Posted on Sun, May. 15, 2005

Filmmaker hopes to tell Civil War stories on DVD

The Kansas City Star

Local filmmaker Don Maxwell has been involved in some complicated productions. For his award-winning “Prairie Storm,” for example, he spent weeks racing around the Midwest collecting footage of raging weather.

But now he's gearing up for what he says could be his most complex effort yet. On May 31 he'll begin six days of filming on “One Kind of Officer,” a Civil War yarn that requires period costumes, a working cannon and lots and lots of fog.

Based on a short story by Ambrose Bierce, it's about “a Union artillery battery lost in the fog and ordered to hold their position at all costs,” Maxwell said. “Since they can't see anything they're told to fire at noises. They end up firing on another Union unit. It's a friendly fire incident.”

This is Maxwell's second film set in the Civil War. A couple of years back he scripted and directed “Story of a Conscience,” also based on a Bierce short story. That tale was about a Union officer's friendship with a condemned Southern spy.

Perhaps you see a theme emerging here. Well, there's more.

As early as this fall Maxwell hopes to issue a DVD to be called “Civil War Stories.” It will contain “One Kind of Officer” and “Story of a Conscience,” as well as a version of Bierce's short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” made by a Michigan filmmaker a couple of years ago.

(Boomers may recall an even earlier, French-made black-and-white version of “Owl Creek Bridge” that debuted on TV's “Twilight Zone” in 1963. It's the story of a condemned man being hanged as a Rebel spy who in his last seconds before death fantasizes that he has broken free and is racing to be reunited with his family.)

“The DVD is being designed as a feature film,” Maxwell said. “The three stories will be tied together by an actor playing Bierce 25 years after the Civil War, as he sits in his San Francisco study writing.”

Who will play Bierce? Maxwell doesn't yet know, but he has been in negotiations with two name actors (we're talking BIG names). “Whoever we cast, it will be a one-day shoot. But their voice-over will hold the whole thing together,” Maxwell said.

That and the fact that all three stories were written by Bierce, the journalist, storyteller and world-class cynic. (He wrote The Devil's Dictionary, in which all the definitions are screamingly funny and bitter.) Bierce vanished during the Mexican Revolution and was the basis for Gregory Peck's character in “The Old Gringo.”

“Bierce's stories are literary parables,” Maxwell said. “That's what makes them good films. Though these stories originally appeared in magazines they were later collected in a book called Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. The title is very deliberate. Bierce thought there was a huge gulf between civilians and soldiers, that the experiences a soldier goes through cannot be understood by a civilian.

“Bierce's unique contribution is the idea that war is always bad and that it turns everything upside-down. Truth becomes lie, black becomes white.

“A cynic is usually a disillusioned idealist. Bierce's concern for human beings never flagged, otherwise he'd have never written these stories.”

Hanover House, one of the most successful independent home video labels, will distribute the DVD.

“We think we've got several ways to sell this,” Maxwell said. “First there's the Civil War market. Civil War buffs have a huge appetite for films about the war. Then there are the fans of whoever ends up playing our Bierce. And then there's the Bierce connection. His fans may not be large in numbers, but they're devoted.”

‘Prom Night'

The locally shot documentary “Prom Night in Kansas City” will be released on DVD this July by Zeitgeist Films. It was shown in 2003 on the Trio cable channel.

Shot over three years at area high schools, the movie by Peter von Ziegesar and Hali Lee takes a sympathetic look at this coming-of-age ritual. The DVD will feature on-camera interviews with the filmmakers (both former KC residents) and three new songs by the film's composer, Steven Thomas Cavit.

The disc also contains a list of 25 essential prom tunes with links to iTunes so viewers can download them and a list of 10 essential prom night films.

It will be available at

It's a snap

Timothy Del's locally shot noir thriller “Snap” will premiere at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at the Tivoli Manor Square.

Shot last spring on locations that include Olathe, the old Bethany Medical Center, the original Dixon's Chili in Independence and Kansas City's East Side, it's a psychodrama involving a botched burglary, a murder and an unstable woman's quest for revenge.

Timothy Del — that's the show-biz name of local criminal attorney Timothy Hamilton — wrote and directed the 107-minute feature with a mostly local cast.

Wednesday's screening already is sold out. Tickets for Thursday cost $7; for information and reservations call (913) 307-0774.

Vince Koehler

Local film critics lost one of their most beloved members this week.

Vince Koehler, who reviewed films for the Johnson County Gazette and, died Wednesday after a long battle with cancer.

Over the years Vince also reviewed for the Kansas City Post, K.C. Life Downtown and the cable shows “Entertainment Spectrum” and “K.C. Live.” He may have been the purest movie fan I've ever met.

The guy simply was crazy for movies. Good ones. Bad ones. He took supreme pleasure in the act of sitting in a theater as the lights went down.

Fresh from chemotherapy and obviously feeling lousy, he still showed up for screenings.

A longtime member of the Kansas City Film Critics Circle (he was on the group's governing committee), Vince will be remembered for his optimism, his decency and the dignity with which he faced his worsening health.

But I'll always remember him leaning back in his seat as the film began, absolutely concentrated on the magic unfolding on the screen. Here was a man doing what he loved.

Opening next week

• “Gloomy Sunday” In '30s Budapest, a waitress finds herself in a four-way love affair and inspires the writing of a classic (if depressing) pop song.

• “Look at Me” The overweight daughter of a French literary celebrity struggles to earn Daddy's love in this dramedy from filmmakers Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnes Jaoui.

• “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” This is the big one, the conclusion (sort of) to George Lucas' sprawling space saga in which good guy Jedi Anakin Skywalker is transformed into the biggest baddie of them all, Darth Vader. With Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson, Yoda.

© 2005 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.