Monday, February 20, 2017



Matthew McConaughey and Jacob Lofland

One of the much-anticipated films of 2016, which disappeared far too quickly, THE FREE STATE 
OF JONES is a remarkable, though flawed, film about a largely unknown aspect of the Civil War.  ‘Based on actual events’ (how we dread those words), JONES is the story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Confederate Army nurse who deserts, skins home to Mississippi, where he finds the Confederate home guard is using the cover of war taxes to rob and starve the poor folks who’ve stayed behind to keep the farms running.

Mahershala Ali and McConaughey

Playing cat-and-mouse with the Reb Army, Newt helps the farmers resist, and when he’s driven into the swamps to avoid capture, he allies himself with runaway slaves.  He fashions an alliance between the poor whites and blacks that becomes a ragtag army, and soon a force to be reckoned with, even offering assistance to Union General Sherman.  McConaughey’s performance is terrific.  He’s powerfully supported with several standout performances, including Mahershala Ali as the runaway slave Moses – currently Oscar-nominated for MOONLIGHT and co-starring in HIDDEN FIGURES, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Newton’s would-be wife Rachel, and Jacob Lofland as a boy pressed into military service before he’s ready – watch for Lofland in AMC’s upcoming THE SON. Keri Russell as Newton’s wife is fine, but one wishes she had more to do.

Keri Russell & Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Writer-director Gary Ross who wrote THE HUNGER GAMES (2012), and wrote and directed SEABISCUIT (2003) and PLEASANTVILLE (1998), writes and directs beautifully within scenes, but the overall vision is what probably brought the picture down.  Simply put, all of Newton’s heroic efforts are for naught.  There’s a stirring sequence where Newton and his men pounce on a military transport in the forest – in the best sense it recalls the great Errol Flynn adventure films, with Newton as a drawling Robin Hood.  But if the Sheriff of Nottingham is ultimately the winner of the tale, the letdown is great. 

The real Newton Knight

The story is repeatedly interrupted with a flash-forward sequence, either the 1950s or 1960s, where presumably a descendant of Newton’s is on trial, and the suggestion is, even almost a century later, things aren’t much better.  Here’s a spoiler if you haven’t seen THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963).  Do the POWs accomplish everything they want to?  No; some are killed, and almost all are recaptured.  But they know they’ve made great problems for the Nazis, and when Steve McQueen returns to solitary with his baseball, you know he’ll be busting out again.  FREE STATE OF JONES needed that kind of hope.  FREE STATE OF JONES is available on DVD and BluRay, on Amazon Video, and all manner of platforms.


Rebs tune up

Friday’s rains had been heavy, and sporadic rain was falling on Saturday, February 11th, turning some walkways into muddy creeks.  “Rain?” scoffed a Rebel sergeant?  “You should have been at Gettysburg!”  Good point.

The Strathearn Park and Museum, in Simi, just a couple of miles from the Reagan Presidential Library, is a 19th century oasis, which includes ranch and farm buildings, Ventura County’s first library building, a mansion, and some smaller homes. 

This weekend they were hosting Civil War Days – Union encampment to the left, Confederacy to the right, as you entered.  Unusually, there was an enlistment booth right in the middle.  Kids chose a side, and were issued a blue or grey kepi, a wooden rifle, and sent to boot camp.  I thought it was a terrific way to get the kids involved, to immerse them in the history. 

Choosing sides

The rain had slowed me down – I had missed both the 11 a.m. skirmish, and the Gettysburg Address, but caught up with President Lincoln, and had a nice chat. 

My great moment with Mr. Lincoln

I hurried to the barn in time to watch a square-dance class, where ladies in antebellum gowns and gents in uniforms of varying rank joined women in yoga pants, cavorting to the caller’s instructions.

Later, while enjoying a bowl of chili in the barn, I looked up at a souvenir display and spotted a pennant from one of the area’s bygone historical attractions, Corriganville. 

I was determined to catch the 2 p.m. skirmish, so I kept an eye on my timepiece while I checked out the encampments, historical buildings, and was in the gift shop/bookshop when a cloudburst trapped several of us for a quarter hour. I ended up buying a stack of TimeLife Civil War volumes.

Bailey-Denton Photography had a fascinating display of period photography, as well as their own, using the old processes; they make tintypes and ambrotypes – photos on blue glass. 

In the Visitor Center, we were treated to what was billed as a Civil War Era Clothing Demonstration. It was actually a slow-motion, and very lady-like, striptease, as a Southern belle removed layer after layer of petticoat, hoopskirt, corset, with a narrator describing each garment. 

Sadly, I don’t know how far the lady went, because it was suddenly 2 p.m., and I hurried outside for the skirmish, and like the others gathered there, I waited.  Having attended a few Civil War reenactments, I knew a few things. Principally I knew that the most available free standing room is by the cannon batteries, and for a very good reason: hearing loss.  But there were no cannon to avoid.  

A Confederate combo had been playing throughout the day, and now a Union band marched and played.  We waited. The field of battle was mud, and empty.  

Taking advantage of the delay, a squad of grade-school Union recruits took the field under their commander.  A Rebel troop soon did the same.  On command, they pointed their wooden rifles and yelled, “Bang!”  They ‘reloaded’ and did it again.  I checked my watch. “Bang!” Some kids were dropping in the mud.  I gave them credit for letting themselves be hit, instead of yelling, “Missed me!” like me and my friends always did.  

Rebs take the field

As I was checking my watch for the third time – 2:40 p.m. – it suddenly dawned on me: this, with the little kids and their wooden rifles, was the 2 p.m. skirmish!  I looked up; the Confederate sergeant was by my side.  “What were you expecting: Gettysburg?”

The 2 o'clock skirmish.


Barry Bostwick

Walter Huston

Happy Presidents’ Day!  I was going to list all of the movies on TV today that are about Washington and Lincoln, but as far as I can tell, there aren’t any.  There aren’t any about the other Presidents, either.   So, I don’t know where you can get it, but I’m recommending Barry Bostwick’s portrayal of Washington in the 1983 miniseries GEORGE WASHINGTON.  I checked for other portrayals on IMDB and sadly, almost all are comedy sketches.  And I’m recommending Walter Huston’s portrayal of Lincoln in D.W. Griffith’s 1930 film ABRAHAM LINCOLN.  I’m not saying Huston is better than Raymond Massey or Henry Fonda or Daniel Day Lewis; but he’s awfully good, and rarely seen – and it’s in public domain, so you can see it anywhere – I’ve posted a link to it on Youtube below.  You might also want to check out Bill Oberst Jr.’s Lincoln in ABRAHAM LINCOLN VS. ZOMBIES.  He does a particularly fine reading of the Gettysburg Address. 

Happy trails,

All Original Contents Copyright February 2017 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved


  1. As a history major I was embarrassed when I saw the trailer for Fred State of Jones and had to admit I never heard of it. I bought a book on Newton Knight and read up on him and the Free State of Jones. I was expecting more from the film as they didn't tell the real facts about his marriage. He had several children with both his wife and his freed slave and preferred the company of the slave woman. His life was one of being on the run as he was a wanted and marked man for many years and lived in the swamp and back country to avoid capture and harm. The 1942, film which I've also seen, Tap Roots is also about Newton Knight and the Free State of Jones.

    1. Thanks for all the info, Tom! It bugged me that Keri Russel's character just disappeared and reappeared randomly, and seemed to have no problem with sharing a home with a woman who'd stolen her man, leaving her to raise their kid alone. And I'll definitely have to track down Tap Roots. George Marshall is such a good actor, and it's got such a strong cast.