Friday, May 17, 2013

Captivity in the Movies

Last week I came across the trailer for "Alone Yet Not Alone", an American feature film currently in post-production and expected to be released in the fall.  The film is based on the true story of Barbara and Regina Leininger, two young sisters living with their German immigrant family on the Pennsylvania frontier at the start of the Seven Years' War.  When their family's homestead at Penn's Creek (current-day Union County, PA) is attacked by Delawares in the fall of 1755, both girls are taken into captivity.  Judging by the trailer, the production value is surprisingly high for a film you've likely never heard about, if perhaps a bit derivative of "Last of the Mohicans".  Sounds promising? 

An account of this captivity appeared in Philadelphia in 1759 under the title Die Erzehlungen Von Maria Le Roy und Barbara Leininger,  Welche Vierthalb Jahr Unter Den Indianern Gefangen Gewesen, und Am 6ten May in Dieser Stadt Glücklich Angekommen. Aus Ihrem Eignen Mund Niedergeschrieben und Zum Druck Befördert.  This German-language "Narrative of Marie le Roy and Barbara Leininger, for Three Years Captives among the Indians, [etc.]" was dictated by Barbara and a fellow captive of Swiss origin who together had managed an escape.  By publishing their story they figured that they were rendering a public service, i.e., "to serve the inhabitants of this country, by making them acquainted with the names and circumstances of those prisoners whom we met, at the various places where we were, in the course of our captivity."  An English translation of this captivity narrative can be perused here.

But the film in question is based not so much on the original narrative as on a recent chidren's novel written by a decendent of Barbara, Tracy Leininger Craven (Zonderkidz, Mti Edition, 2012).  The title of both book and movie, "Alone Yet Not Alone", is purportedly taken from the words of a family hymn that sustained the sisters through their ordeal.  One might observe that while the captivity narrative does contain the transcription of an hymn, it is not one in which this phrase appears.  The captivity narrative also makes only a few allusions to Barbara's sister, Regina, though the novel places the relationship of the two squarely at its core.  Family lore and imagination seems to have had much more influence on the novel and movie than historical research.

In addition to the title Alone Yet Not Alone, the book bears a subtitle which makes its outlook plain: Their Faith Became Their Freedom.  The promotional material for the book confirms a most  conservative, in the more dubious sense of the word, take on the subject: "Forcibly immersed into a primitive foreign culture [...]", "the riveting true story of a family at a critical juncture in our nation’s history", "Will their courage and trust in God be enough to see them through?" The trailer reveals that the film adaptation does not fall far from the tree: "a simple family of unshakeable faith" finds itself in "a land of newfound plenty", only to be cruelly beset by skulking warriors, whose image is juxtaposed with that of a wolf in case their inhumanity wasn't already obvious.

The American historian James Merrell had an essay recently in the William and Mary Quarterly, in which he argues that despite the abundance of scholarship on indigenous peoples and the growing awareness of the subject within the wider field of early American studies, understandings of the historical experience of Natives remains handicapped by historians' use "of an archaic, Eurocentric vocabulary."  Merrell's point is that while most scholars nowadays make an effort to take Natives seriously as historical actors, in spite of themselves they fall back on misinformed, misleading and dismissive words.

Judging by the book's blurb and the film's trailer, Alone Yet Not Alone doesn't even appear to make the effort.  Its history is of a type that was discredited decades ago.  You'd think that scholars and society at large have made no progress in their understanding of Aboriginal peoples over the past half century.  For all its flaws, a movie like "Black Robe" (1991) at least reflected that progress.  And two decades on, given the riveting scholarship that has been shedding light on the experience of captivity for both captives and captors, it's hard not to think of the big-budget "Alone Yet Not Alone" as a missed opportunity.  The likes of John Demos's The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (1995) and Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney's Captors and Captives. The 1704 French and Indian Raid on Deerfield (2005) could have inspired a brilliant film. 


1 comment:

  1. I am planning on buying this movie, even though I predict it will be pure, unadulterated tripe of a religious nature, with zero to no historical interest. As far as my research on this movie and book goes, it seems the only "historical" part is indeed the fact that the author had an ancestor who was captured by Natives. With no thought or research on her part beyond that.