I imagine that very few extras in a film get to show up to its world premiere wearing a press pass. Fortunately for me, I was one of those fortunate few. As a member of the New Market Firing Party at the Virginia Military Institute, a group which performs ceremonial rifle salutes when the Institute requires it, I was one of a number of cadets to appear in the upcoming movie, Field of Lost Shoes, a Civil War drama concerned with telling the story of the 1864 VMI Corps of Cadets who played a pivotal role in securing a Confederate victory at the battle of New Market, Virginia. The picture’s world premiere took place earlier this week in Alexandria, Va., as part of the annual GI Film Festival.
As a current cadet, I can attest that this particular battle holds a very special place in the VMI mythos. From my very first hours at VMI, in between having overexcited sophomores yelling in my face, I was expected to memorize the names of the cadets who died on the battlefield, what company they had been in, and what states they were from. Otherwise, I would just be giving the upperclassmen further reasons to make my life marginally more unpleasant than it already was. VMI has a special system in place for its freshmen, or “Rats” as they’re known at the Institute. I won’t go into the minutiae of the “Ratline,” as aspects of it change from year to year and it means many different things to different people. Suffice it to say that it’s exactly what you would imagine freshman year is like at a military college except that, as we cadets like to tell ourselves, maybe a little harder than most military schools. The names of the New Market Ten are just one of the many facts about the Institute that Rats are required to learn during their first week at VMI, known colloquially as “Hell Week.”
However, the heightened importance of the Battle of New Market to VMI is made clear early in the year, after the end of Hell Week, when the “Rat Mass” is bused to the battlefield to take their Cadet Oaths and to charge across the field, just as we were taught the Corps of Cadets did in 1864. At the end of that day, the Rats are released to go see their families and go out to dinner with them. It’s something I looked forward to as a Rat for that reason. The Battle of New Market is again referenced at the end of the year, the day before graduation, when the Corps is assembled on the VMI Parade Field for the New Market Parade, in which the honored dead are remembered, the New Market Firing Party fires a three-volley salute, and Taps is played for them.
New Market was a defining moment for VMI, the point when it became something more than just a school in rural Virginia. It became an integral part of the history of the United States in a glorious and tragic way. It’s hardly a surprise that the VMI administration would be so interested in seeing this story in theaters, and to me it makes complete sense that VMI would help the filmmakers as much as they did in making it. Scenes set at VMI or on the New Market battlefield, which VMI owns, are shot entirely on site. I personally found it very interesting to see how the filmmakers depicted VMI in the 1860s, and how, through a few alterations, they were able to transform the place where I have spent three years of my life into a Civil War-era setting. It was also interesting to be able to put faces to the names that I’ve been made to remember.
Though an independent film through and through, Field of Lost Shoes certainly was able to attract a number of celebrity, or at least B-list, actors. Receiving top billing is David Arquette, famous for his role in the Scream series. Other celebrities appearing in this film include Keith David, famous for roles both as a traditional actor and as a voice actor, and Jason Isaacs, remembered for his role as the villain from The Patriot.
Certainly a must-see for all VMI cadets past and present, the movie celebrates the Institute’s history in a way rarely seen. However, the film will also appeal to those who have no connection to the school, and I believe that for many it will be a very fair first impression of VMI. Field of Lost Shoes will be coming to theaters in September, and I would recommend it to anyone interest in American history.