- 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
A real pleasure of the whole project was finding our principal on-camera interviewee, Shelby Foote, who is a true witness in the sense of understanding the war and bringing it alive. These are things that happened to real flesh-and-blood people. They lived, they loved, they hated in the same fullness that we do today. I don’t need to remind readers of American Heritage of that. But too many of us suffer from the modern conceit that people who lived before we did were somehow lesser because they “knew” less. Well, they may not have known how to access a personal computer, but they certainly knew how to do other things. The great arrogance of the present is to forget the intelligence of the past.
Are there more historical films in store for you, or will you try other varieties—say, feature films?
I don’t know. I’ve been driven all my life by an interest in American history—you know the old cliché, “You can’t tell where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been” though I’ve taken only one formal history course, and that in Russian history. In film, documentary is supposedly a lower rung on the career ladder from which you climb up, if you’re good, to features. I reject that categorically. My gospel says that what actually happened is as dramatic— if not more so—as anything conceived by human imagination. On the other hand there are the geniuses like Shakespeare who remind us of the power of imaginative work, so I’m tempted to experiment. But for the time being, I’m still exploring the possibilities of historical documentary. I’m working on a film on early radio pioneers. I’d like to start a series on American lives—Lewis and Clark, Jefferson at Monticello, Twain, Lincoln, FDR—men and women to add as patches to the crazy quilt I’ve been making, with the Brooklyn Bridge in one corner and a Shaker in the other and this outsized piece on the Civil War in the middle and Huey Long off to one side. They all help to cover the territory. My immediate interest is a series on baseball. I think, like the Civil War, it’s a Rosetta stone of American values—written smaller, of course, but giving some digestible sense of the American soul.
You’ve said that all your subjects somehow meet on the ground of the Civil War. I hope you won’t give us that old chestnut about the Union general Abner Doubleday inventing the game at Cooperstown.
Listen, Bernie, there really is an intersection of baseball and the war. We found this marvelous photograph of Yankee soldiers playing baseball at Fort Pulaski, while waiting to capture Savannah. I believe it’s one of the earliest photos of people playing the game, rather than a posed team photo. But no, the Abner Doubleday myth won’t make it into the film.