- 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
We’d be rigorous in attempting to find out whether the dead body was from Antietam or Gettysburg. As film makers we have to make hundreds of decisions like that, where in essence we’re balancing the science versus the art of history. Sure, we have ground rules—no re-creations, for instance; no overweight folks in Reeboks and uniforms charging across the fields. That’s fun when you’re there, but it’s no way to pass on information about the Civil War; it would be violating a trust. On the other hand, we don’t illustrate. When we say “Lincoln,” we don’t necessarily have to show Lincoln. I look for what 1 call an equivalent—that is, an image that may not be what an expert would certify as belonging to the precise moment I’m describing, but that combines with the narration to make a synthesis that’s good history, so that you say, “My God, I hear that. I know what they must have felt.”
Consider the poignancy of a young man’s death, for instance. The question for a film maker is always “How far do you go?” If you hear a young soldier’s voice on the soundtrack talking about what it’s like to skim weevils off the top of his morning coffee, and you’re showing a picture of a different soldier holding a tin cup, that’s a perfectly acceptable marriage. But if, down the line, a shot that works in Vicksburg also works in Petersburg, do you use it again? I’m not sure. There’s such a dangerous power to manipulate in film. Jean-Luc Godard, one of the fathers of new-wave films, was famous years ago for saying that film was the truth twenty-four times a second. But I think it can also lie twenty-four times a second.
How do you separate them?
What keeps you straight is your sense of honor. It’s the guiding light. I don’t quite know how to define it, but I look to the nineteenth century for examples of it—to people like Sam Houston, for instance. I know that if a film maker doesn’t have it, the manipulations show all over the screen. You know, if academic history is too abstract, the other end of the spectrum of misusing the past is the Madison Avenue approach—the kind of spectacle that was put on during the Statue of Liberty centennial. You don’t want that. I hope that in this series our honorable intent shows.
Of course, you had expert advisers to keep you honest too—and they were from the “academy.”
Absolutely. Look, when I knock the academy, I’m only thinking of a kind of nineteenth-century Germanic formalism that keeps us from celebrating history in the way we should—or the kind of contemporary arrogance that led some social historian to say once that “one could do a history of Illinois without mentioning Lincoln,” as if you couldn’t combine the social context of history with the traditional political and biographical forms and appreciate them both. The fact is that I’ve had the most satisfying friendships of my career with members of the academy. I don’t think that historical films can or will or should replace books. I don’t want to oversell my medium, because it’s so easy for it to fall into irresponsible hands that would promote our dangerous national addiction to images designed to manipulate us. All I am saying is that film has special power to remind us of what an extraordinary tonic history can be, to evoke in people the emotional power of a Shaker chair that’s designed by someone who believes, in Thomas Merton’s words, “that an angel might come and sit on it,” or to make them understand that Huey Long was like a volcano.
We had the final sentence of the Gettysburg Address read the way Lincoln must have delivered it.
Any special pains and pleasures in making this series?
You have to drop so many things you like. I often felt, when I cut something out, like Lee complaining after Jackson was wounded at Chancellorsville, “He has lost his left arm; I have lost my right.” One laments a medium so insensitive to and intolerant of diversions, digressions, and anything that supposedly jeopardizes the attention of the audience. Ten and a half hours allows us to be very dense for a film study of the war, but all the same we regret the stories left untold and the speeches not complete.
But the good stuff? Partly making the acquaintance of a generation that was so wonderfully literate from top to bottom. There is Lincoln, of course, and by the way, we think we’ve scored a beat in having the final sentence of the Gettysburg Address read in the way that I believe he must have delivered it to be consistent with the meaning of the piece—that is, not with the usual emphasis on the prepositions of , by , and for , which are unimportant, but on the subjects and actors of the war: “of the people , by the people , for the people .” And the eloquence goes all the way down the line to a farm-owning veteran who describes coming home on the first day, taking off his uniform, and proceeding to “wage war on the standing corn.”