Note: I have made a few changes, which I highlighted. This is due to my receiving a reply from Dorian Walker via email, in which he explained certain issues that I did not consider at the time, but decided to incorporate certain ones in the interest of fairness.
First, I just finished viewing this film by Director Dorian Walker and must say that I should have removed my historian glasses, but with media dealing with one of my fields, it is very hard to do. That said, I found this film to be an interesting story, but one that could have benefited from a greater focus on the history as opposed to the drama.
The story revolves around young Johnny Boone, who wanted to join his community’s local regiment of Union infantry, the 11th Kentucky, which was depicted more like a company throughout the film. He ran away from home and attempted to catch up with the 11th, but was soon captured by Confederates, while walking along with Mr. Deets, an English actor, who is a rather annoying character. Johnny soon joins the 24th Mississippi Infantry still attempting to get to the Union lines, but also trying to survive. While masquerading as a Confederate drummer, he attends a social function held by the colonel of the 24th and meets the Colonel’s daughter, Samantha. Boone eventually finds his way to the Union army and the 11th and is enlisted as a drummer. He participates with the 11th in the Battle of Stones River and earns the Medal of Honor by saving his captain. However, the story takes a sad turn, when young Boone loses his father and is forced to desert the army to help his family, after appeals are denied. He is soon caught and sentenced to death. However, Johnny is saved by an interesting twist at the end.
“American Drummer Boy” is certainly a feel-good, family friendly picture that will hopefully ignite a fire to study the Civil War in children and adults. It shines in the area of battlefield tactics, uniforms, and army drilling. However, the story has several issues that do concern me.
I came away with a feeling that the film over-simplified the war, as it confined battles to a few small segments (Shiloh, Perryville, and Stones River) and emphasizing camp life. While the armies were in camp a great deal, it seems that devoting more to the battles and the roles that drummer boys played would have made the story better. However, this issue likely revolves around budget constraints and my misunderstanding of the director’s goal.
Further, the attempt to combine the stories of three real-life Civil War soldiers hurts this film. This film used the real-life stories of William Horsfall, Johnny Clem, and Asa Lewis (Horsfall and Clem were drummers, but Lewis was a young infantryman) and combined all three into the character of Boone. It causes the film to become disjointed and hard to follow at times. Had Walker produced a film based around only one of the boys, preferably Johnny Clem, it would have achieved the goal of telling the story of drummer boys, as Clem’s story is an incredible one in itself. In addition, the subtitles for the battles included were lacking, as providing the full dates for the battles, as opposed to simply the month, especially for the Battle of Stones River, which began on December 31, 1862 would have helped those viewing unfamiliar with the war.
In addition, a couple of elements in the film are quite far-fetched. One includes Johnny meeting up with Will Simpson, who is escaping slavery. Johnny later meets up with Simpson, now a corporal in the Union army. The interaction between the two seem very unlikely given the time, as Johnny, being from Kentucky, would have likely held attitudes about race similar to most in that region, which looked on African-Americans as either inferior, or with disregard. The fact that Simpson knew of Chicago and went there, eventually joining the Union army is also awkward, as if he was seeking freedom, he would have found it with Union forces, as many army commanders were commandeering escaped slaves to work for the Union army at this time. Basically, it seems that the character of Will Simpson is out of place for the subject of the film.
Another issue with this film revolves around effects and sound. The effects used for the battle scenes did not convey the desired effect. While I understand that this is an independent film that may have a limited budget, the effects used to show artillery explosions were not very convincing. In addition, at several points in the film the sound appeared to have a slight echo, as if recorded within a building, even when the scene was outdoors. This issue was comfined to dialogue, while battlefield sounds were quite good.
Overall, this film will delight families and can serve as a way to introduce the war to children, but I encourage parents to seek out books on the war and learn about it with their children. This movie contains a great story, but jumbles the stories of three young soldiers, causing their real lives to be lost. I would encourage families to keep their historian goggles at home, as they will hinder you fully enjoying the film. Drummer boys played important roles in Civil War armies and this movie, though containing some issues, will go a long way towards reinvigorating the study of these young lads in blue and gray.
I will leave you with two videos, the first the trailer to the film and the second the reaction of some audience members, who saw the film.