Sunday, April 4, 2010

No Blood, No Guts, No Glory

Hello everyone. Welcome to another week of Scriptshadow! This week we'll be tackling some sci-fi, one of the greatest comedic screenwriters of all time, and...pirates?? Oh yeah, you bet. But right now, Roger's going to review another Black List script. So let's get on with it!

Genre: Historical Adventure, Heist, War
Premise: A spy and twenty Union soldiers in disguise board a train in Georgia to execute a scheme that could bring a quick end to the U.S. Civil War.
About: In 2005, Chase Palmer was profiled in Filmmaker Magazine's article, "25 New Faces of Independent Film". Palmer has several projects set up around town. Among them are Evolution's Captain, a film about Charles Darwin for Academy Award-winning producer Cathy Schulman (Crash) and Dune for director Pierre Morel.
This is a script off the 2009 Black List and is being produced by Kevin Misher (Public Enemies, The Interpretor, Dune) for Paramount.
Writer: Chase Palmer
"No Blood, No Guts, No Glory" is based upon the real life Civil War commando mission that inspired Buster Keaton's The General. It's a fictionalized account about America's first special forces operation and the gallantry of the men who were awarded the first Congressional Medal of Honor. I knew none of these things until after I had finished the script.
Nor did I know that the writer, Chase Palmer, is the man working on the adaptation for Frank Herbert's Dune for director Pierre Morel.
I opened the script based purely on the logline. A few pages in and I couldn't stop reading. Apparently, I was in the mood for a gritty heist story set against the backdrop of the American Civil War.
Oh yeah, when this script becomes a movie, there's a chance that the finished film will have the most ambitious and epic train chase yet to be captured on celluloid.
What caught your attention to keep you reading in the first ten pages, Rog?
The first sentence is, "A bridge burns with lusty violence."
Prose fiction instructors always talk about first sentences, but you never hear screenwriting instructors talk about first sentences.
Isn't that odd?
The first sentence is a promise.
Not only is this a tale full of lust and violence, but the story delivers on the promise of the first line, striking the thematic bell in every scene, all the way up to the bloody finale, which takes place on a burning bridge called The Devil's Tightrope.
The bellum atmosphere invited me in, but I particularly appreciated the character introductions. It was like walking through an open door to find a room full of people I wanted to know more about.
Whom do we meet first?
Well, a mother and her two daughters. They're in the middle of stitching a torn jacket for their absent saboteur pater familias when the villains kick open the door of their East Tennessee cabin.
The first words out of Lieutenant Vickers mouth are, "Don't move, cunt."
His superior, Colonel Danville Leadbetter, "steps across the threshold like the devil on an Easter stroll". When the mother refuses to dish out the whereabouts of her husband, Vickers loops his belt around her head and chin while Leadbetter sews her mouth shut.
The husband eventually returns to find his daughters locked inside cages that have been built into the Strawberry Plains Bridge. Not long after, he and his bridge-burning unit are perfunctorily impaled on ten foot stakes.
In front of their caged children.
As I read the sign with the words, "Welcome to Chatta-Fucking-Nooga", I couldn't help but wonder: Was I immersed in The Brigands of Rattleborge all over again?
OK. So who is our hero?
You mean anti-hero.
We're told, "If John Wilkes Booth had Sinatra's panache, he'd be this man and we wouldn't give a shit if Lincoln were shot twenty fucking times. Meet JAMES ANDREWS."
That just won a contest in my head as the most daring character description I've seen in a screenplay. If that doesn't tell you enough, picture a handsome scoundrel in a black, ankle length duster.
A smuggler who's working both ends of the Civil War forces for personal gain, we meet James at a Confederate hospital where he gets into a dispute over quinine he's just delivered. He pisses off Captain Whitsitt and his quartermaster when he refuses to accept bluebacks (Confederate dollars) as payment.
He wants gold or Union dollars.
Whitsitt accuses him of being a Union spy, and the next thing we know, a saber is batted away and everyone finds themselves in a Mexican stand-off in the middle of the hospital.
The stand-off is interrupted by the stately and stunning Miriam Leadbetter, the Colonel's wife. A true lady of the South, she strolls into the hospital to visit the wounded but soon finds herself flirting with the charming rogue while everyone has guns pointed at each other.
In exchange for holstering his weapons, Miriam invites him over to the Colonel's house for dinner where they can talk about the gold he's owed.
And if she's full of shit?
"Well, then you'll be in my home and in a position to take whatever you want."
And he does.
But first he's threatened by Leadbetter and listens to the Colonel talk about the importance of Chattanooga to the Confederacy. It's a major railway hub that controls the flow of munitions, troops and supplies all across the South.
If Chattanooga falls, so does the Confederacy.
And Leadbetter is the guy tasked without protecting the city from Union forces. He's convinced that the South possesses a quality that the North doesn't.
The North may have more men, money and industry, but every act of daring in this struggle has been by a Southerner. It's a detail Leadbetter seems obsessed with.
When Leadbetter has to step away from the table to check on a suspicious stable fire, James grabs Miriam by the hair, and "without a kiss, or a word, he begins to finger her against the desk." You know where this is going. (James violently fucks Miriam while "she clutches gold coins between her white knuckles" in her husband's office.)
Holy Lusty Violence, Roger! So isn't this about a heist?
