much later after the filming, I read that the coats of the original 1757 60th Foot had themselves been converted from those of a stock intended for another regiment; and there was only enough dark blue material for cuffs and lapels - turnbacks were left buff. So the mixed colors were RIGHT in the first place! What do you expect from a bunch of Civil War reenactors!
At the same time, the long red-and-white diced-pattern stockings worn by the Highlanders were either NOT ordered at all; or never delivered. The few Highlander reenactors like my friends Benton Jennings and John Dall had their own; but a "substitute" had to be found for the others. The solution is apparent in one of my photos of the Highland Grenadier color party: checkered tablecloth material hastily fashioned into a sort of "leggings" which hopefully would pass! I'll bet no one has ever picked up on that before! Mention has been made elsewhere of the decision to use later-period grenadier caps, possibly since they were being reproduced for Revolutionary War reenactors. That introduces another aspect of "mistakes", that of availability.
That factor played the main part in errors in armament of both French and English forces: At the time, the Japanese were making reproductions of only the M.1763 French musket; and the "short land pattern" Brown Bess. Both would be more or less correct for the Revolutionary War reenactor community. The French and Indian War equivalents were very similar, the French differing in details of stock and furniture; the English was a few inches longer, known as the "long land pattern". I think this has been criticized; but if so, unfairly, since the correct models were simply unavailable. Our Indian arms were more or less correct copies of the shoddy so-called trade muskets; and a few original period-pieces were used, like Munroe's pistols carried in his saddle holsters. ( Vacuum-formed rubber replacements were used in the scene where he falls, though. )
As the supposed "French expert" among the reenactors on set I had a rather amusing exchange with the wardrobe master regarding the script's calling for "French sappers" in the Fort Battle scene: "Those are the guys who wear leather aprons and carry axes, aren't they?" Here I had to deal with the difference between the French Sapeurs, or pioneers, who in the Napoleonic period for FULL-DRESS wore bearskin bonnets, white leather aprons, and carried ceremonial axes to symbolize their function; and the English sapper, a common soldier in a work detail digging a military ditch or trench. I assured him members of this work detail would wear only regular breeches, shirts, maybe vests ( THAT , too turned out to be wrong - see postings on the message board! ), and an odd-type of fatigue cap instead of a hat. You can see this in the finished scene of the French hard at work on their approach trench or sap ( hence the term, sappers ).
On another occasion, he asked me how Montcalm should be dressed! That means here we were well into the shooting, and this needless-to-say vital character's costume had not even been designed, much less made - and it was now entrusted not to the costumer, whose job it should have been, but the wardrobe man! I could only put him off with some excuse about not having my resource materials with me ( TRUE! ); but really had almost NO idea of the exact color or details necessary, concentrating as I had on the troops. I don't know HOW he solved this problem; but thought the result looked wonderful! I have no idea to this day how accurate it is though.
As with the British, we were forced to use the French uniforms that had been ordered pre-production. Montcalm's army consisted of four or five regiments of Troupes de Terre, brought from France; the Troupes de la Marine; which formed the regular Canadian forces ( they were NOT Marines in either the conventional or the modern sense ); and numbers of un-uniformed Canadian militia. ONLY the Troupes de la Marine are represented. Like the British, the main difference in their various uniforms was the color of their facing colors; but it is likely that regular French troops would have formed Montcalm's immediate surrounding and escort, not Canadiens. NO provision was made for artillery or support troops. Again, I suggested that an easy solution existed for the two artillery officers seen laying ( aiming ) the mortars: there were a half-dozen uniform coats for French drummers included in the pile. These were in reversed colors, meaning they were a cornflower blue with lots of red-and-white tape called lace, instead of the white ( actually a pearl-gray ) with blue facings of the regular soldiery. He took two of these, leaving four for the Parley Scene, stripped them of musician's lace; and vioila, French artillery officers!
Another misconception I was able to head off involved the uniforming of the French officers. I referred to the pile of uniforms; when they were delivered by the contractor, they were basically all mixed up. It was fairly obvious, even to the wardrobe man what was what - BUT... There were a few uniforms with bright gold braid lace around the cuffs; these must go with the equally brightly laced vestes, and be for the officers! In fact, those were for sergeants; though the vestes were officers'. In the case of French officers of the period, they practiced a sort of "false modesty" in regard to their appearance, which I only knew about through my reading. Aristocratic officers wore plain, unadorned coats over very fancily trimmed "smallclothes", like vests and breeches. So our French officers were dressed correctly, wearing the same plain coats of the common soldiers! One part of their uniform, however, wound up in props - the brass plate called a hausse-col ( gorget in English ) worn at the throat suspended by a silk ribbon. It was believed THOSE belonged to the Indians! ( They WERE sometimes given as trade gifts - but not usually the same as the officers'. ) I wore my later-period original ( ca. 1860, with its Second Empire Napoleonic eagle! ) whenever I was in French uniform; and they got the idea. For some reason, the one Montcalm wears is all dark and tarnished looking; not at all "right" for the French commander - but at least he has one!
ADVANCE TO PAGE 2
Photo assistance thanks to Doug Garnett!