Monday, May 17, 2010
Tommy Lee Jones: "Am I dead?" John Bell Hood: "You don't look like it to me"
Certainly Hood saw enough dead men to answer that question correctly. Back in 1994 I picked up a copy of James Lee Burke's In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, because it combined two interests of mine, murder mysteries and the Civil War (though in truth, it has virtually nothing to do with the Civil War). In the novel, detective Dave Robicheaux (the sixth installment with this classic, South Louisiana character) encounters the ghost of Confederate General John Bell Hood with whom he has a conversation or two. There's no particular reason to bring Confederate ghosts into the story, but the general serves to bolster the spirits of the struggling lawman while Robicheaux sees connections between a half-forgotten murder he witnessed as a boy and a string of present day serial killings. Hood's main purpose here seems to be to present the ideal of steadfast honor and adherence to principle.
Spring forward to 2010, last month in New Orleans, I was visiting the grave of John Bell Hood at Metairie Cemetery, and the statue at the Army of Tennessee tomb which provided artwork for the original dust jacket of Burke's book. I mentioned In the Electric Mist and was excited to learn from Civil War Forum member John Lancaster that they'd made a movie of the book. Incidentally, next to the Hood grave—in which the Hood name is overshadowed in his wife's family plot—is a large metal plaque giving a biography of the general. It's designed to look like a government issue sign, but as our guide told us, it was placed there by a Hood descendant—the same one, I'm pretty sure, who is on a crusade to rehabilitate Hood's military career, and who took out the ad in Civil War News to attack Wiley Sword for unkind words about the general. The plaque, I can report, is a fairly straightforward biography. I was glad it didn't end with a footnote about Sword being a damned liar.
Somehow, this movie (with the title shortened to "In the Electric Mist") passed me by completely, even though it's only from 2009, and had a fairly substantial cast, including Jones, John Goodman, Mary Steenburgen, Ned Beatty, Buddy Guy, Peter Sarsgaard, and Kelly MacDonald. Last week I finally got around to looking up the film on Netflix, and was pleased as punch to see it was among their "Watch Instantly" offerings. I made time for it the other night, and with no expectations at all, enjoyed it very much. Jones and Goodman work pretty hard at their accents, and pull it off for the most part.
Levon Helm of The Band fame plays the one-legged general, and who can resist that gravelly drawl? For all his range as a singer, it's interesting that Helm's on-screen roles seem only to call for a monotone delivery (and Levon, it's cavalry, not calvary). Take off the general's insignia, and this is pretty much exactly the same character that Tommy Lee Jones had a conversation with in the intriguing, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," except that then he was an old blind man in Mexico, not a dead Confederate general.
Please don't be alarmed by the severity of my comparison.
Below, Hood's grave, and the aforementioned marker.