The late John R. McDermott is at once one of the most interesting American independent filmmakers, and one of the least known. None of his five films - all 16mm narrative sound films about men-in-combat - have been distributed in any way in this country. His home-made study of an incident from the Civil War, Pickett's Charge, did get shown as an Omnibus special on the CBS network in 1958. On the basis of Pickett's Charge, he was chosen by the Ford Foundation - along with Kenneth Anger and Bruce Conner - to receive a $10,000 production grant for an independent feature. The work that resulted, a dramatization of a World War I battle entitled Belleau Wood, contained such "rough language" that it was deemed unshowable by television programmers and theatrical distributors: the year was 1964, when Kenneth Anger was busted for Scorpio Rising, and Lenny Bruce was spending months of his life in court battles over obscenity. Our Tribute to John R. McDermott on November 2 represents a major rediscovery in American Cinema: we are grateful to Ruth McDermott, the filmmaker's widow, for making available to us the only surviving copies of these films - both of which were shot in and around McDermott's house in Weston, Connecticut.
“Although John R. McDermott never made a film in Hollywood, as an obscure non-professional he did complete two historical epics - Pickett's Charge and Belleau Wood - which successfully solved a cinematic problem that had haunted cinema for sixty years. Better known directors, Orson Welles among them, with far greater resources, have failed in the attempt (and continue to fail today), or merely side-stepped the problem - the problem inhere in the construction of an Historical Film: the problem of verisimilitude.
“This problem has been met with greater success in recent years - notable in Peter Watkins' The Battle of Culloden - but John R. McDermott solved it first and with far greater visual and dramatic inventiveness. That problem, first confronted by him on that fine spring day in 1938, long before the invention of light, portable, self-blimped cameras, when he set out to film 'The Battle of Gettysburg,' was succinctly stated by Orson Welles: 'a real man is to be photographed next to a real tree in real (present) time.' However, as Welles himself recognized, the result, time and again, is an actor saying unreal lines in a completely unconvincing manner, dressed in a costume that may be a carbon copy of something that once actually existed three centuries ago, but whcih makes him look like something out of a waxworks museum. The effect on an audience is an unbelievable performance, in unreal time: we neither believe that it is really happening in the present, nor are we transported into the period thus represented.