THE EYES OF SOLDIER #1
Note: As time moves on, people invariably change ... their perceptions shift ... Soldier #1 would be no different. These are the views of a man, involved in the film, as he felt them at the time. They would not necessarily represent his viewpoint today! All in all, though, it's a well-written piece that, we feel, makes for a good read ... MP, April 2000
... A View of the Film From the Inside ...
Soldier #1, otherwise known as Curtis Gaston, has offered to share the reminiscences of his experiences on the set of The Last of the Mohicans with us all. He was in on the filming from mid-May through the last day, which was in October, so he has a wealth of memories. He climbed the Hollywood pecking order, rising from an extra to a featured extra, and finally becoming a scripted character. We've put a page together for you that presently features many behind-the-scenes photos and the first three installments of the good Soldier's recollections. Enjoy ...
Unless otherwise noted, all photos on the Eyes of Soldier #1 page are courtesy of Curtis Gaston.
Rich has asked me to attempt some sort of documentation of my LOTM experiences. The following will slowly grow from this first entry into a long list of ruminations, recollections, facts, half-facts, guesses, and absurdities. It's taken awhile for me to get around to it, and I apologize for the delay, but see, it's not as easy a task as one would think-for a number of reasons. I have a pretty good memory, and when augmented with visual aids, such as the large number of photos I have from the time, it gets better. Still, I'm sure I've forgotten-or repressed- a number of things, but, I'll do my best.
It was a cold and rainy morning. Sounds like the introduction to a Mickey Spillaine novel, doesn't it? Actually, I have no idea how Mickey began his stories because I never read any of them, but I do remember him from the Lite Beer commercials.
My introduction to the glamour of a big budget Hollywood flic began just like that. It was the middle of May, 1991, and on this particular day, it was cold and it was raining. It wasn't a downpour and it wasn't real cold, but it was enough to make one ask the eternal question: "why". No, just kidding, I knew why I was there, and I embraced it completely. See, for reasons only known to Michael Mann and his personal astrologer (that's a joke. But remember, he does live in LA), I was one of the few, and proud, hand- picked members of the 35th Regiment of Foot, a group of mostly fine men that would soon be known around set as "The Cadre". This was significant in that it separated us from the other extras. See, we were Featured Extras. We ate better food, made more money and in time, had things a little better than the others.
Ostensibly, our role was to provide the filmmakers with a precision fighting force that would be used in certain key scenes. These included the ambush at Linville Falls and the Heyward diversion scene at the fort (cut for theatrical release, used in tv version). Also, we would be responsible for training the large numbers of extras who were to be used at the fort and Massacre Valley. In reality, our intense training never really came across on film. To everyone but ourselves, it would seem that our primary role was to just make a good and cooperative victim. The members of the 35th Regiment were shot, stabbed, slashed, bashed, slapped, tickled, and beaten more than any other group in the film. At least we did it with authenticity...
This 35th Regiment of Foot would be trained by Captain Dale Dye, a former Marine who had spent seventeen years in the corps. During this time, Dye made it through a couple of tours of Vietnam as well as seeing action in a number of the world's hot spots. He had the scars to prove it.
Capt. Dye retired from the Corps shortly after the Beirut bombing in 1983, an incident which , due to lax security by our own U.S. government, was responsible for the deaths of many men/kids who fell under Dye's command. The government had screwed up, and Dye had had enough. After being involved in a number of mercenary exploits in the mid 80's, Dye decided to try his hand at advising Hollywood filmmakers in their efforts to create more realistic battle sequences. To make a long story short, the first contact he made was with a guy named Oliver Stone, also a Vietnam veteran (difference here- Stone did most of his tour while on LSD, Dye was a professional soldier). At that time, Stone was trying to get funding for a little film he had written called Platoon. Cut to chase: Stone, meet Dale Dye. Result? A 7 million dollar film does over 100 million at the box office. Academy Awards. High fives. Presto. In a short time Stone, along with the assistance of Dale Dye, had completely redefined the concept of the Hollywood "war" movie. The effects of that film would be seen in tons of flics to follow, most of which Dye was associated with either as an adviser or actor (watch him rip into Tom Berringer and Willem Dafoe in Platoon! In the goofy Kid, see him ask C.Thomas Howell point blank at the dinner table "are you f@$%&@* my daughter?" Watch him break down in tears in Natural Born Killers when he is interviewed about the death of his cop partner! View JFK and see a sunglass wearing Dye as "General X" tell Donald Sutherland that he has been reassigned to Antarctica! Watch him intimidate Michael J. Fox in Casualties of War- "You didn't see anything out there!". The list goes on.) I still don't know what was more amazing in Platoon, the fact that Captain Dye created such believable and terrifying celluloid battles, or that Charlie Sheen was actually good. As it turned out, Platoon would be the first of Dye's incredible advising jobs and one of the last good performances by Sheen.
Back to the rain and cold.
I had been warned prior to my first day that our month- long training session with Dye would be no cake walk. We had assembled nearly a month before filming even began. It was to be just like boot camp, except, thanks be to God, we were able to go home at night. On that rainy morning, I walked into a barren little hut at the Asheville Firefighter's Camp, not knowing quite what to expect. There were others with me. Twenty or so, most in their mid twenties, including myself. Our one common denominator was the slight hint of fear in our eyes, and with just cause. We were facing the unknown.
Captain Dye walked in and immediately let us know that he, and he only, was in charge. As he strode in, energy and light was sucked in behind him. Lightning flashed and trees swayed. Birds flew from the forest. Mothers held their babies close to their breast. He wore a beret and some bad-ass looking military clothes that, somewhere I'm sure, had bloodstains on them. He's a hippie's worst nightmare. Possessing a God-like voice and demeanor, with one look, you knew that this was a man who had killed. For the next couple of months, he was our Supreme Being. He started right in, yelling at us, cursing, breaking us down. One poor guy was chewing gum. Not for long. One goof (me) stood with his hands in his pockets. Not for long. The mental war was over in about ten seconds. We were his.
