‘Field of Lost Shoes’ portrays emotion of war in valley

By Josette Keelor

NEW MARKET — Topographically, not much has changed in the Shenandoah Valley since 1864 when the Civil War consumed New Market.

It looks much as it did 150 years ago, said writer and producer Thomas Farrell, who visited the Virginia Museum of the Civil War on Thursday morning for one of three special viewings of his film, “Field of Lost Shoes.”

Many of the landmarks remain, and at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, cadets still wear the same style uniforms they did when 257 of their predecessors marched to the Bushong Farm under the leadership of Confederate Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge to fill in gaps along Confederate reserve lines. The South should have lost that battle and would have done if not for the legion of boys aged 15 to 25 who had zero experience at warfare.

They knew how to march, Farrell said. They could fire a musket.

“They were not hardened soldiers,” he said. They marched 85 miles in four days and the night before battle attended a dance at the Virginia Women’s Institute.

“They didn’t think they were going to fight,” he said. “Nobody thought they were going to fight.”

Starring actors Jason Isaacs as Breckingridge, Tom Skerritt as Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, David Arquette as Union Capt. Henry DuPont and Keith David as a slave called Old Judge, the film explains the battle from various angles — the strategy of those in charge and the placement of appointed players.

“It’s trying to evoke the sense that this movie is about these boys, not about the battle,” Farrell said.

Six of the film’s seven main cadets are true to life. The seventh, a 15-year-old first year cadet named Robert, is a composite of several young cadets.

Set to Frederick Wiedmann’s heart-wrenching score, the film opens with the knowledge that only four of the seven friends will survive the day.

The film was going for emotion, and judging by viewers to a Thursday morning showing, it hit its mark.

Dale Bernard, who was visiting from Indianapolis with friends, came to discover Virginia’s Civil War history.

“I think it was wonderful,” he said. “Very interesting, very well done.”

The film, which has its official world premiere Monday at the GI Film Festival in Washington, D.C., will start its run in select theaters throughout the South East in September, Farrell said.

He said the idea, nearly 20 years in the making, came to him in the mid-1990s while he was driving through the valley from his home in Alexandria. Then he thought on it for 10 to 15 years before approaching seasoned screenwriter Dave Kennedy.

He read up on the war and attended two Battle of New Market anniversary parades. Originally he thought he would write a book but realized his talent was for film.

“We wanted to make it more of a coming of age story,” he said. The film is about what happens to the boys and shows snippets of how life in the valley was at the time.

“I just find it to be an extraordinary story,” he said. “This is the only group of cadets that marched into battle in history. It happened right here on this very ground 150 years ago.”

The 150th anniversary of the Battle of New Market will continue its schedule of special events Friday through Sunday. For more information, visit www.vmi.edu/vmcw.

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com