Artists armed 'The Patriot'
Sunday, June 25, 2000

Artists armed 'The Patriot'

Kentuckians crafted accurate guns, gear and taught Mel Gibson how to use them in Revolutionary War film

        WOODBURY, Ky. — Artists Frank and Lally House did not expect to stay long on the set of The Patriot, Mel Gibson's Revolutionary War epic that opens Wednesday.
(Michael E. Keating photos)
| ZOOM |
The couple went to South Carolina to deliver the historical reproductions they had labored ferociously to make in time for filming, particularly the flintlock rifle Frank created for the star.

        “I kind of figured they'd yank the gun out of my hand and send us back to Woodbury,” Frank said with a laugh.

        Instead, that gun and other accoutrements earned them an up-close look at the making of a Hollywood blockbuster and a chance to crack wise with a member of Hollywood's $20 million club.

        For artists pursuing rare, demanding disciplines in a Western Kentucky town with, in Lally's words, “100 people and 150 dogs,” it proved to be an extraordinarily satisfying experience.

        “They treated us with the utmost respect as artists. They never treated our work as props, but as works of art. I cannot say enough good about them,” Lally said.

| ZOOM |
        In addition to the long gun, Frank made pistols and several small accessories. Lally made an intricately detailed hunting-bag strap embroidered with porcupine quills that Mr. Gibson wears through about half of the film.

        Ultimately Frank spent 10 weeks working on the set while Lally, who was looking after her terminally ill mother, traveled back and forth when time permitted.

        Frank was enlisted, along with re-enactor and writer Mark Baker of Tennessee, to train Mr. Gibson and others to carry, load and fire 18th century weapons convincingly during a preproduction “boot camp.” In the movie's credits, he is listed as “firearms instructor.”

"Enjoying himself'
        Mr. Gibson dove into his training with gusto, sometimes showing up two hours early. When Frank remarked to prop master Douglas Harlocker, “I think Mel is enjoying himself,” Mr. Harlocker responded, “Enjoying? We can't get him to go to any other training!”

        Co-star Heath Ledger, who plays the son of the hero, also proved an apt pupil. “He was a quick study, and a fine rifle shot,” Frank said. “And he had never worked with guns before.”

| ZOOM |
        Jason Isaac, who plays the British Col. Tavington, likewise mastered the skill of loading his pistols without looking. “Which is a helluva feat,” Frank said. “I don't know if I could do that.”

        Frank also was cast as an extra in a sprawling battle sequence so he would be on hand between takes to keep his creations in working order. There he saw why Mr. Gibson has a reputation as an incorrigible jokester.

        For a shot showing a horse fallen on a soldier, the film hired an amputee to play the fallen man. As the shot was prepared, Mr. Gibson walked up holding a prop severed leg and asked, “Did you lose this?”

        While filming the movie's coming-attractions trailer, Mr. Gibson's pistols fired perfectly 20 times in a row. On the 21st take, they failed to go off and he turned to Mr. House in mock indignation. “Do you know how much you cost this company? Thousands! We're going to take it out of your salary!”

        Frank shot back, “Well, for what you're paying me, we're going to be here a long, long time.”

        Even more than his sense of humor, Mr. Gibson's manners impressed the Kentucky couple. “I never saw him one time throw his weight around. I never saw him one time throw a temper tantrum. I never one time saw him be discourteous to a member of the crew, down to the littler girls who were bringing coffee.

        “He's not a needy person at all,” Frank said. “I think that's one reason why he's so polite and so professional.”

    An exhibit due to open at the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort July 15 illustrates the artistic merit of historic and hand-made arms.
    “The Weapon As Art” includes 19th and 20th century firearms owned by George Armstrong Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody and President Theodore Roosevelt, plus a number of rifles from the Civil War era and later.
    Also on display will be sophisticated modern knives made by Lloyd Hale of Tennessee. The exhibit, from the private collection of Owsley Brown Frazier, will be open Tuesdays through Sundays through Sept. 24. Admission is free. Information: (502) 564-1792.
        The star was well behaved even with director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin, the same team who made Independence Day and Godzilla.

        “One thing that surprised me was that Mel, he's is an Oscar-winning director, he let Roland (Emmerich) and Dean Devlin run the show. He'd make suggestions, but if they said "no,' he didn't pout or argue with them,” Frank said.

Money on the screen
        The Patriot is rumored to have cost $125 million to make and promises to be one of the summer's biggest blockbusters.

        There is a Hollywood saying that “the money is up on screen,” meaning the expense of a big production has translated into a rich visual experience. The Patriot appears to meet that criterion; the production hired and hundreds of re-enactors, as well as a huge film crew.

        About 400 18th century re-enactors were recruited from all over the Eastern United States, including the Tristate. It would have been more, but big battle scenes were rescheduled a few times. “People had to leave. They had taken vacation time and changed their schedules. They just couldn't stick around for another few weeks,” Frank said.

        To fill in the ranks, the moviemakers enlisted ROTC students as young at 13 and 14 years old. “That was historically accurate,” Frank said. “There were 13-year-olds in the British army.”