He sounds like evil incarnate, but in reality he's a nice guy, extremely bright with a flair for the outrageous. His manner and dress isn't a Hollywood act. It's the real thing. Captain Dye's first job on any film set is to establish his power, to quickly manipulate his troops into his machine, to strip them of their will. On LOTMs, his power was never challenged. Oh, I take that back. There was the incident...See, there was this dope P.A. (most were) . This poor fellow made the horrible mistake of yelling at Captain Dye in front of others. First of all, let me explain the chain of command and power struggle on a film set. When something goes wrong, which is about every other minute, the Director yells at the Assistant Director who in turn yells at the 1st Assistant Director, who then yells at the Second Assistant Director. The Second A.D. then looks around for the Key Set P.A. Once visual contact is established, he/she yells at him/her. The Key Set P.A. (who in reality is the chief ass kisser of all the P.A.s) then looks for any regular P.A. to yell at. The P.A. in turn looks for some poor extra to unload on. Since extras have no one below them, they have two options, which are 1: Beat the living hell out of the P.A. and get fired, or 2: put tail between legs and walk away. Option number one is preferred. Of course, all bitching out is most effective if it is done around a large group of people. It can be delivered face to face, or when distance becomes a factor, over a walkie-talkie. Now that the pecking order has been established, we'll return to the story.
It was media day, a chance for the production company to show its good will to the local and regional press by giving them about ten minutes to look around the set. Our regiment was putting on a little dog and pony show for them, a little precision marching and shooting. We looked great, moving in unison, our muskets firing as one. It was an impressive display. We had just fired a beautiful, tree-shaking volley when this poor fellow ... yelled down (actually raised his voice in anger) at Captain Dye for us to stop shooting. I'm not sure why he wanted us to stop, but whatever it was, it was for the wrong reason. Anyway, Captain Dye threw down his notebook and started up the hill towards the guy. I think I saw his face turn into an ashen white color. Our good captain pushed him up against the hood of a car and proceeded to verbally rip him into little fat pieces. It was beautiful. Afterwards, Dye walked back to us and we returned to our drilling, smiling. From then out, the poor P.A. was the target of much abuse from the entire 35th Regiment. Later on, the same guy got into a scrap with one of our Native American pals. This time it was more than verbal. I even remember Russell Means being involved.
... not dead yet. It's been awhile since I last wrote, so pardon any approaching redundancies.
MORE TRAINING. As most of you know, we, as the underpaid members of the 35th, endured four weeks of 18th century-like training before we took part in filming. The training was intense, beginning early in the morning, and wrapping up in the late afternoon. Captain Dye's intimidation factor was formidable, so, for the first week, most of us were too freaked out to even look at him, let alone ask him stupid questions. After all, there would be plenty of time for that later.
In terms of physical conditioning, the members of the 35th ran the gamut, so training was more of an issue than one would think. But after a couple of weeks, those who first lagged behind made some great progress, so the 35th quickly become a lean, mean, cuisine, vaseline, afro-sheen, fighting machine. Most importantly, during this time we began to bond as a real unit. Of course there were personal differences amongst the ranks, but these seemed to mostly evanesce when it was time to perform for the man. This bonding, which can only be compared to the loyalty shared by real soldiers during times of action, would prove to be crucial to our group moral during the tough days to follow. Most importantly, it was key to our survival through the daily ordeal of being but a pawn in Michael Mann's schizophrenic, 18th century mis-en-'scene. But, all good things must come to an end, so in time, this once unvanquishable group dynamic would rapidly deteriorate into an almost sit-com-like scenario of greed, contempt, distrust and murder! Of course I'm kidding. There was no contempt.
But as for training, who really cares? What it really amounts to is a bunch of freaks running around in funny clothes, getting yelled at by a beret-wearing man who still loves the smell of napalm in the A.M. Your burning question seems to be "what did Daniel wear under his loins". As for that, I never got close enough to see. Sorry. Let's skip to our first filmed scene at Linville Falls.
THE GEORGE ROAD AMBUSH scene was the first in which the 35th regiment was involved. Everyone, including myself, was happy to escape the stifling repetition of training camp for a few days. We were also looking forward to displaying our newly acquired killing skills to the cast and crew. It was a chance to make Papa Dye proud, while giving us some credibility within the eyes of the film's key personnel.
The weather was unpredictable. Hot days, cool nights, and bone-chilling rain made some of the days nearly intolerable (in hindsight, the Linville shoot was a cake walk compared to the draconian temperatures and humidity that we would face at the fort). Playing dead for hours at a time while encrusted in mud and goop probably has its advantages, but I don't know what they could be. For the first two days, we were forced to commute between Asheville and Linville - a two hour ride. But start-up time was delayed because of our lengthy commute, the production company decided to put us up in Linville's famed Pixie Motel. It was great to be staying so close to the location. The quiet nights at the Pixie gave us time to find out more about each other. It was during these first days of shooting that the different cliques began to form within the unit. It was also at this time that we began to decide which cast and crew members to hate and which to like.
... in progress ...
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RETREAT TO The MOHICAN MUSINGS, MORE MOHICAN MUSINGS, STILL MORE MOHICAN MUSINGS, EVEN MORE MOHICAN MUSINGS, AND EVEN MORE MOHICAN MUSINGS, MORE, MORE MOHICAN MUSINGS, MOHICAN MUSINGS ... Part 7 or MOHICAN MUSINGS ... Part 8
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