James Buchanan, wearing a top hat and cape-style overcoat, walks against the cold in front of his Wheatland mansion in Lancaster.
His white-haired head is bent, and he wears a dejected expression.
It’s the early 1860s, and the 15th president of the United States is reflecting on the end of his “stormy and turbulent” presidency, with the country breaking apart on the brink of Civil War.
So begins “Buchanan’s America: A Nation Divided,” a new documentary film that, beginning Saturday, will serve as the introduction for visitors to James Buchanan’s Wheatland, part of the LancasterHistory complex on President Avenue.
The 24-minute film features interviews with seven regional historians and re-enactments of scenes from Buchanan’s personal life and political career — featuring Douglas O’Brien of Lancaster portraying Buchanan.
The film replaces “James Buchanan’s Political Career,” the 10-minute film that’s been playing at Wheatland since 2009.
Genesis of film
“Buchanan’s America,” produced by Lancaster’s Aurora Films, has been in the works since 2016, says Robin Sarratt, vice president of LancasterHistory.
“There has been a lot of new scholarship, including new research that came out at two conferences, one in 2008 and one in 2014, that were about James Buchanan,” Saratt says.
“And with all of this new research, and new opportunities for us to engage visitors, we just felt like it was a good moment to redo what we’ve long called an orientation film,” Sarratt adds. “But I think it goes beyond just orienting people to Wheatland and Buchanan.
“We wanted to tell the story of James Buchanan’s life and his political legacy, but try and address questions we get from the public a lot,” Sarratt says. "We go directly to the question of his sexuality. We go directly to his relationship with (fiancee) Ann Coleman.”
“And then the political portion of the film really is intended to look at the reason he is, historically, considered the worst president,” says LancasterHistory President and CEO Thomas Ryan, who narrates the film. “We look at the issue of slavery and his embracing of the ... slaveocracy of the South, and how, by having been out of the country as ambassador to both England and Russia, (he is) kind of out of step with the Northern portion of his own political party.”
The film was directed and shot by Brad Kenyon, managing partner of Aurora Films.
Scott Davies, the Aurora post-production editor for the documentary, says the re-enactment scenes featuring local actors were shot over four days in 2017 at Wheatland and three other Lancaster locations.
In the film, a young James Buchanan is shown walking through the cemetery at St. James Episcopal Church on North Duke Street after Coleman’s death.
And scenes in which Buchanan is shown drinking and talking with fellow politicians were shot at Rock Ford Plantation in Lancaster County Central Park, Davies says, because of its period-appropriate furnishings.
In addition, the historians in the film were interviewed at Conestoga House on Marietta Avenue.
Those historians, including Leroy Hopkins Jr., professor emeritus at Millersville University; Wheatland director Patrick Clarke; and Louise Stevenson, a history professor at Franklin & Marshall College, shaped the narrative of the film, Davies says.
“The documentary wasn’t scripted,” Davies says. “Whatever (the historians) said is the story of the piece. There was enough of a conversation there ... to create the story of Buchanan.”
Kenyon worked with the LancasterHistory staff to craft the questions he asked in interviewing the historians.
The Aurora staff strove for a “History channel” feel to the documentary, Davies adds.
Aurora staffers Darren Iovino and Chelsea Long worked on the graphics and animation to make 19th-century illustrations and editorial cartoons come to life with 3D effects.
For example, a flag is made to wave and a boat to move through water in a static drawing of Fort Sumter, for example.
Painting a picture
“When scholars reflect on a man who should have been much more than the president he was, they have much to reflect upon,” Ryan’s narration says at the beginning of the film.
“Buchanan is considered one of the most prepared men to enter the White House because of his vast experience in government and in foreign affairs," Hopkins says in the film.
And Stevenson adds, “He impresses me as an extraordinarily smart and articulate man with a deep knowledge of the Constitution.
“Each one of us historians has a different emphasis," Stevenson says in discussing the film project, from his life in Lancaster to his stance on slavery.
“If we do not see him in an international context, and his desire to expand the United States territorially, then we misread him,” Stevenson says. “It isn't only about the coming of the Civil War. He did not know the Civil War was going to happen.”
“I think the main value of the film is the way it’s put together,” Hopkins says. “The filmmaker did an excellent job of putting together a mosaic of various opinions. And I found it entertaining.”
In the film, historians paint a picture of Buchanan as a man with extensive government experience, and one skilled at machine politics.
The film covers Buchanan’s meddling in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which held that people of African ancestry were not citizens of the United States and could not sue in federal court.
And it talks about his alliance with the South in an attempt to get Kansas admitted to the union as a slave state.
The question of Buchanan’s sexual orientation, long a matter of speculation for the nation’s only unmarried president, is brought up briefly in the film.
After his broken engagement with Coleman and her subsequent death, Ryan says in the film, “Buchanan would never marry, and his perennial bachelorhood has fueled much speculation about his sexuality.”
The film mentions Buchanan’s close relationship with Alabama Sen. William Rufus King, a Democratic politician from the South who owned slaves.
The two shared sleeping quarters in Washington, D.C., a common practice at the time.
“I guess you could call it sort of a bromance,” Hopkins says in the film.
“It was fodder for his critics.”
The film notes those critics used to call King “Mrs. Buchanan” as a dig at the president.
“It was a different time," Hopkins says, noting Abraham Lincoln also shared a bed with male visitors who came to the White House. “We’re more concerned with sexuality today than they were then.”
Buchanan was “a very unlucky man to have been president at that time,” Stevenson says. “It would have been impossible, I think, to keep the union together. ... No one has been able to come up, even in retrospect, with a compromise that would have worked.”
“His presidency is a failure, a failure of leadership,” Clarke says near the end of the film, “and I think we can learn a lot from that.”
“He was a patriot,” Sarratt says, “And he suffered for the fact that, despite his patriotism, he could neither keep the Democratic committee together nor the Union. ... It’s almost like a Shakespearean tragedy.”