The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams (originally titled Strike the Tent), a Civil War romance indie from 2005, has the novel attraction of its co-director/writer/producer/lead star Julian Adams being a direct descendent of the film's real-life lead character, Robert Adams, Julian's great-great grandfather. And while that hook rates a momentary, "Hmph," it doesn't erase the fact that The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams, while certainly good-intentioned, can't escape a fairly routine, mundane treatment that fails to elevate the film beyond other straight-to-DVD fare.
Telling the true story (with an end credit that says some of it has been fudged) of Robert Adams (Julian Adams), a Captain in the Confederate Army, The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams examines the epic romance between Adams and the love of his life, Northerner Eveline McCord (Gwendolyn Edwards), a school teacher. Framed within a flashback structure (with Tippi Hedren giving a cameo of Eveline in middle age), the story veers back and forth in time, showing not only Robert's growing attachment and love for Eveline, but also his growing awareness that his home state of South Carolina will soon be drawn into the War Between the States.
Set in lower Richland County, in 1860, we're introduced to the proud Adams, who doesn't think twice of defending his homeland and the traditions of his culture when war eventually comes to the South. Not initially realizing that Eveline, newly arrived from the North, is actually the sister of Robert's best friend, Nelson McCord (Joshua Lindsey), Robert pursues her (even though Nelson gives a friendly warning not to), impressing her with his Southern charm and grace. Soon, war becomes inevitable, and Robert convinces his friend Nelson to join up, leaving behind his wife, Sylvia (Amy Redford).
Soon, the horrors of war take their toll on Robert and Nelson, with Robert eventually being captured and sent to a Federal Union prison in New York. Finding Nelson there as well, Robert plans a daring escape from the hellhole, but unfortunately, Nelson doesn't make it, shot in cold blood by the evil Union Captain Griffith (Timmy Sherrill). As Robert escapes with friend Benjamin Young (Eric Holloway), they make their way to Nelson's grandfather's farm in Pennsylvania, where miraculously, they meet up with Eveline, who has escaped the ravages of the war-torn South. After bidding Eveline's sick grandfather goodbye (a cameo by Mickey Rooney), Robert ignores Eveline's pleas to forget the war; he leaves her and rejoins his unit. Will Robert and Eveline survive the war and be reunited in their love?
It's always tough to give a middling or negative review to an indie like The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams, because it's apparent that a lot of family pride went into the production. It's obviously a labor of love for its creator, Julian Adams, and he seems sincere in wanting to tell this family story. But good intentions don't make an artistically successful picture. To be sure, there are some positives in The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams, including rather evocative cinematography, and a couple of battle scenes that, although small, summon up the horrors of the Civil War quite well. In particular, the sound mix here does an excellent job of getting across the slow, deadly thuds of the soft lead bullets slamming into soldiers, while the editing during these one or two brief scenes creates a chaotic effect.
Unfortunately, those battle scenes are few and far between, with the rest of The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams made up of substandard, cliched dramatic scenes, mostly between Adams and Edwards, that fail to even elicit the necessary believability that we're watching a period piece, let alone some great historical romance. Everything is too clean in The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams, from the well-scrubbed interiors (that prison is the cleanest Civil War prison I've ever seen in this kind of film), to the well-scrubbed exteriors (how did they manage to even make the obviously real locations look fake?), to the well-scrubbed dialogue (I never believed I was listening to speech from the 1860s), to the well-scrubbed acting. Edwards looks and acts like she just came off the beaches of California (including a ridiculously anachronistic hairstyle - complete with blond highlights - that's fairly laughable), while Adams, perhaps in an effort to appear noble or stalwart, shows almost zero range. About the best that can be said about his acting is that he's courtly, which just isn't going to cut it when you're trying to anchor a supposed romantic epic on the never-shown passions of these two characters. The cameos by Tippi Hedren (why did she even bother?) to Mickey Rooney (who does the entire bit laying on his back in bed) are less than helpful, while the largely unknown supporting cast fails to make an impression.
As for the romance, for the passion, for the sense of sweep and movement that the story demands, it's largely absent from The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams (a title, by the way, that makes little sense after watching the film). Pregnant pauses and barely whispered platitudes fail to equal solid writing that gets across the standard theme that grounds this genre: that these two people are simply unable to be apart. I never felt that pull in The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams. And if you don't have a believable romance in a romantic film, you don't have a film.
The 16x9 anamorphic widescreen presentation of The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams is quite nice, with the beautiful cinematography looking good here. Compression issues did come up in a couple of the busier scenes, but nothing too distracting.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 Surround mix is excellent during the battle scenes, with some nice separation during the gun volley effects. English subtitles are available..
There's a twenty minute behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of the film, along with some deleted scenes from the film. They don't add much. There's a trailer gallery, along with the DVD trailer for the film.
Promising more than it can deliver, The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams looks fine, but its central romance is M.I.A., with a production that fails to convince us we're watching a genuine period piece. The acting is almost non-existent. Rent only if the subject matter engages you, or if you're a Civil War buff -- and even then; I warned you.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.