Review from Los Angeles View
Written by Lea Russo

In America's bloodiest war, North and South fought for what they believed in. But as the years passed and the battles grew messier and the body count skyrocketed, the two sides forgot what they believed in. Then they fought for vindication. They retaliated for lives, brother for brother, father for father, son for son. It's this cycle of revenge that's the focus of "Pharaoh's Army," a thoughtful film that explores in microcosm all the hate and contradictions of the Civil War. As many characters -- both Yank and Reb alike -- in the picture say, "There'll be hell to pay."

In 1862, Rebel sympathizer Sarah (Patricia Clarkson in a remarkable, understated performance) and her eleven-year-old son (newcomer Will Lucas) return to their Kentucky farm carting the casket of a little girl. Sarah's daughter has died, and was buried in a cemetery. But the Yankees dug up her small form and left her above ground to rot because her father is fighting for the South and they don't want any Rebels buried near their kin. Sarah will never forgive or forget what's been done to her child. She's strong, she's quiet, but there's hellfire burning in her heart. In an attempt to repress her rage, she and her boy go about planting crops.

It's not long, though, before their lives are disrupted once again. A group of Yankees, led by the kindly Captain John Abston (Chris Cooper, who radiates both charm and menace), approach their farm and demand the family's food, supplies, and animals, promising that they'll leave directly after. Sarah knows when she's outnumbered and coolly lets them take what they may. But when one of the soldiers falls from the barn loft and lands on the pointed spikes of a pitchfork, the group must postpone their departure until the man heals.

In the meantime, the captain, partly out of guilt over robbing Sarah and partly because he's a softie, makes himself useful by plowing her cornfield and chopping firewood. While she despises the Yanks, she does begin to like the captain -- in spite of herself. After he holds her hand, she runs to the river and, fully dressed, submerges herself, trying to clean off her shame. Annoyed by the duo's growing affection for each other, the troops grow restless, and accuse him of "trying to get himself a little poke." Tension erupts, and both Sarah and the captain retreat to their roles as Reb and Yank, all humanity lost.

Writer/director Robby Henson has done a masterful job of creating a world within a world. His characters lucidly personify the Confederate and Union mentalities. Yet the film is not about why those on each side fight, but how they are victimized by death and react, not as individuals, but as part of a whole. Sarah, for example, is forced by her "side" to abhor the captain, but she sees his sensitivity and he hers. Still, they are bound -- by their codes of honor, by their blue or gray colors -- to forget that the other is a flesh-and-blood person. They must think like armies, not people.

Inspired by a true story, "Pharaoh's Army" is a stunningly beautiful film. Doron Schlair's cinematography captures the misty grays and blues of the countryside, the purple-red sunsets over the hills, and the lavish greens and browns of the fields. The landscape may appear placid, but there's tension in the running river, the shrieking hawks, and the plow-ground earth.

There's not a single battle scene in this film, but all the strain and complexity of a people divided is present in the rich characterizations and performances. Compelling and subtle, "Pharaoh's Army" shows a war away from the front lines and close to the heart. There was hell to pay, all right, and these people paid it every time they tried to even the score.

(c)1996 Los Angeles View. All rights reserved.

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