        To ensure rigorous historical accuracy in details like clothing and household effects, the film hired scores of artists and crafts makers like the Houses.

        The couple owe their work on the film to their friend Randy Wilkins, a native of Urbana, Ohio. An architect who works for the Sony Pictures Entertainment art department as a set designer, he was assigned to find potential props for The Patriot. Among the dozens of samples he assembled was his own Frank House rife, and a quilled strap made by Lally House.

        Mr. Emmerich walked in and said, “I want that gun and I want that strap.”

        After they heard from the movie company the first time, the Houses said they would be happy to help, but only if they had free rein to do historically accurate work. Lally recalled, “We hung up the phone and Frank said, "Well, that's the last time we'll hear from them.'”

    Frank House is well known among collectors as one of a small handful of artists who make high-grade reproductions of weapons from the Colonial and Revolutionary War era. His wife, Lally, belongs to a tiny circle of artists who practice the ancient art of embroidery with porcupine quills, which pre-dates beadwork among American Indian art forms.
    “Most flintlock gun makers buy mounts and stock parts,” his wife, Lally House, said. “Frank hand-forges all his own ironware. He sandcasts all of his own brass mounts. He makes the locks, cuts out the silver ornamentation,” as well as carving and finishing the stocks.
    On a fully hand-made piece, he forms barrels from flat slabs of iron in his own tiny blacksmith shop. For The Patriot, he bought a finished barrel because he had no time to forge one himself.
    Should you care to buy one of his top-of-the-line hand-made guns, which take about three months to build, you would face a wait of as long as two years and a bill of at least $15,000.
    Lally plucks the quills from porcupine hides harvested from road-kill by friends in New York, Wisconsin and Michigan. “That,” she said, “is truly a friend, 'cause I wouldn't skin a possum for them.”
    She dyes the quills herself with the same plants and insects used by pre-1800 inhabitants of the eastern half of the country. Her red dye, for instance, comes from South American cochineal bugs, which also provided the same vibrant dye that earned the colonial British Army the nickname “Redcoats.”
    An elaborate powder horn strap might cost $1,000; a bag can run $4,000.
        They were wrong.

Gun a status symbol
        Frank worked 14-hour days for 10 weeks to build pieces for the film.

        The biggest job was the .50-caliber rifle. He also made a prop gun from a kit.

        “In the 18th century, there were only so many ways to show your prosperity,” Frank said. “Your land and the house where you lived. Horses. And guns.”

        Guns, like furniture, changed styles every few years. Well-heeled landowners like the character Mr. Gibson plays would trade up for the newest and best firearms available, Frank said.

        The weapon was also modeled on the styles that dominated the Tidewater region of the Carolinas, where British influence held sway. That meant he stuck with understated ornamentation typical of the period. “We didn't gaudy it up,” Frank said. “It's just a fine rifle.”

        He also built — again, from a kit to save time — a pair of pistols used by the character Tavington. He leased back from a collector in Wisconsin a second pair of his own hand-built pistols for the Benjamin Martin character (serendipitously, the collector who owns them has the same initials). Also serendipity, the set was copied from a pair made in 1767, just the right time for the character.

        Along with Roland Cadle of Pennsylvania — “Roland is probably the most knowledgeable horn maker in the world” — he made a powder horn out of a buffalo horn decorated with bone and silver.

        He also made several “odds and ends,” lead shot ammunition for the rifle and pistols, a small metal powder measure and a loading block, which is a rectangular form that holds balls wrapped in cloth patch ready for speed-loading into the muzzle of the gun.

        When outfitted for battle, Mr. Gibson carried about 35 pounds of gear, Frank said. “He's strong as a bull ox.”

In "18th century' daily
        Frank, a lifelong resident of Woodbury, and Lally, a Louisville native, met 11 years ago at an event for historical re-enactors, a pastime that inspires some affectionate joshing about fellow history buffs who “get way too serious about the whole thing,” Frank said.

        “We do something involving the 18th century every day,” Lally said, “between our art, our research, our home. So when we go (to re-enactors' events), we're there to have fun.”

        At the time, each was already making a full-time living practicing arts that have all but disappeared from the American landscape.

        For most of their careers, they have supplied historical re-enactors. In the past few years, however, they have seen interest growing among art collectors. “We are starting to breach the bastion of the mainstream art world, which is no easy thing,” Frank said.

        Their work is based on never-ending research in museums, books, old documents and private collections, plus the painstaking execution to make pieces that are as beautiful as they are historically correct.

        It is not quick work, despite their expertise. “The longer I do it, the longer it takes because I'm always learning something new,” Frank said.

        “We love what we do,” Lally said. “We're in this for the duration. But we also do it for the art form. There are not many people who do these traditional arts in the original ways. By doing what we do, we keep this alive for artists who will come after us.”

        Margaret A. McGurk is Enquirer film critic. Contact her by mail, 312 Elm St. Cincinnati 45202; fax, (513) 768-8330; or e-mail,


For the latest movie reviews see Cincinnati.Com's Freetime!