- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

BEALETON, Va. | Through a veil of smoke from artillery, Marines crept slowly through a field of wheat, their uniforms drab against blood-red river poppies growing wild in the rows.

Near the edge of a woods, dug-in German machine-gunners opened fire, devastating the 4th Marine Brigade at Belleau Wood in one of the Corps’ defining moments.

That day, June 6, 1918, was memorialized on the rolling hills of France during World War I, and re-enacted recently by 33 Marines and seven actors on Bill Ritchie’s Inglewood Farm in Bealeton.

This week, a film crew with Batwin & Robin Productionshas been shooting footage that will become part of an exhibit at the new World War I gallery of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, opening next spring.

Arriving before dawn, a busload of Marines from Quantico, Va., took turns retiring to a small white tent near the set to change into reproduction uniforms, emerging as “Doughboys” carrying 1903 Springfield rifles, .45-caliber pistols and packs with a shovel, bayonet, canteen, ammunition and gas mask.

One of them, Lance Cpl. Alex Maze of Toledo, Ohio, got a shot at immortality in a film that will be shown to millions through the ages.

His gunnery sergeant suggested he try out for the re-enactment. He was among those chosen to spend several days bundled up in a heavy wool uniform in Fauquier County.

“I really didn’t know much about it [Belleau Wood], but they told us what happened and what the guys went through,” he said.

Eric Frein, an armorer’s assistant for the production company, said the Marines add realism to the project. Unlike actors, they instinctively move like soldiers, “and they’re not afraid of getting dirty,” he said.

The museum uses active-duty Marines for lifelike casts used in the exhibits.

Joseph Alexander, a retired Marine colonel, co-author of the World War I novel “Through the Wheat” and museum consultant on the film, watched as the men donned their gear, stopping occasionally to chat with them and the film crew.

“They look great,” he said. “They are extremely attentive to detail.” Nearby, the Marines laughed and joked as two young women applied makeup to their faces and dust to their uniforms.

Marines had fought in the tropics and in China, but Mr. Alexander said Belleau Wood was their first fight against a battle-hardened foe, the German army. More than 300 Marines were killed during the first 30 minutes of the engagement.

Through subsequent battles in Soissons, Blanc Mont, St. Mihiel and the Argonne Forest in France, the Marines established themselves as worthy foes with an affinity for combat.

“I was in Belleau Wood a year ago, and it’s very much like this,” Mr. Alexander said. To help make the Bealeton field more realistic, the film crew placed fake poppies among the wheat.

A thunderstorm looming on the horizon threatened the morning’s filming, but the dark clouds eventually drifted north, opening a brief window of blue sky and hazy sunshine.

At one point, a large boom crane for aerial shots got stuck in the mud and Mr. Ritchie came to the rescue with a giant John Deere tractor to haul it out.

The field, he noted, “was a mess” from the vehicle traffic and four-wheelers. “They’re taking care of it,” Mr. Ritchie said. “They wouldn’t be out here if they weren’t.”

Then crew members with walkie-talkies converged on one spot to set up lights, cameras and pyrotechnics. A gunnery sergeant was wired with squibs - small explosives - under his coat to simulate bullet hits.

Larger, but still benign charges, were used to mimic artillery shells. “They’re filled with peat moss and cork dust,” a crew member explained, so there’s a big boom and smoke.

The Marines and actors took their places and then waited, and waited, for instructions.

“OK, people, listen up,” the director finally said, announcing the first of three run-throughs. Cell phones off. No flash photography. Be quiet.

“Roll cameras!”

The Marines slowly advanced, only to be stopped after one tripped on a wire.

The second shot went flawlessly, with the Marines in front yelling, “Stay low! Stay low!” and running toward the cameras.

Finally, all three cameras rolled, with explosions showering down flecks of cork and moss. It looked and sounded real.

Which was the whole point, and everyone clapped in approval.

Then the crew huddled under a white tent to view the results on a monitor.

Next, the Marines got to see their performance. “Whoa!” one of them exclaimed at the part with the pyrotechnics.

“Safety is always our first concern, making sure that no one gets hurt,” said Heidi Christenson, the producer, keeping a wary eye on the crew, cast and weather.

All the film shot during the week, she said, would be boiled down to two segments of about 90 seconds each.

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