A Patriot in “The Patriot” movie
I have always loved the history of our country. Little wonder that when I found a pattern of a Revolutionary War uniform in 1975 I bought it, purchased almost $100 worth of fabric, and asked my mother to make the uniform. She said she’d make the costume if I promised to wear it every 4th of July, a promise on which I’ve never reneged.
In 1999 I had a chance meeting with a gentleman who mentioned that he was in a film being made by Mel Gibson in South Carolina. Intrigued, I pressed him for more information. He said that Columbia Pictures Studios were shooting a film called “The Patriot” which is about the American Revolution in the South and was being filmed in Rock Hill, S.C. He gave me the number to the casting director and I promptly phoned him. I told the director about my costume collection and my expertise with black powder muskets. He faxed me a form that I was to fill out and return to him with a recent photo. Two weeks later he phoned back to tell me that I had a part in the militia if I wanted it. I jumped at the chance! “Be in our Rock Hill office on November 6th for wardrobe,” he instructed.
The Columbia Pictures office turned out to be an unused department store at the Galleria Mall. I rolled in my clothing rack with my collection of period costumes and hats. I was asked to fill out stacks of paperwork and was invited into the wardrobe department. I was awestruck! The entire building was lined with racks of costumes. There were rows of waistcoats, knee breaches, British redcoats and American bluecoats, dresses, bodices, tri-corn hats and much more. I was embarrassed at my little costume rack! The costumer marched me up and down many rows to select my costume. My outfit was a shirt of no particular color, dark brown breaches, black stockings, a purple waistcoat, and a round-brimmed hat with one side pinned up. I tried on the costume and the costumer said that I looked like of the brothers from the movie, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”
On Monday, we started our first rehearsal. We learned to march to the beat of a drum and the shrill tune of a fife. Then we learned the von Steuben Drill.
“Order firelocks!” our Sargent would shout. We would stand at attention, musket butts resting on the ground at our right sides with the barrels in our hands point skyward.
“Shoulder firelocks!” The musket went to the left shoulder.
“Present firelocks!” The musket held straight up and down in front of the body, right hand on the stock, left hand on the barrel, elbows out.
“Aim” we all know what that means. “Fire!” “Bang!” everyone would shout. After all, it was only a rehearsal.
After lunch, we all marched down a dirt road for about a mile to a large, open field to practice the battle scene. There were some farmers on tractors in another field and I wondered what out platoon looked like to the drivers. Soldiers from another era marching past modern tractors. After we were positioned on the field, the British soldier re-enactors came marching down the same road. It was impressive! One hundred men marching to a drum cadence. One hundred bayonets caught the afternoon sun and 100 feet hit the ground on the same beat. They turned and marched to the opposite end of the field. Then all were given firing orders.
That day I gained a greater appreciation for those men who had to stand on an open field and be shot at with nothing for cover. If they weren’t torn to shreds by a volley of lead balls, they were charged with bayonets. I can’t even fathom what it was like to do hand to hand combat with 100 soldiers coming ever closer. I can hardly describe the feelings that coursed through me as I viewed a man through the sights of my musket and knowing that with the order to “fire”, that man would have been dead some 225 years ago. And knowing that I was held in someone’s sights from the other side of the field. Though it was only make believe, I studied the other side of the field to see if a musket barrel was aimed at me. I felt a kinship with our founders and remembered the words of the song, “America” and the line, “Who more than self, their country loved.” Those men didn’t want to die but they knew that freedom was more important than self. They died so their children could have freedom from tyranny. How courageous our founders were!
We fired two imaginary volleys at the British then, on command, turned and retreated from the British only to reform and fire the third volley into the charging British cavalry. Now, these were real horses in a real gallop and the danger was very real. Fortunately, everyone was careful and there were no real injuries save one. The dirt in the field was very soft and on the fourth rehearsal I stepped into a hoofprint and twisted my ankle. I had to hobble back to camp.
Cast call was at 4:00 AM. By daybreak, 700 men and women were in costume and on the battlefield. We marched up a hill and as we mounted its crest, I could see the British camp on the next hill. As we marched past the burned-out ruins of a once beautiful mansion, we flew Old Glory and the oncoming British flew the Union Jack. I tried to imagine what it was like to be a private in the militia marching up against the greatest military machine of its day. I was brought back to reality with shouts of “Cut!” and “One more rehearsal” and “I didn’t like that. Let’s try it again.”
After we’d rehearsed an hour or so, Mel Gibson arrived on the set. We were given strict instructions not to talk to him and take no photos. He seemed a nice enough fellow. He joked with the crew members but with the call of “Action!”, he was deadly serious.
I’ve met many people who think a movie is shot just the way you see it in the theater or on TV. A sort of stage play on film. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The principal photography is done first. Sometimes two or three companies are shooting at various locations at the same time. Sometimes the easiest scenes are shot first and the more complicated ones later. On the set, the action is shot from one direction then the cameras are moved and the scene is acted out again and shot from another direction. We marched over the same 10 feet of ground 20 times. Then the camera angle was changed and we marched over it 20 more times. Then we marched over to another set and did it all over again! It was grueling work. By the end of the day, my back was breaking! After sunset, we marched back to the wardrobe tent to change.
There were three large tents set up on location. One was the chow tent where we had breakfast and lunch, the second was the wardrobe tent, and the third was hair and makeup. As we changed it was announced that several earlier scenes had been cut together and would be shown in the chow tent. I could hear the cheers of the re-enactors as I ran to the tent. I dashed in just in time to see Gibson instructing two young actors, playing his sons, to shoot at a British patrol who had captured Heath Ledger who played his older son. The scene was intense, exciting, and bloody. That’s the intent of the picture, not to gloss over the Revolution but to show the price paid for the freedoms that we enjoy today. Our liberties were bought with the blood of men and women and I’ve never forgotten that. That’s why I wear the costume every 4th of July that my mother made so many years ago. It’s my way of saying, “I haven’t forgotten Mom.”
note: I found this newspaper article I wrote in 1999. Thought you might like it for Columbus Georgia Online. I had a photo of me in my costume but it was taken when my briefcase was stolen.