- Historic Sites
“The Great Arrogance of the Present Is to Forget the Intelligence of the Past”
The maker of a fine new documentary on the Civil War tells how the medium of film can evoke the emotional reality of history
September/October 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 6
My historian friends had warned me off: the Civil War was a black hole that had sucked in better men.
After the war there was a great tendency to sentimentalize it, to say that the North was fighting valiantly for the Union, and Southerners gallantly for their rights as they saw them, and everybody was heroic, and the blacks got shuffled out of the picture. How did you do justice to everybody without romance and roses?
It was a constant problem. When we started out simply to tell the military story of the war, we found ourselves perpetuating some of those myths like the glory of the Old South, blurring the issues for which my countrymen fought. Maybe the mythmaking was forgivable in the war generation; it was a kind of amnesia almost necessary to blot out the horror. But I couldn’t forgive myself as a film maker if we had perpetuated the mistakes created by sentimentality, the ones that begin with movies like The Birth of a Nation and continue today, I’m sorry to say. With the help of many, many scholars we try to remind people of the basis of the war as a fight against slavery and of the activity, not passivity, of blacks before, during, and after the struggle. I think that a black man or woman looking at this series will be awakened to the story of their own people’s extraordinary struggle to force the issue of liberation on their white masters. And that’s important, too, because as Barbara Fields, one of the historians who appear in the series, says, if we let ourselves forget, “the Civil War can still be lost.” I think it’s Faulkner who says somewhere that things in the past aren’t over and done; they’re always present.
How did you decide where to put your focus, considering the gigantic range of the subject?
I have many friends who are professional historians, and those closest to me all advised strenuously that I shouldn’t get into it—especially with our first, ambitious plan to tell the whole story as a narrative, not isolating themes but going straight from the first causes to the final effects. They said the Civil War was a black hole that had sucked in better men. But we went ahead. I think that my friends were unaware of the power of film to digest and synthesize.
Film goes directly to the emotions without translation. We tell the story in a combination of archival photographs and lithographs and paintings, a soundtrack filled with the noises of battle, and first-person voices from Lincoln and Jefferson Davis down to privates like Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2d Rhode Island and Sam Watkins from a Tennessee regiment. More than forty actors and actresses read those personal impressions, plus a strong third-person narration, written by Geoff Ward, my brother Ric, and me and read by David McCullough. It’s the glue that holds it together. When it all coheres and works, you feel at times as if you’re there. You’ve suspended your knowledge that, for example, you’re looking at photographs taken days after the battle. Instead you are actually crouching on Little Round Top or standing with the crowd watching Lincoln’s funeral procession pass.
Film brings you closer to the subject than a book?
No, film is not equipped to do what a book does, which is to attain profound levels of meaning and texture. But film has the power to reach profound levels of emotion, and I can’t be interested in a piece of history unless there’s something I can loosely describe as emotional about it. I think the ordinary person feels that way too. I think that in allowing history to be defined and presented exclusively by the academy, we’ve bled it of its powerful emotional aspect. My goodness, the Civil War is history running on all cylinders, a mighty engine that doesn’t misfire, and I believe film is uniquely equipped to transmit that kind of power. It can be our Homeric form, and we’ve tried to tell this particular Iliad , our Civil War, in a Homeric way, not only from the aerial perspective of the gods and kings but from the level of the spear carriers as well.
But the original Iliad is an epic, a legend; it doesn’t have what historians consider a decent respect for facts. Isn’t that a dangerous model?
Let me answer you with a quote from my favorite nonacademic historian, Francis Parkman: “Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them. He must himself be, as it were, a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes.”
Too much of good factual history seems untrue because it doesn’t resonate, and all we’ve tried to do filmically is to be true to the spirit of Parkman’s plea.
What are your ground rules? If you had a good, strong photo of a corpse at Antietam, would you show it with a powerful quotation from a survivor of Gettysburg?