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Captain Chuck Young

Locals in the Movies

By Jeanne Sager
SULLIVAN COUNTY — February 18, 2003 – Headed to the movies this weekend? You might see someone you know.
Three Sullivan County residents, all re-enactors in the 143rd New York Volunteer Infantry, have extra parts in the much-anticipated “Gettysburg” prequel, “Gods and Generals,” which will hit theaters Friday.
Captain Chuck Young of Liberty, in his 19th year of re-enacting, had his fifth opportunity on the silver screen this year. And after a friend watched the premiere in Boston earlier this month, Young is “chomping at the bit” to get to the theater and see a few close-up shots of himself leading men into battle in Manassas, Va.
Dennis and Scott Bernitt, a father-and-son team from Hankins, are going to wait until the movie hits Sullivan County theaters – they want to dress up in Civil War garb and show the public what the re-enactors are all about.
The Bernitts each took part in a scene centered around one of Stonewall Jackson’s speeches during the early days of the war. They were, of course, soldiers.
Traditionally, movie companies and documentary filmmakers take advantage of the many folks who re-enact Civil War battle scenes for fun. The cost of outfitting all the extras needed for the massive scenes in these epics would be astronomical.
But the companies have a standing agreement with the national organization the 143rd belongs to. Extras head down to film, getting free meals and a few perks, but they bring their own uniform.
The companies make large donations to the organization in turn, money which re-enactors treasure. It’s all used for battlefield preservation, keeping pieces of the country’s history from being paved over for a strip mall.
“A lot of times you wind up going, ‘Hey, there I am!’” Dennis Bernitt explained, listing a number of documentaries the trio have appeared in, most of which have aired on A&E, the History Channel or the Discovery Channel. Some were even filmed right in Liberty.
“Gettysburg, Our Boys in Blue and Gray” was filmed primarily on Walnut Mountain during the 143rd’s annual re-enactment in the county.
Young has learned a lot from his different experiences. Many of the films that show thousands upon thousands of soldiers driving up a hill are actually done with a few hundred men and a lot of pictures set up on posts in the background.
During Jackson’s speech with the Bernitts, the filmmakers used different camera angles to fill in the holes.
“They made a few hundred troops look like thousands,” Young explained.
In devastation scenes, there are dummies of dead horses and men used up close, but in the background it’s all special effects.
“It’s interesting,” Young explained. “You see miles and miles of devastation – they take Styrofoam and cover hillsides with pictures in the distance.
“Where you see bodies on the hillside, it’s actually pictures.”
And to create the rising smoke effect, a guy runs around in an oil-burning cart right before a scene is shot.
But for the re-enactors, the focus of filming is on accuracy.
During their own events, the men (and women) try to make things as real as possible. Although they know they’ll be going home at the end of the weekend to a nice, warm bed, the soldiers sleep out in tents, eating food similar to that consumed by Civil War soldiers.
They wear authentic costumes, and the battles are run just like the real ones. The men from Sullivan County often head to Virginia or other places down South so they can do battle on the original fields.
And there’s no changing history. If the Union is supposed to lose a battle, Young and his men allow themselves to be beaten, even faking their deaths on the field.
“One of the things we’ve experienced is that, as re-enactors, we’re very, very critical of the realism,” Bernitt explained. “But Hollywood says, ‘It’ll be our way or no way.’”
From talking with other veterans, though, movies have improved. A former soldier from Scranton, Pa., who watched the recent Mel Gibson release “We Were Soldiers,” told Bernitt it was “as near to being the way it was as Hollywood and the viewing public would allow it to be.”
And for Young and Dennis Bernitt, both Vietnam veterans, that’s important.
The main reason for joining the re-enactors is to have fun, they said, but it’s also to keep the history alive.
“A lot of re-enactors get into this for the friendship, but also the learning experience and passing on the learning to others,” Dennis Bernitt said.
“At every event you go to, you learn something else,” Scott Bernitt added.
The younger Bernitt decided to do this movie because he’s developed a healthy respect for history and a place in his heart for battlefield preservation. He’s been in other films before. He can pinpoint his face on any number of History Channel specials. But after 14 years of re-enacting, he wants to give back to his hobby.
“It’s something we’re big on,” Dennis said, “not letting it die, passing it on.”
Young is always looking for more volunteers to join his troop – more people in the hobby will ensure that the history and stories of the Civil War will never die.
“We do it in an authentic way, so you kind of get a feel for the way the soldiers lived,” Young explained. “A lot of time we go to these things and it rains, and you’re out there under the rain.
“But each time you put on that uniform, you’re paying tribute to those who wore the uniform,” Young continued. “I don’t want to have men who think this is just cowboys and Indians.
“You don’t have to be an authority on the Civil War – we’ll teach you. In fact, the biggest problem I had was trying to break my 20th century military habits.”
The movie “Gods and Generals” will hit movie theaters Feb. 21, and folks should keep an eye out for Young or the Bernitts. When the movie comes to Sullivan County, some of the re-enactors hope to attend the local screenings in full garb and will answer questions.
For more information, or to get involved with the 143rd, call Young at 295-9297 or Dennis Bernitt at 887-4974.

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