PHAROAH'S ARMY, based on a supposedly true Kentucky legend, is a war movie without the war. For those who don't fight the battles but still have to take sides, the inner struggles can be as heartbreaking as the war itself. Director Robby Henson's stark, unsentimental telling of the story
has a powerful emotional impact.
Looking for enemies, a group of five Union soldiers, led by Captain John Abston (Chris Cooper), search a farm owned by Sarah Anders (Patricia Clarkson). As they're about to leave, one unlucky soldier, Newt (Huckleberry Fox), falls off a ladder onto a pitchfork. The men decide to stay at Sarah's
home until Newt heals.
Sarah's husband is away, fighting for the Confederacy, and she and her son, known only as Boy (Will Lucas), tend the farm. Sarah has a deep hatred for Yankees, who dug up the grave of her daughter, forcing Sarah to rebury her on the farm. Nonetheless, she has no choice but to house the soldiers.
Abston, who joined the army to free the slaves, helps with farming chores. Sarah takes a liking to him, but after Rodie (Richard Tyson), a troublesome soldier, claims Abston's generosity is an attempt at seduction, she reminds herself that Abston is the enemy and sends her boy into town to tell
the preacher (Kris Kristofferson) that the soldiers are there.
After another argument, Rodie deserts the squad and Abston is forced to shoot him. In the confusion that follows, the preacher's slave is shot.
When Newt recovers, the soldiers go on their way. Abston leaves Sarah a rifle, which she points at him but can not shoot. As the soldiers leave, the boy runs after them with a pistol and shoots Newt. Abston goes back to the farm to confront Sarah and the boy. He fires two shots in the air and
returns to his men, who believe he shot the two for revenge. Sarah's husband never returns from the war.
In a deceptively simple way, PHAROAH'S ARMY depicts the random pointlessness of war. Everything happens by circumstance. If Newt hadn't been injured, the men would not have stayed at the farm. If Rodie hadn't run away, the preacher's slave wouldn't have been killed, and the boy would have had no
reason for revenge. Ultimately, we see that war is pointless. The slave, whose freedom is being fought for so passionately, is killed by accident. The time the soldiers spend on the farm proves worthless, since Newt also dies in the end. Henson seems to be saying that in times of war, normality
and rationality don't exist, and even people who mean well end up unable to communicate. Under other circumstances, Abston and Sarah may have fallen in love. As it is, her only emotion is hatred for an enemy she doesn't understand.
The simple acoustic guitar score and scenic photography suit the film well. The peacefulness of the backdrop and the film's mild pace belie its dark emotional core. In this topsy-turvy world at war, action is presented in a peaceful way, and the near-romantic scenes are full of tension.
The acting is outstanding, and the dialogue tight. Though the characterizations are strong and the emotions palpable, the action scenes are somewhat confusing. When Sarah attempts to shoot Abston, it is not entirely clear why the rifle won't fire.
With a bit more clarity, PHAROAH'S ARMY could have been a great film and made a clearer statement about the futility of war. (Violence, adult situations, profanity.)
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- Released: 1996
- Rating: NR
- Review: PHAROAH'S ARMY, based on a supposedly true Kentucky legend, is a war movie without the war. For those who don't fight the battles but still have to take sides, the inner struggles can be as heartbreaking as the war itself. Director Robby Henson's stark, un… (more)