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Photo by Tony Rivetti, Jr.
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Photo by Tony Rivetti, Jr.
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Photo by Tony Rivetti, Jr.
Virginia Military Institute has arguably one of the most loyal alumni groups in the country, and many graduates call Richmond home. So it's only fitting that the first Field of Lost Shoes screening will be at the Carpenter Theatre at Richmond CenterStage this Sunday, preceded by a parade of VMI cadets.
The VMI community's devotion to its members — and to its roots — mirrors the Battle of New Market in 1864, when VMI cadets took the place of Confederate troops to defend the South in the Shenandoah Valley. Although Field of Lost Shoes falls into the military movie bucket, it's a story about young men — students, sheltered from war — answering the call to an overwhelming sense of duty.
"I can't imagine what the VMI cadets felt as they made the long march into New Market," says Nolan Gould, who plays one of the cadets and is best known as Luke in ABC's Modern Family series. "And then to get there and face the opposing troops shooting down the hill upon them and to proceed forward — ultimately winning the fight — is remarkable. Besides their bravery, their loyalty to each other really touched me."
Ten cadets lost their lives in the Battle of New Market, and the movie's title was inspired by the fact that the battlefield's thick mud pulled off many of the cadets' shoes. While local excitement for the film has grown in the past few months, the spark for Field of Lost Shoes began about 10 years ago.
"I was really moved by the story when I visited VMI for their New Market ceremony, which is held every year on May 15," recalls Thomas Farrell II, co-producer and co-writer of the film. "They do a roll call of the names of those who lost their lives and it made me want to find out more about what happened."
Farrell, the CEO of Dominion Resources, comes from three generations of Army officers and has a deep interest in international and U.S. military history. For several years, Farrell toyed with the idea of a movie about the Battle of New Market, even reading old diaries and letters from cadets to learn more about the event that forced Union troops to withdraw from the area. In the fall of 2011, Farrell started working on a script with David Kennedy, a former college roommate, retired Navy officer, and film advisor. The duo then worked their connections, securing a director and investors, and even getting advice from Ron Bass, the screenwriter for popular movies like Rain Man and My Best Friend's Wedding.
"He loved the story," Farrell says. "And the movie is very true to what happened, despite having some fictional elements. Some of the dialogue in the movie is straight out of diaries."
Farrell, a University of Virginia graduate and former U.Va. rector, gives significant credit to VMI, saying that the movie wouldn't have happened without the school's cooperation. Col. Keith Gibson, the VMI museum system's director and a seasoned technical advisor to films before Field of Lost Shoes , was looped in early on, giving comments and recommendations for the screenplay.
"The VMI cadet role in the battle is a moment that's unique in American history," Gibson says of the 247 cadets who participated in the rainy Battle of New Market. "It's about young people making the difference between victory and defeat. For many cadets, the battle was proof that their time at VMI was not an effort to avoid the responsibilities of life, but rather to prepare for them."
Every year, the entering freshman class — "rats," as they're affectionately labeled — travels to the battlefield to learn the story, Gibson says.
Gould, who is the token rat among the cadets in the film, spent a lot of time with current cadets and alumni during the shoot.
"On the very first day, we were even given a mini boot camp on the parade grounds," says Gould. "Throughout shooting, I was very impressed with the camaraderie of the school and its dedication to its ideals. You don't find that commitment to something outside of one's self in very many places today. Also, the cadre are super scary! I'm not sure I could make it through the first-year rigors."
True to VMI form, Gould and his fellow actors were outfitted in the all-wool uniforms, usually carrying heavy gear. "It was much more physically demanding than I expected," he says. "I'm pretty sure I lost 10 pounds on the shoot."
The display of cadets' toughness — then and now — is a source of pride. What some may not realize is that without the Battle of New Market, VMI may never have reopened, Gibson says.
"The Battle of New Market was the seminal demonstration of the VMI brand of citizen-soldier education," he explains. "The institute was completely destroyed by the Union army one month after the battle, and it would have been much easier not to rebuild and reopen. It's noteworthy that several Union officers at the battle were high-ranking officials during the immediate post-war period. They were the ones who realized how important the rebuilding of VMI was to the state and took the necessary steps to make it happen."
Speaking of the Union army, A-lister Tom Skerritt plays Ulysses S. Grant. Other big-name actors include Jason Isaacs, Lauren Holly, David Arquette and Luke Benward. Mistakenly dubbed a premiere, the private screening on Sunday is the first step for the feature-length film. While the exclusive screening can't accommodate public ticket requests, the film will be shown next at the Nashville Film Festival ( nashvillefilmfestival.org ) April 17 to 26, and the GI Film Festival ( gifilmfestival.com ) in Washington, D.C., May 19 to 25.
Eventually, when the film will make its way into Richmond movie theaters, it's sure to get the traditional "Rah, Virginia Mil!" rally cry from local alumni.
"VMI alumni are notoriously loyal, and none more than those in the Richmond area," Gibson says. "That loyalty is based on the character-developing experience of being a VMI cadet."
Join in the festivities and get a glimpse of the VMI cadets marching on Sunday in the early evening:
4:50 p.m. VMI cadets march to the State Capitol from the Carpenter Theatre at Richmond CenterStage, down Grace Street to the north side of the Capitol, and then holding until a signal to proceed is given. They will then continue to the steps of the Capitol.
5:05 p.m. Gov. Terry McAuliffe welcomes special guests and VMI officials at the South Portico of the Capitol. After acknowledgment from the governor, the cadets will leave the grounds and head south on Ninth Street.
5:10 p.m. Marching west on Grace Street toward Sixth Street, the cadets will continue to the Carpenter Theatre.
5:15 p.m. The VMI cadets arrive at the Carpenter Theatre and stand at ease at Sixth and Grace streets.