Pharaoh: Robby Henson’s Civil War Drama, Starring Kris Kristofferson

Robby Henson’s Civil War drama, Pharaoh, is a small film that aspires to larger poetic and political significance.

Impressively executed and well-acted, with Kris Kristofferson in a secondary role, period piece may warrant a limited theatrical release, though its more natural habitat is TV or cable.

In his feature debut, writer-director Henson tells an intriguing, little known story of the Civil War, still an underrepresented war in Hollywood cinema, compared with other American wars. Tale derives its tension from its peculiar context: It is set in 1862 in Meshack Creek, Kentucky, a region whose residents (sometimes neighbors) were divided by their political allegiance.

Sarah Anders (Patricia Clarkson), a feisty woman whose husband is away fighting for the Confederate Army, lives on a remote farm with her young son. Their lives–and livelihood–are threatened when John Hull Abston (Chris Cooper), a Union Army captain leads his rag-tag cavalry into their land.

Despite being pulled apart by the war–and their equally resolute personalities–Sarah and the captain manage to establish mutual respect, even the semblance of a friendship. Sarah has lost her young daughter and the captain his wife, two tragic events that have made them more vulnerable and critical of the war.

An accident, in which one of the soldiers is badly wounded, grounds the unit on the farm for a while. Rest of the tale crosscuts between Sarah and the captain’s evolving relationship, and the captain’s growing conflict with his men, who have no problems stealing their enemy’s poor livestock.

Based on oral folklore, Pharaoh’s Army is framed by the voice-over narration of Sarah’s son as an old man, which lends the piece elegiac quality. Henson integrates into his war saga the youngster’s coming of age, dramatically signaled by being forced to use his gun for the first time in his life. As scripter and helmer, he also moves smoothly from the tale’s personal to its political dimension, demonstrating how arbitrary and senseless were the choices made by people caught in such feuds.

Pic’s slow, often dragging pace and brooding mood are compensated by good ensemble acting, with particularly robust performances from Clarkson, as the tough/sensitive mother; Cooper, as the captain torn between his formal military duties and softer dictates of the heart; and Kristofferson, as the preacher, who appears in two small but crucial scenes.

First-timer Henson, who has made a number of documentaries, including Spaulding Gray: A Life in Progress, shows appreciation for Southern history and awareness of the tale’s particular time and place. He’s greatly assisted by Schlair’s magnificently expansive lensing of Kentucky’s Cumberland Mountains and Emmett and Ellis’ evocative music.

A TMF Metro, Cicada Films production. Produced by Doug Lodato and Robby Henson. Directed, written by Henson. Camera (color), Doron Schlair; music, Vince Emmett, Charles Ellis; production and costume design, Jana Rosenblatt; associate producers, Elizabeth Rodgers, Tracy Kristofferson; line producer, Melissa Weisenberg.

Running time: 90 min.

John Hull Abston….Chris Cooper
Sarah Anders…Patricia Clarkson
Preacher……Kris Kristofferson
Rodie…………..Richard Tyson
Chicago……………Robert Joy
Neely……………..Frank Clem