Wineka column: Sowers’ Revolutionary War film pays attention to detail
SALISBURY — Luther Sowers looks at his 15-minute film set in Rowan County’s Revolutionary War times as an artistic expression.
What: Short film of the Revolutionary War
When: 7 p.m. Aug. 27.
Where: Stanback Room, Rowan Public Library.
Who: Written, directed and produced by Luther Sowers.
Extras: Commentary, outtakes and discussion period afterward with Sowers and Dr. Gary Freeze, history professor at Catawba College. Refreshments also offered. There is no charge.
‘Troublous Times’ showing Aug. 27
“Troublous Times” stands as a soft-spoken vignette, though Sowers has filled it with symbolism, history, murder and mystery.
It promises to be a jumping-off point for discussion when the short debuts Aug. 27 at the Rowan Public Library.
Sowers, 72, is a local artisan and historian who has always liked to say he makes everything but a profit.
His expertise in the making of museum-quality helmets, visors, armor and other chivalric attire, led to his being featured once in the Wall Street Journal.
The newspaper called him a cross between Cellini and Rube Goldberg and was fascinated that he once corresponded with “Dear Abby” on the subject of chastity belts.
The Smithsonian Magazine wrote about him in December 1989 for his ability to make knights’ clothing.
Sowers made a Revolutionary sword once for President Gerald Ford, and he was military technical advisor for the 40-minute film “Two Soldiers,” which won an Oscar.
In fact, Sowers thinks he has had behind-the-scenes connections to more than 50 productions, ranging from shorts for National Parks, visitor centers and television commercials to feature films as big as “Sweet Liberty” and “The Last of the Mohicans.”
In most cases, he was hired to make weapons (not guns) and military uniforms for various war periods, though he also did some acting and stunt work on a few occasions.
On its simplest level, the making of “Troublous Times” was a personal exercise for Sowers, just to see whether he could do it.
“I learned a lot,” he says of what he found to be a job filled with logistics and coordination. “Most folks would turn and run for the hills.”
But Sowers also acknowledges he is “basically a critic from hell,” having always cringed when he saw something in films that wasn’t authentic to their periods. The Revolutionary War — forgotten in contrast to the Civil War, he says — especially was a problem for him.
Sowers considers the popular Mel Gibson movie “The Patriot” as one of the worst Revolutionary War interpretations he has ever seen. It bothered him to know millions of dollars were spent on costumes, weaponry and scenes in general that were totally wrong.
“Obviously, they didn’t have a clue about the Revolutionary War,” Sowers says.
“Troublous Times” is set in 1781 Rowan County, a time when Lord Cornwallis’ British army was on the march through this region. Meanwhile, on the home front, there were loyalists to the king, patriots wanting to break away from English rule, folks who were on the rail and downright scoundrels taking advantage of all the unrest to rob and murder.
“It was a scary time to live in,” Sowers says.
On June 20, 1780, Col. Francis Locke led a Whig force which routed loyalists at the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill in Rowan County. There’s a state historical marker on N.C. 150 at Briggs Road which mentions the battle, though Sowers contends not one in 20 dozen Rowan Countians would know anything about it.
“What went on in this area was vicious,” Sowers says. “It made the Civil War look like a tea party.”
“Troubling Times” tells a fictional story of two brothers, Nathan and Micah, who are staying with Quakers after their father was slain by loyalists.
They secretly leave the Quakers one morning on a purposeful mission, and without giving away the story, the brothers face challenging questions about loyalty, killing, stealing and their future.
For Sowers, it also demonstrates how human nature doesn’t change much over 200-plus years.
The Old Stone House in Granite Quarry and the Sowers family farm in Rowan County served as locations for the film’s shooting.
Sowers wrote, produced and directed “Troublous Times” with considerable assistance from editor and cameraman Allen Jones, who also helps him three times a week in the making of costumes and weaponry.
Dr. Gary Freeze, history professor at Catawba College, provided valuable input for Sowers at several junctures, making sure the story matched what was going on in Rowan County at the time.
