July 2nd, 1863: At a small farm outside Bent Fork, Virginia, the grossly-outmatched (at a rate of fifty-three to one) 13th Rhode Island regiment faced and defeated a massive Confederate force bent on staging a sneak attack on Washington, an herculean military routing that tested the leadership, thinking-out-of-the-box ingenuity, dogged tenacity and the general fearlessness of its four principal Union officers. Yet while many of the Civil War's military engagements remain prominent in the public's consciousness, this set-to, known as "The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek," has faded into the mists of obscurity. Fortunately, documentarian Grace A. Burns has crafted a fascinating act of cinematic archaeology with this feature-length examination of those Union-saving heroes.
The four principal figures in a forgotten chapter of American history: (L-R) Li Shau-zu, Colonel Jonathan Franklin Hale, Elijah Swan, Rowena Harris/Nick Brody.
The film's narrative goes into considerable detail on its subjects' back-stories, aided by commentary from a number of distinguished historians, rendering them into more than mere historical footnotes to the viewer. The four now-obscure soldiers whose efforts staved off the potentially devastating attack were:
- Colonel Jonathan Franklin Hale, a twenty-four-year-old cross-dressing homosexual, infamous and persecuted within the military for his rakish deportment and insistence upon freshly-laundered uniforms for his men. Sent to West Point at sixteen, Hale was forged into a leader while enjoying every moment of the riding, drilling, stylish dress, and camaraderie of other like-minded young men, and though of Georgian origin, Hale held to his vows as a soldier of the one nation when the South opted to secede, a move that put him at direct odds with his lover, one Sinclair Whittier, a proud officer of the Confederacy. (The film traces the trajectory of that relationship.)
- Li Shao-zu, an aged warrior who joined the Chinese military at a very young age and fought the British in the opium wars. Skipping out on his "lousy, drug-pushing whore" of a a wife who was doing a brisk drug-trading business in opposition to her husband's anti-British efforts, Li made his way to the States with the intention of getting rich during the Gold Rush, but instead found success as a pioneer in the laundry industry, eventually serving as a launderer for the U.S. Army and forging a friendship with Colonel Hale. His bravery and military experience — to say nothing of his innovations in dry cleaning chemical engineering — placed Li in a position that would make him vital to the 13th Rhode Island's martial success.
- Elijah Swan, the result of a liaison between a wood-chopping slave and the jungle-fever-ridden wife of the slave's owner, whose early life was marked by the effects of his mother's many questionable decisions. Cast into the hardship of slavery upon the deaths of his mother and her husband (a fanatical and abstinent Calvinist whose poor vision allowed him to somehow believe that the obviously black child was his own spawn), Elijah eventually escaped and built upon his pre-enslavement education, revealing himself to be a mathematical, scientific and engineering genius.
- Rowena Harris (aka Rowena Oaks, aka Candie Apple, aka "Poison" Apple, aka Nick Brody), the battle's most tenacious hero. A poor and once-innocent young woman who found herself thrust first into sexual slavery and then child-prostitution at the hands of the unscrupulous pimp Beauregard Ridge, Rowena, after proving herself a voracious trollop when it came to making cash from the lust of men, sought sociopathically-motivated vengeance upon Ridge with the focus of a Fury straight out of Greek mythology when her former pimp made off with all of the money she'd saved while in his employ (along with that of all of the other whores in his stable) and joined the Confederate forces in Arkansas. Adopting the identity and uniform of drowned drummer boy Nick Brody, Rowena's quest for retribution was derailed upon her left arm being amputated following catching a bullet. Adrift after that tragedy, Rowena/Nick switched sides and ended up under the command of Col. Hale, who saw nothing odd about having a one-armed drummer boy in his regiment (a decision that may have been influenced by Hale's growing opium addiction). It was during this time that Rowena/Nick experienced a full-on speaking-in-tongues mystical vision, the first of several that aided in guiding the 13th Rhode Island to its celebrated (and swiftly swept under the rug) destiny at Pussy Willow Creek.
But what exactly occurred at the battle of Pussy Willow Creek and just why was it so instrumental in the Union's eventual winning of the Civil War? There's a lot to that answer, and it's best left for the curious to discover for themselves.
The byzantine paths of the disparate figures weave together in a most compelling and improbable tapestry that illustrates just what glorious results can come from a confluence of "misfits" and those derided by general society, and rescues their story from the rubbish heap of history deemed unworthy of celebration by virtue of its protagonists' lack of an heroic image in keeping with the usual "all-American" image as perceived by its era. Packed with vintage daguerreotype images, excerpts from letters written by several of the principals and those who knew them, and seasoned with music and songs from the period, THE BATTLE OF PUSSY WILLOW CREEK comes from out of nowhere to join the ranks of such celebrated documentaries as ZELIG (1983), C.S.A.-THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA (2004) and Marti DiBergi's epochal THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984), and if its merits can be judged by the company it finds itself amongst, THE BATTLE OF PUSSY WILLOW CREEK stands as an achievement to be reckoned with...
Aaah, who am I kidding? THE BATTLE OF PUSSY WILLOW CREEK is actually a straight-faced "mockumentary" written, directed and produced by Wendy Jo Cohen, and is a work of such verisimilitude that one could be forgiven for being snowed by its earnest recounting of a battle that never happened, led as it was by "a drug-addicted faggot, a geriatric heathen, a nerdy nigger, and a crazy, one-armed teenaged whore." Starting out utterly deadpan, the film slowly builds in sheer ridiculousness that ends up as a finely-layered narrative depicting just how badly the groups represented by its protagonists got fucked up the ass without benefit of Astro Glide by the nation they fought for, and its content is just as hilarious as it is riveting. Highly recommended and definitely not to be missed, the film will be screened at Manhattan's Quad Cinema from March 1st through the 7th, so here's the theater's info:
The Quad Cinema
34 West 13th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues)
New York, NY
Click here for the theater's website and more information. (And speaking of websites, click here for THE BATTLE OF PUSSY WILLOW CREEK's own site.)
Get your tickets today and support this triumph of indie filmmaking and comedy that wasn't shat steaming and redolent from the asshole of the Judd Apatow assembly line. This is a film for humor-lovers with a brain, and seriously, it's funny as hell. TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!