Next month, as it does every year, the Virginia Military Institute will honor ten cadets who were killed at the Battle of New Market - boys who were not supposed to fight, but ended up filling a gap in the confederate line.
They and 237 other cadets get credit for winning that battle and keeping union troops out of the Shenandoah Valley. Now they’re the subject of a surprising film - written and produced by a man with no movie-making experience.
Tom Farrell pulled out all the stops to promote his first and only film - inviting VMI’s band, the governor and other elected officials to march from the capitol to the Carpenter Theater.
That might seem like overkill for a guy who’s never made a movie before, but Farrell is a man with considerable reach in Richmond. He’s the CEO of Dominion Power, a company that last year gave nearly a million dollars to candidates for state office.
Of course the subject of this film is also near and dear to the hearts of many Virginians, including Tom Farrell:
“I used to drive by the battlefield. The road the cadets marched on is still there - Route 11, and VMI’s still there, and they wear the same uniforms that they wore then, and I thought, ‘Y’know what? You could make this into a movie if you did it right.’”
So Farrell put in a call to his roommate from the University of Virginia - David Kennedy - whose day job is consulting on films. He had lots of connections in Hollywood, and Farrell spent ten years persuading him to make this movie.
“It’s not a documentary. It’s not a set piece like you’d see on the History Channel or something like that. We wrote it to be more of a coming-of-age story about these young boys, and so we picked out six real cadets that we had historical records on - letters, diaries.”
He and Kennedy spent two years writing the script. They called it “The Field of Lost Shoes”.
“They marched 90 miles in four and a half days. It rained almost the entire time. As the boys went over a fence and ran across a newly planted wheat field, it had been raining for days, they didn’t have boots in those days, and it just sucked the shoes off their feet as they ran up the hill.”
The cadets ranged from 15 to 24 years of age, so Farrell and Kennedy hired a number of young actors featured in Disney films. They also cast Nolan Gould, better known as Luke on “Modern Family”, Zak Vorig from “Vampire Diaries”, Tom Skerritt who’s starred in “MASH” and “Top Gun”, Jason Isaacs from the Harry Potter movies, “Blackhawk Down” and “Patriot”, and David Arquette from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “Scream” and “Friends”.
They spent a month planning and six weeks shooting at VMI, he state capitol and Westover Plantation. Farrell was rarely on the set, but he quickly discovered that making a movie is serious business.
“Every day that you’re actually doing this costs a significant amount of money. You’ve got lighting crews, caterer and costume people, make up people, every day matters.”
And he was painfully aware of the need to make money on the $5 million project.
“It is a commercial enterprise, and we had lots of investors who helped us put this together. Now they’re all interested in the story, but this is a commercial enterprise.”
VMI has an annual tradition of honoring alumni killed in battle - including the ten from New Market, and on May 15th of this year, they’ll do so again. But in this - the 150th anniversary of that Civil War battle, they will also have a new way to celebrate the sacrifice - that most cherished of American honors, a Hollywood film.