Student Filmmaker Reenacts Rutgers-Princeton Rivalry
Students paint historic Princeton cannon Rutgers Scarlet red
In 1875, nine Rutgers students set out on a midnight raid to steal a Revolutionary War-era cannon from Princeton that they believed was rightfully theirs. The students hauled it back to New Brunswick in a horse-drawn cart.
The dispute over the ownership of the cannon – supposedly fired by Alexander Hamilton from Rutgers’ Old Queens Campus as General Washington’s troops retreated to Trenton – sparked a fierce rivalry between Rutgers and Princeton University that persists to this day.
The conflict between the two universities that were founded during the country’s colonial era, and ensuing pranks to recapture the cannon, are the inspiration for the film “Knights, Tigers and Cannons. Oh My!” by Rutgers junior Zack Morrison. The film recounts the tale of the “cannon wars,” and features a contemporary reenactment of a prank to paint the cannon Rutgers scarlet red. It will be shown at this year’s New Jersey Film Festival, opening next week on the university’s New Brunswick Campus.
'Knights, Tigers and Cannons. Oh My!' will be screened at the .
“When I came to Rutgers, I was shocked at how few students knew about the old traditions that I heard about my whole life growing up here,” said Morrison, an East Brunswick resident, and son of a proud Rutgers alumna. “I wanted to make a movie as a way to learn about it myself and participate in the tradition.”
The historic cannon had been left behind in New Brunswick after it last saw action in the War of 1812, and became a prized souvenir to Rutgers students. But there was a problem with Rutgers’ attachment to the cannon: it actually belonged to the Princeton armory. Once its ownership was established, the cannon had to be returned to Princeton in the mid-1800s.
After Rutgers defeated Princeton in the first collegiate football game in 1869, the vanquished visitors taunted the victors with reminders of how Princeton now possessed the cannon. Several years later, when Rutgers students captured the 1,088 pound cannon, the university presidents got involved to settle where it rightfully belonged. A joint committee recommended that the cannon be returned to Princeton, where it was buried in cement on the university campus with only a few feet exposed above ground.
But that by no means ended the cannon wars. If Rutgers students could no longer retrieve the cannon, they could at least make their mark by going to Princeton and painting the butt end of “their” cannon scarlet red, which started a tradition that continued over the decades, but had ebbed in modern times.
That is the scene that Morrison set out to reenact in making his film. The 13-minute documentary follows the antics of nine modern-day conspirators. They scout the Princeton campus for the inconspicuous relic, plot their approach and escape routes, fill disposable coffee cups with paint from the back of their SUV, and keep wary eyes open for campus police as they sneak up on their target and bathe it in scarlet. Morrison shot the action sequences in high-contrast black-and-white, heightening the suspense of the prank.
Why did Morrison want to document the pranks between the two rival schools in film? As he explains in the closing lines of his movie: “Tradition is important. If we don’t remember and respect the things that define who we are, then we’ll have nothing to set us apart from the thousand other colleges in this country. Rutgers is so rich in its history that students should be proud of it, and embrace it.’’
Morrison has been making films since middle school and he studied video production in high school. At Rutgers, he fashioned an individualized film major through the School of Arts and Sciences, combining that school’s cinema studies program with classes in the new Rutgers Center for Digital Filmmaking at the Mason Gross School of the Arts.
“This was my first foray into the documentary process,” said Morrison, who up until then had focused on fiction and narrative pieces. He worked alongside Dena Seidel, director of the digital filmmaking center, starting in her fall 2011 class where he presented a rough cut. He refined the product under her continuing guidance during the spring semester. “The movie would not be what it is without her guidance,” he said.
The New Jersey Film Festival is run by Albert Gabriel Nigrin, cinema studies professor in the Department of American Studies. “He encourages student filmmakers at Rutgers to submit to this festival,” said Morrison. “It’s a great outlet for students and up-and-coming filmmakers.”
“Knights, Tigers and Cannons. Oh My!” won first place for documentaries last semester at the Mason Gross School of the Arts New Lens Student Film Festival.