Religious Liberty Was Also at Issue in 18th-Century France -- Newly Dramatized by Catholic Director

War of the Vendee released on DVD, with score by up-and-coming Hollywood composer.

War of the Vendee, the second film by Navis Pictures, is already receiving glowing reviews. It’s being released on DVD Feb. 24—a significant date, as it marks the 219th anniversary of the infamous 1793 French Revolution decree to conscript an army of 300,000 to fight wars triggered by the execution of King Louis XVI.

The King’s death, following in the wake of the revolution’s Reign of Terror, provoked the fiercely loyal and strongly Catholic peasants of the Vendee region in western France to take up arms. Influenced by St. Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort, the Vendee (pronounced Von-day) peasants carried their rosaries as they waged a counter-revolution to restore their religion and the throne.

Jim Morlino, Navis’ founder, who co-produced, wrote and directed the highly successful St. Bernadette of Lourdes (airing on EWTN Saturday, Feb. 25, at 8pm Eastern), assembled a cast of 256 young people for this mini-epic with exceptional performances. Shortly before the film’s release, he shared insights about making the movie and the current relevance of its theme with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen.

You used a children’s cast to great success in St. Bernadette of Lourdes. How did that become an asset in this film?

Most of the kids are not playing too far removed from their actual age. They were closer to type than you might expect. To be historically accurate would require actors perhaps only 10 years older. The Vendee uprising was a young movement, by and large. Many of the most important leaders and generals in the French Catholic resistance were very, very young men, as young as 18 or in their early 20s, up to 30. That played in our favor.

Also, what we try to do is cast to age in a relatively proportionate manner. Relatively proportionate casting means some of the older actors play the older roles; the younger actors are cast in the role of their children.

Yet you’re asking the audience to suspend their disbelief.

We soften the blow through consistency of the costuming, the photography, the majesty of the score, the earnestness of the performances. There are thoughtful performances by so many of the young people.

Isn’t your film on a whole different plane than the handful of Hollywood movies having all-children casts acting like adults, such as the Our Gang series or Bugsy Malone?

In Our Gang, the whole aim with kids was to put them into outlandish situations to elicit laughter from the audience and to entertain young people. Some of the production becomes a caricature.

This is a different type of endeavor. We really are treating the young people with the same degree of seriousness and respect that a director like [Steven] Spielberg might treat Harrison Ford. We meet the kids where they are in their development, but we know they’re capable of a lot more than most people think.

Some things I said about Bernadette are only confirmed by this film: If you treat young people seriously and carefully lay out the truth of the drama or story for them, and they understand it, then, many times, they are able to infuse the script with great honesty — because it comes from a place of innocence. As a director, I don’t have to fight through years of acquired baggage, as I might if working with adult actors.

These kids are at a place where professional actors long to be. Why? Because children are innocent. They see things in a simple and clear way. They know truth. Sometimes that makes for disarmingly honest performances.

Do you see other reasons why the believability of the performances comes through so remarkably and so emotionally?

The believability of this comes through because every moment and line is infused with Catholic truth — this sobering realization that these people gave their lives willingly to protect what you and I take for granted on a daily basis: namely, the right to worship God freely. So when the Vendeans unflinchingly take up arms to defend their Church and their priest, that’s a very moving thing for me as a Catholic to think about.

How many of us will be called upon to have a real martyrdom? We have a white martyrdom and have these real struggles, but not to the extent these people did, when simply practicing their faith was a death sentence for thousands and thousands of them.

Maybe Catholics around the world should pin on the Sacred Heart badges the Vendeans wore and fight for the Church and freedom of religion, thereby honoring and being inspired by these great Catholics (from) only 200 years ago. Their story is an inspiration to all Catholics who try to defend the faith.

Was the young cast caught up in the story?

I was edified and excited to see that many of the young people had done their own research before coming to the set. Many times I would be teaching them or preparing them for a particular scene and someone in the cast would know a detail and throw it in.

Why did you choose this story?

Basically, before we started, nobody knew this story. That’s what prompted me to do it. Like many Catholics, I had a very vague understanding that the French Revolution was not all that it was cracked up to be. It had a dark underbelly, but I didn’t know the details. I had a vague idea the Reign of Terror was the manifestation of the dark forces driving the Revolution. That’s all I knew.

When I discovered that all French didn’t just roll over and play dead when the Revolution happened, I was astounded. The fact is: Many of the people in the western part of France formed by St. Louis de Montfort 70 years earlier immediately recognized they had no choice. They had to fight evil.

Why haven’t we really heard about this before?

For the last 200 years, there’s been a virtual news blackout to the story. This part of French history is typically not taught in French schools. If it is talked about, it is whitewashed and distorted to the effect “this was an anomaly with a crazed group of extremists with an overriding economic motive that caused them to do these things.” I find all that totally unconvincing. These people were fighting for what really mattered to them — their God, their Church and their king.

This was not a thousand people in some obscure place, but it involved hundreds of thousands of French citizens, spanned a decade, and resulted in Napoleon restoring religious liberty (that was) taken from the French people. That makes it even more astounding a story and begs the question: “Is this mere oversight, or is there some orchestrated denial or blackout?” I’m no conspiracy theorist, but who can look at those facts and not come to the conclusion that the government has decided what is newsworthy in their history, as most countries do to a certain extent? This story is so powerful and has such relevance for Roman Catholics today that it’s very much worth telling.

