Stepping out of time: Civil War re-enactor ready for his close-up

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

OKOLONA – The battlefield was real, but the battle wasn’t.
In early 2011, Van Anderson, 25, wore Confederate gray at Shiloh National Military Park. Rifles and canons fired around him, smoke wafted through the air, and a camera moved in tight for a close-up.
“We have all heard actors talking about how hard a project is. I thought that was funny before,” the Okolona resident said. “But when you are on set, it is hard. You might work on the same scene 15 or 20 times.”
The finished product, “Shiloh: Fiery Trial,” now airs in regular rotation at the park, and it’s available for $24.95 from www.eparks.com.
You’re free to watch it and decide if Anderson is a born actor or not.
One thing’s for sure, he is a born re-enactor.
“I started when I was about 12. I’ve been to Shiloh and Vicksburg and all over Tennessee,” he said. “I guess I went to my first Shiloh re-enactment when I was a baby in 1987.”
“You were 3 or 4 months old,” said his dad, Andy Anderson, 56.
Father and son are members of the 7th Tennessee camp of Civil War re-enactors. They and their horses were happily conscripted for service on the movie set.
Van Anderson got far more screen time than his dad. That had more to do with period accuracy than a Hollywood obsession with youth.
“The young, skinny guys were in front. The older guys were in the background,” Andy Anderson said. “The director would holler, ‘Skinniest to the front!’ The average weight of a Civil War soldier was 120 pounds.”
Van Anderson weighs about 200 pounds, but he shed some of that to portray Thomas Duncan, a scout and messenger for the Confederates. His character is highlighted in “Fiery Trial.”
“He had a unique perspective,” Van Anderson said. “He was the first one to see the federals. As a messenger, he was going back and fourth on the battlefield, seeing everything.”
Shooting a movie provided its own unique glimpse. The Andersons watched makeup artists transform healthy men into grotesque casualties of war. Special effects experts buried charges in the ground and exploded them to mimic cannon fire.
“They were shooting paintball guns at trees,” Van Anderson said. “The pellets were filled with sawdust, so it looked like a bullet was hitting a tree.”
The movie also involved a regular trick of Civil War re-enactors. The Andersons and the rest of the cast switched from gray coats to blue for different scenes. Thanks to editing, they fought themselves.
Filming included cold, wet days and hot, sweaty days. The actors slept in tents on the hard ground. At times, the director asked them to look tired and miserable, which wasn’t hard to do. Van Anderson didn’t mind.
“Yeah, I’d do it again, I guess,” he said with a smile. “If somebody would have me, I’d sure do it again.”
scott.morris@journalinc.com