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The Movies: Civil War Cinema

November 2019

The Civil War’s dramatic events have been at the core of American classics for the past century, beginning with D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915)—so technologically innovative, yet politically retrograde—followed by Buster’s Keaton’s silent, black-and-white comedy, The General (1926), based on the 1862 “Great LocomotiveChase.”

The granddaddy of all Civil War films, Gone with the Wind (1939), remains both the most revered as well as one of the most reviled sagas. It is a boy film—war—and yet a girl film—big, big romance—and was the riskiest financial gamble of its day. It provides generation after generation of viewers with insight into popular culture, and scholars with fodder for their critical studies.

Protests over Gone with the Wind’s depiction of slavery and Reconstruction stirred controversy when it was released and were not silenced by the Oscar presented to Hattie McDaniel in 1940 for her performance as Mammy—the first Academy Award earned by an African Americanactor. Critics hammered away at the demeaning caricatures showcased in the epic, particularly Butterfly McQueen’s character Prissy. Yet the film continued to win accolades, and after it premiered in London in April 1940, it ran for four years during the Blitz. In the era before video-streaming and DVDs, Gone With the Wind earned money in limited theatrical re-releases well into the 1970s. When it was broadcast on NBC in 1976, it scored the highest rating in the history of television.

After World War II, the Civil War became less of a centerpiece and more of a backdrop for feature films; in 1956 depictions ranged from the sublime (John Ford’s The Searchers) to the ridiculous (Elvis Presley’s Love Me Tender), with Gary Cooper’s Friendly Persuasion in between. The Civil War vehicle became a star turn for many Hollywood actors, from classic Jimmy Stewart (Shenandoah, 1965) to vintage Clint Eastwood (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in 1966 and The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976).

Not since Vivien Leigh’s “fiddle dee dee” had women been able to score much traction within the genre. That is, until Cold Mountain came along in 2003. Bringing the bestselling book to the screen reflected a GWTW-size gamble. Although it generated controversy over its treatment (or nontreatment) of slavery, it also won an Academy Award in the best supporting actress category: Renee Zelleger for her compelling portrait of Ruby, an illiterate white southern woman struggling to survive. Ruby—alongside Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) as a belle who waits for her soldier-lover to return home; Sara (Natalie Portman), a young widowed mother driven nearly mad by her abandonment; and Sally Swinger (Kathy Baker), who suffers a harrowing torture session while her husband and sons are killed by the Home Guard—together create a compelling Band of Sisters, tough survivors with their own war stories to tell.

Somewhere along the way, Ken Burns’s eleven-hour documentary Civil War (1990) changed the way we consume images of the war—and perhaps what we have come to expect from documentary, as I now use the “Ken Burns effect” on my computer’s slideshow. To a much lesser extent, Kevin Wilmott’s mockumentary CSA shifted our appreciation appreciation of the Civil War’s uses; his subversive film contains some unforgettable scenes (several of which are available on YouTube for classroom amusement and instruction, including faux footage of Abraham Lincoln).

Walt Whitman worried about the real war never getting into the books, and scholars fret, with good cause, that the reel history won’t get it right, either. Filmmakers who play on memory and myth, vaulting over the confines of accuracy, rule in popular cinema—they always have and always will. And the Civil War endures, ready for its close up.