Pay attention. Leadbetter shares James' aversion to Confederate dollars. While the other loyal Southern gentlemen were turning in their gold for war bonds and bluebacks to ensure that the Confederacy has the warchest it needs overseas, Leadbetter has been hoarding gold.
Eight hundred thousand dollars, to be exact.
"What if I told you I got a line on eight hundred thousand in gold that if it went missing, the cocksucker it goes missing from couldn't alert the authorities without exposing himself as a hypocrite, possibly a traitor and definitely an asshole." That's what James tells Cole, an old friend he recruits as partner.
But, how are they gonna move that much gold fast and far when the Colonel has an entire army at his disposal?
By stealing a train, of course.
James strolls into General Mitchel's Union camp. Yep, it's "Old Stars" Ormsby Mitchel, a general nicknamed for his fondness of gazing at the stars through a telescope.
James convinces Mitchel to attack Chattanooga, telling him that his forces will outnumber Leadbetter's three-to-one. But what about the Confederate forces that will come in from Atlanta?
No worries, James is going to steal a train in Marietta and torch bridges, tear up track and cut telegraph wire all the way to Chattanooga, "Your troops will be dug in with one hundred miles of fucked-up rail between them and the nearest Confederate cocksucker who can do one Goddamn thing about it."
It's quite the suicide mission, but if it works, it will put an end to the war.
Doesn't James need about twenty raiders?
Yep, and he gets 'em. But they are the dregs of the bunch. Mitchel gives him all the fuck-ups and headcases.
Among them are Private Shadrach, a soldier we meet while he's luring a duck to come eat out of his hand. I know, it's cute. But you're wrong. Shadrach seizes the duck by its neck, douses it in hair tonic, and says, "Now this boys is what I like to call a Kentucky sparkler."
He it ablaze and hurls it into the air while laughing hysterically, appalling the soldiers around him.
There's a civilian named Campbell, a brute caught hiding out with an enlisted friend. His story? He killed a Sheriff's deputy in Louisville. With one punch. Accidentally.
The only capable man seems to be Corporal Pittinger, an English teacher from Ohio who has been serving as a wartime correspondent for his local paper. Not only is he being tasked with chronicling the secret operation for posterity, but he's to assassinate James should the smuggler choose to jeopardize the mission.
So the rest of the script is pretty much a train chase?
Yeah. Once James and Cole rob the bank in Marietta and walk away with Leadebetter's fortune, the script becomes a hundred mile train chase.
James and the raiders steal The General, "a melody cast in wrought iron metal". It belongs to the conductor, William Fuller, and it's heartbreaking when his beloved fireman, Cain (a slave who has bought his freedom), is lynched during the theft.
The Confederates accuse Cain of being a Union spy after he's tossed out of The General by the raiders, and everything goes to shit.
Fuller is going to get his train back no matter what the cost, and in a way, the story is as much about him as it is about James.
There's a lot of stomach-churning deaths in this script, but there's a lot of blood-pumping action as well.
There are bridge battles, a Gatling gun massacre against all odds straight out of Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, and a spectacular swashbuckling sequence involving the infamous Confederate marauder, Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, sees a bridge explode and says, "Mount the fuck up, lads. Someone's throwin' a party and we just got invited."
It's satisfying for a Civil War geek to see James engage in a fight with the The Wizard of the Saddle armed with nothing but his bare hands while the psychopath is trying to decapitate him with a sword.
Just saying.
What's the verdict, Rog?
You know, James has a helluva goal with impossible odds. He's playing two sides in a war against each other so he can steal a man's fortune. Even the men who are supposed to be helping him are a question mark at best. Who will try to backstab James? Will anyone rise up to become a true hero?
It's not very heroic, it's a mission borne of greed.
And it gets very chaotic, and we feel culpable for all the casualties of James' greed. But somewhere along the way, the motivation changes. It's not about the money anymore. It's about completing the mission.
It becomes about glory.
In a way, this is kind of the twisted moral sibling to Edward Zick's Glory. That movie is about sacrifice and true heroism. It's lofty. For the most part, we empathize with all the characters and there's true transformation. "No Blood, No Guts, No Glory" is more about charming men who do bad things, characters that we may not like (though we like to watch them), yet we can appreciate their courage in the face of certain death.
In the end, I was moved.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Heist movies are interesting because they usually aren't really about the goal or prize, they're about the obstacles and the impossible odds the characters have to overcome to pull the heist off. The more impossible, and the higher the stakes, the more involved we become as an audience. The audience will stick around to see what's going to happen at the end. In that way, heist flicks do what we're all trying to accomplish in our screenplays, regardless of genre: They keep the audience around long enough to see what happens.
This script also reinforced the power of effective character introductions. From the introduction of Leadbetter and James Andrews to the individual introductions of the raiders, I automatically wanted to know more about these men. The introductions were dramatic. They were intriguing. They were entertaining. All the men were doing something that told me about who they were as people. There was so much good grace I stuck around for more, even when the casualties of the men's greed was taking an emotional toll on my sympathy.