Pharaoh’s Army

Directed by Robby Henson

Let me make one thing clear before we start: DO NOT confuse this film with the Tobias Woolf book with the same title. The Tobias Woolf book takes place in the Mekong Delta during the Viet Nam war. This film takes place in the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky during the Civil War. Same title, different beasts completely. However, both projects take their title from a verse in the Bible, which provides the timely confusion.

During the Civil War, a Union Army Captain (Chris Cooper - Matewan, Lonesome Dove and the upcoming John Sayles film, Lone Star) leads his rag-tag cavalry troop up a misty creek in the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky. Their mission—to replenish their depleted food supplies by any means necessary. They come across a small, remote farm worked by Sarah Anders (Patricia Clarkson—The Untouchables, The Dead Pool), a proud and defiant woman whose husband is away fighting with the Confederate Army. She harbors an intense hatred for the Yankees who dug her infant daughter out of the community graveyard, for being part of a Confederate family. Sarah and her young son (Will Lucas) attempt to hide their dwindling food supply and remaining livestock but the men continue their search until they have stolen everything.

Before the soldiers can leave, Newt (Huckleberry Fox— yup, that’s what the credits say), the youngest soldier, is accidentally wounded and the unit holes up at the farm. While the soldiers grow anxious and restless in the this environment, the Captain is reminded of his own farm and the family he was forced to leave behind when he joined the army.

The close quarters of the farmhouse force Sarah and the Captain to interact as they care for the injured man. Slowly, they begin to speak, not as enemies, but simply as people.

This is a very strange story that you realize as somehow odd but you can’t quite put your finger on why until the end credits when it’s revealed that it is in fact a true story that happened yet the Rebel mother told her young son to never tell anyone, which he didn’t until well into the twentieth century to a folklore archivist, probably from his deathbed. With that knowledge you start to realize that although what you’ve just seen is not a fully fleshed out narrative, it is an incredible parable for just what happens to a handful of people in the backwoods of Kentucky when the reasons for war break down for all the right reasons.

Pharaoh’s Army is a story of the passions that tore a nation apart, of personal wars waged away from the battlefield, of uncertain and divided loyalties and of what happens when people attempt to transcend the cruel circumstances of war.


SIDEBAR: Native son renders Kentucky

Shot in the ruggedly picturesque Cumberland mountains of Kentucky, Pharaoh’s Army is a film of haunting beauty. The brooding sky, barren trees and muddy farmyard provide a stark backdrop to the range of emotional conflicts that the characters encounter. Asked about the visual feeling imparted by the film Henson replies, "The look we were after is that kind of dark, dense, moody Kentucky spring. For the most part when we were shooting the weather cooperated. But some days when it got too sunny, we would have to move inside."

Being a native to the area, Henson found the community incredibly supportive of the project. "Les Rousey, the man whose farm we shot on, was there everyday helping to make us feel at home. Local car dealers let the actors use their cars. Even the National Guard came out in support. They lent us tents, equipment and a forklift to help us get out crane shots."

In addition to garnering aid from the community, Henson’s native status gave him a special closeness to the project. Of this bond Kris Kristofferson says, "Robby having lived here and having a feel for the hills and the people gives it that much better of a chance of having an authentic feel. You don’t often see a script—at least I don’t—that’s that literate, and holds up all the way through. It [Pharaoh’s Army] doesn’t deal in stereotypes—trite notions of Yankees and Rebels, for example, and about the relations between slaveholders and slaves."

The inspiration for Pharaoh’s Army came from a piece of Kentucky oral history—a tradition rooted as much in myth as it is in fact. Through the film, director Robby Henson rewrites a little known legend told by Harry Caudill, the author of several books including Night Comes to the Cumberlands. This retelling of tales is the basis of the oral tradition, something Henson has always been intrigued by:

"I’ve always been attracted to the way that Kentucky history turns into myth," says Henson, who along with making films about Southern culture has lectured and taught extensively about the subject. This project was different for Henson however. Not only was he making the leap from documentary to feature, his focus now was on the intimately personal aspect of war:

"On a documentary, you work with a smaller crew, but with this picture, we had a crew of about forty people. The logistics of working with that many can be more stressful, but it’s all for the same thing. I’m just trying to tell a story."

"I see Pharaoh’s Army as a film about a very private civil war which happens far removed from the American Civil War. A bunch of people discover what their loyalties are and what price they will pay for those loyalties."

Robby Henson is a Kentucky native with ancestors on both sides of the Civil War. He has made five documentary films about Southern history and culture. Trouble Behind, a film on the history and impact of a Southern race riot, won First Prize Awards at the Documentary Festival of New York City and the Louisville Film Festival. His other titles include: Spalding Gray: A Life in Progress, Blood Memory and Roads Home. His work has been seen on PBS, the BBC and at film festivals in Ireland, France and Australia, as well as the Seattle (‘95) and Montreal (‘90) Film Festivals. Pharaoh’s Army is his first narrative feature.