There are many enduring images of the Civil War–the siege of Vicksburg, Sherman’s burning of Atlanta and his destructive march to the sea, the sickness and starvation, the pillaging of farms by soldiers, the runaway slaves looking for protection, and the brotherly comraderie between the two sides when night fell and they lay down their arms. These familiar stories come to life as they are relayed by one Union soldier, a farmer named Jacob Ritner, in his letters home to his wife Emeline in Iowa. Just as interesting are Emeline’s letters to Jacob, telling him how things are back on the farm and in town, as the townsfolk often hear about the dead and wounded from friends and neighbors on the line before they hear from the Army.
Love and Valor uses these letters as a storytelling narrative. Part documentary, part re-enactment, the letters provide the backbone of the film, and are easily the best part. Voice-over narration, with actors reading as Jacob and Emeline, move the plot, with actors in soft-focus scenarios silently acting out the content of the letter. At first this gimmick kind of distracted me, but the stories in the letter are so truly interesting, that you end up going with it. A bit more clunky are interspersed interviews with writer/director/producer Charles F. Larimer as he recounts the stories of how he found these letters. These moment interrupt the flow established by the stories themselves, and would have served better as accompanying DVD extras, rather than being in the film itself.
That said, Larimer, the descendent of Jacob and Emeline, sure found a treasure with these letters, which bring the Civil War not only to life, but gives a very every-man (or woman) perspective of the era. For instance, I never knew of the term “copperhead”, which was given to Northerners who protested the war. Considering how many men from the North were fighting, these protesters were not very popular among those who had loved ones off fighting. Also, I didn’t know of the massive use of riverboats to transport soldiers up and down the major riverways, especially the Mississippi, to hot battlefields. Some of Jacob’s descriptions of this surprising flotilla of newly-converted warships were some of the most fascinating and vivid in the film.
The extras on the DVD are a bunch of short stories told by Larimer, who obviously loves delving into his family history, about other fun facts that ended up on the cutting room floor, including a kind of bizarre story connecting Tom Hanks with a famously fictionalized character, and the serendipitous story about how Larimer found Emeline’s half of the letters.