As troubled as Napoleon was in regard to his faith and the Church, he recognized the courage and heroism of these people, so that when he took power in 1799 he realized there never would be peace in France unless the Catholic Church was given back to the people — solely because of the sacrifices of the people in the Vendee. That may have been a pragmatic decision, but, nevertheless, one of the results of their martyrdom.

How many Vendeans were affected?

The estimates are 400,000 dead out of an estimated 1 million people living in that region. The French government decided to annihilate them and committed unbelievable atrocities in one of the first acts of state-sponsored genocide. French soldiers went through the countryside killing every priest and nun and every man, woman and child they found, and burning all the buildings, killing the livestock, poisoning the wells to erase the memory of these people.

One of my main sources for the script was the book A French Genocide by French historian Reynald Secher. He is at the head of the growing movement in France to promote the truth of the Vendee War. In fact, there is a movement underway in France, especially among many young people, to reclaim the entire truth of their history, no matter how ugly.

The French peasants of 1789 didn’t have an easy life, but compared to other European peasantry, they had it pretty good. They were hardworking, faithful, peace-loving folk. Then a small group of Enlightenment politicians who hated the Catholic Church and imposed their will on the rest of the country murdered anyone who got in their way, all in the name of “Fraternity, Equality, Liberty.”

I did lots of research about the Reign of Terror and the war and came away firmly believing there had to be an element of demonic influence on the architects of the French Revolution. That’s why we make the suggestion in the film.

Do you see timely aspects in what’s going on in today’s world?

I didn’t set out a year ago thinking this would be an allegory of the religious persecution going on in our country. It brings a new significance to our little film. It’s a perfect but unfortunate parallel, the difference being, God willing, none of us will have to lay down our lives. But who knows?

For your small budget, the production values are outstanding. How did you get such an award-winning-caliber musical score?

After we posted the trailer for Bernadette, before the movie had even been released, I received an email from a gentleman who introduced himself as Kevin Kaska, a Hollywood orchestrator, conductor and composer. He was very impressed by what we had done on Bernadette and offered his future assistance because he was a Catholic and wanted to do something for the Church.

When I clicked on his website, my jaw dropped. He is a master orchestrator and composer, very successful, not the least of which is working with John Williams himself. He conducted the Boston Pops with Williams for years.

When Kevin saw the rough cut, he got even more excited. He seemed to recognize immediately that this was the kind of film any composer would jump at the chance to score because it contains all the elements — drama, humor, epic scale, tragedy and romance — all these great emotions and virtues that make for an exciting and rich score. He’s just taken that to the nth degree and written a score that rivals anything his mentors have put out. I wouldn’t be surprised if the score itself receives recognition above and beyond our little film.

We had a very small budget for music, yet, after discussing ideas with Kevin, I came to be convinced we needed to change that. There would be only one way to give the film the score it deserved and record it with a live orchestra. As an insider, he was able to work within the system and put together an all-star team for us, a “pro bowl” of Hollywood musicians. We had musicians who played on every one of Spielberg’s movies, on the original Star Wars tracks, all assembled at Warner Brothers for our little movie.

They were making a fraction of what they normally make on a Spielberg movie, but they knew it was for Kevin Kaska, whom they love and respect.

I walked into the studio, and there were 80 musicians — a huge symphony orchestra. Kevin was overjoyed. When he raised the baton and the orchestra started playing the first musical cue, my daughters burst into tears. I was in a daze for the next six hours.

Was there any reaction from those at the session?

The icing on the cake was when the musicians came up to me at the first break. Many were thanking us for the beauty of the film and the opportunity to play on this special and unique score. What they saw on the big screen while recording was moving to them. They said this was the best score they had played on in the last five years. These are the people who play on the big Hollywood blockbuster films every day of the week, and they didn’t know me from Adam. They had nothing to gain. I am nobody. I’m not going to insure their livelihood or give an award. This was completely unsolicited. (A CD release of the score itself will be available through Navis Pictures and

Did you get other reactions before the DVD’s release?

Before I knew it, there was an avalanche of traffic to our website to watch the trailer coming from France itself. We had already been posted on several French news sites, and the French already were bickering about our little movie.

What are your current hopes for War of the Vendee?

My hopes are really bolstered by the reaction we’ve gotten already from the film. I firmly believed Bernadette was a very strong film given its limitations, but I never expected a traditional theatrical release for Bernadette. But enough people have talked about this new film in such glowing terms I don’t know if that would be out of the question. Still, it’s an uphill battle.

What I think might happen is a limited release, where we might target one theater per diocese and then try to collect a largely Catholic audience from the parishes within that diocese and basically have private screenings throughout the country. We already have information on public screenings available on the website.

We’re excited because this kind of event has become popular in recent years. It can be used as a parish family-movie night. The parish can screen the film with a discussion and maybe dinner after that, making for great fellowship for members of the parish, while sharing in what amounts to a very Catholic endeavor. I think this film is the perfect film for a venue like that.

I have also been in touch with French historian Secher, who is interested in helping to distribute the film.

We’ve entered War of the Vendee in the Mirabile Dictu International Film Festival this July, which is under the High Patronage of the Pontifical Council for Culture at the Vatican. And the film is available for purchase on our website.

How would you summarize the film?

Vendee is a thoroughly Catholic movie and has this unique quality of appealing to Catholic families because of the nature of the cast. Young people love to watch other young people perform, so young Catholics will eat this up.

At the same time, adults will see in the film a ray of hope for the future of the Church and a face of the future of the Church.

Watch the trailer

Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.