Thursday, February 21, 2008

"War Under the Pine-Straw"

Do not try this at home.

This movie is about Tom Dickey, who died a natural death in 1987. But not all relic collectors are so lucky. Sam White,  who had defused hundreds of shells, was killed at his house in Chesterfield County, Virginia, in February of 2008. The ATF and other Federal agencies subsequently removed his entire collection. 

This is the full film. The bomb-defusing climax begins about 8 minutes before the end.

War Under the Pinestraw - Tom Dickey and Civil War Memories from Christopher Dickey on Vimeo.

The Background

My uncle Tom Dickey's great passion was The Civil War. Whenever he could, he'd take an old army surplus mine detector out onto the battlefields to find bits of 19th-century ordnance: MiniƩ balls, shrapnel and unexploded projectiles. Eventually the walls of his rec room were lined with neatly catalogued artillery shells and other treasures dug up from yards in Atlanta, swamps in South Carolina, even pulled from the bottom of Louisiana bayous. The concrete floor of his basement looked like an ammo dump. His collection gained fame among military historians, and Tom wrote an authoritative illustrated treatise about the ordnance which is on the shelves of many academies and specialty libraries. Tom died in 1987, but much of his collection is now on display at The Atlanta History Center.

My father James Dickey, the poet and novelist best known for "Deliverance," wrote a poem about his brother Tom's relic hunting that is also, ultimately, about their search for a common history. It begins:

As he moves the mine detector
A few inches over the ground,
Making it vitally float
Among the ferns and weeds,
I come into this war
Slowly, with my one brother,
Watching his face grow deep
Between the earphones,
For I can tell
If we enter the buried battle
Of Nimblewill
Only by his expression ...

Years later, in 1974, I decided to make a film about Tom. Of course, when I was a little boy in Atlanta, memories of the Civil War had been all around us. The centenary came and went. So did a second "premiere" of the movie "Gone With The Wind," which my parents attended in costume. Then, when my father was at the Library of Congress in the mid-1960s, I spent hours taking advantage of my special access as his son to pore over photographs of the Civil War battlefields. Many of them showed carnage that had been airbrushed away in popular history, and it added to my sense of shock and discovery that most were printed as "stereo" cards that could be viewed in sepia-toned 3D.

In film school I had seen the historical documentary "Nuit et brouillard" (Night and Fog) by Alain Resnais, which juxtaposed oddly bucolic scenes of the destroyed Nazi death camps as they looked in 1955 with the horrors that had existed in them a decade before. My idea with the film about Tom was to use a similar technique, with the still photographs of the Civil War dead that I had found in the Library of Congress played against scenes of Tom searching forgotten battlefields and vacant lots in the Sun Belt South.

The film was supposed to be about history and memory, and there's something of that, to be sure. But as it turned out it's really about Tom: his great charm, his wonderful humor and his strange, and in some ways wildly dangerous obsession with the past.

-- Christopher Dickey, Paris, 2007

For more on the Dickey family,