Freeze also interviews Sowers about the film as one of the special features and outtakes included on the DVD. Those features and outtakes also will be shown at Rowan Public Library’s showing of the film Aug. 27.
Sowers cast six actors: Jon Mitchell, Austin Hayes, Monika Bigsby, Nick Bishop, Chris Herring and Phillip Wise.
Rob Durocher, director of music at St. John’s Lutheran Church, “saved the day on music” for the film, Sowers says. Durocher arranged off “Chester,” a song (and later hymn) that was sort of the unofficial national anthem for rebels in the New England states — not so much in the Southern colonies.
“It kind of makes the film,” Sowers says.
Sowers figures his audience for the film will be limited. He sees it being shown to the Rowan Museum’s History Club, civic clubs and possibly being made available to local schools.
The extra Freeze interview helps to bring up the educational points.
In all, Sowers spent $9,000 on his film, including $3,000 for a camera. He also purchased a dimmer system, lighting, a generator and skateboard wheels for a camera dolly he and Jones made from scratch.
With credits, “Troublous Times” runs almost 17 minutes. Sowers and Jones worked through three hours of digital film — a process Sowers says is like carving an elephant out of marble.
Sowers also finds it interesting that it took about a year-and-a-half (the last day of filming was June 10) to come up with a 15-minute film. There were several starts and stops, including a recasting of the brothers and working around everybody’s schedules and regular occupations.
“The cloud got bigger and bigger over my head,” Sowers says.
Sowers also was, of course, a stickler for detail. He used green backdrops as an association for the younger brother who doesn’t want to fight and brown (dead leaves, for example) for the brother who does.
And sometimes there was a mixture of green and brown.
Sowers also built a split-rail fence and a horseman’s road. He made the costumes and uniforms needed and provided scenes with authentic muskets, plants, bottles, pottery and food, down to a plump turnip.
Sowers constantly had to work around the sounds of modern life.
“You cannot get Colonial silence anywhere in Rowan County,” Sowers says. “Sunday mornings are the quietest ... but you can hear a Kawasaki motorcycle 5 miles away.”
He also had to deal with actor Jon Mitchell’s “hair explosion” on the set one day. Without its gel and oil, which was used in other scenes, Mitchell’s hair was “a big puff” that wouldn’t match other shots, Sowers complains.
“That just bothered the crap out of me,” he adds.
Sowers purposely kept the dialogue simple, trying not to fill it with stiff language. He asked himself how the brothers would speak to each other and, in the end, decided to eliminate all conjunctions.
The most archaic word in the film might be “troublous,” Sowers notes.
Sowers has dedicated the short to two people: the late David Podell and Groves Privette.
Privette was a student of Sowers’ when he was teaching art and drama in Wilson. They later were re-enactors together. Sowers has been a Revolutionary War re-enactor for 22 years.
A gunsmith, loyal friend and companion, Privette died two years ago. One of his muskets is used in “Troublous Times.”
Podell was a roommate of Sowers’ when Luther was an art student in Philadelphia in the early 1960s. When Podell was assigned to do a short film for his photography class, he enlisted Sowers’ help.
They were using a 16-millimeter camera to make a silent film, and their work brought them for a time to the Sowers farm in Rowan County. The Salisbury Post documented the project with a Sunday feature.
The friends were editing the film and adding music when Podell suddenly left school, and the project was never finished.
Last summer, Sowers received a letter from New York which included a faded copy of the Salisbury Post story from decades ago. Podell’s wife included with the news Podell had died from cancer.
He had always talked fondly of their antics in school, she told Sowers.
“That kind of got me to thinking,” Sowers says.
Soon he was writing a script and mapping out a story board to “Troublous Times.”
Sowers already is considering more shorts, since he now owns the expensive camera. He has an idea for a “Twilight Zone”-styled story which will involve a gun brought back to the States from World War II fighting in Europe.
There also might be a followup to “Troublous Times,” to see what happens with the brothers.
If “Troublous Times” and future projects aren’t an embarrassment, Sowers says, he might enter them in local film festivals, just for the feedback.
Meanwhile, he’ll be battling the demons of modern noise and puffy hair.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or email@example.com.