Monday, May 26, 2008

Civil War Movies and Memorial Day

On this Memorial Day holiday, a marathon of World War II movies is the typical fare on television. But we could note with irony that though Memorial Day was created from the wild bereavement and need for reconciliation over the American Civil War, Hollywood’s classic era has given us few Civil War movies. It does not seem to be a subject they wanted to touch.

Four films on the American Civil war we may use as examples both of the scarcity of film treatment of the war and this nation’s or Hollywood’s discomfort with the war itself. These are “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), “Gone With the Wind” (1939), “The Red Badge of Courage” (1951), and “Shenandoah” (1965). Just the years’ distance between each of these films is an indication that the Civil War has not been popular subject matter.

This is amazing when we consider that this war did so much to create a modern nation from a struggling democracy cobbled together from former possessions of the British, Dutch, French, and Spanish empires. The Civil War was not only a turning point in our history; it created “a” United States from “these” United States. No small feat; and it came at horrific cost.

Hollywood easily churned out costume dramas of European monarchs and revolutions, tales of Roman Empire vice and grandeur, and many Biblical epics. The American frontier was occasionally visited, but most film tales of American past seemed to be rooted in westerns. Westerns were easily and cheaply produced, and the idea of the cowboy as an American icon was a thrilling and comfortable topic. White hats and black hats were easily distinguishable and we knew who the villains were.

Likewise during World War II, when Hollywood did much to unify the nation and serve as a kind of arm of the government to bolster morale, the films were churned out by the dozens and the good guys and bad guys were easily distinguishable.

But the Civil War, an era made for storytelling, filled with dramatic events and bigger than life personalities, this was touched upon lightly, with seeming awkwardness.

Both “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” deal with the Southern point of view of the war, and include the Reconstruction period, which was as wretched an experience for the defeated South as the war had been. “The Birth of a Nation” took a defensive stand on both the South’s desire for political autonomy as well as the racism that created, promoted, and defended slavery. “Gone With the Wind” was a romantic tale, less of battlefield horrors than of the always-fascinating look at the downfall of wealthy upper classes, with a twist. Here they become dogged survivors in a strange new world.

Both “Gone With the Wind” and “The Red Badge of Courage” came from popular novels, the former having won the Pulitzer Prize. “Red Badge” follows one young Union man’s emotional trial in his first taste of battle. It is not about politics or good guys or bad guys. It is personal, and could be about anybody, anywhere, in any war.

“Shenandoah” features James Stewart as the curmudgeonly widowed father of a large Virginia farming family, who refuses to support Virginia’s militia or to pay any mind to the battles raging around his farm. He has created an improbably safe island in the midst of chaos, until his teenage son is mistaken for a Confederate solider, and multiple tragedies strike his family. This is more a tale of war being bad than of personal conviction. There are also a few historical inaccuracies in this film, but that is what sometimes happens when producers are businessmen and not historians.

However, the few and far-between modern films of the past few decades that have addressed the Civil War, though they may be filled with impressive accuracy on weaponry, tactics, and costumes, still shy away from displaying accurately the vehement politics and social mores of those days.

Perhaps it is simply impossible to re-create the emotion like we can the battlefield. Our look at the American Civil War is self-conscious, at arm’s length, and perhaps with some embarrassment. An earnest desire to see all sides sometimes leads to a diluted image.

At the time, the Civil War (which is actually a technically incorrect term, but has become the most accepted title), was called The War of Southern Rebellion by the North, and by the South was called The War of Northern Aggression. This was being polite.

Is it possible for us to understand a world in which thousands of men volunteered with idealism even after battles where typically thousands would be killed in minutes? Is it possible for us to understand why slavery was not abolished sooner, or how it could be logically defended by anyone? Northern and southern soldiers came to have regard for each other’s abilities and steadfastness, but the North and the South hated each other. There was a crude, murderous feeling rampant in the land. Is it even possible for us to understand such bitterness?

Perhaps this is why so few movies were made about the American Civil War. First, the cost of depicting the era accurately has become more and more prohibitive. Secondly, the passions which fueled the war have been spent, and we are invariably revisionists when it comes to history. We may not want to be. We may sometimes disdain revisionist history, but we are often powerless to do anything other than look at the past with our modern perspective.

One might wonder if it’s not for the best. Some things are best left behind us.

Also, in an era when Hollywood preferred not to alienate their southern film distribution market, an area of the country where movie theaters were segregated, blacks were carefully used and exploited in roles of stereotypes comfortable to bigots. “Birth of a Nation” aroused perhaps the first organized outcry against this, and the film became a museum piece from practically the moment it was made. Director D. W. Griffith spent the rest of his life defending the film, and the American Civil War was seen ever afterward by Hollywood moguls as possibly too hot a topic to touch.

“Gone With the Wind” sweeps us away in a romantic fantasy during the last days of grim Depression and the opening salvos of World War II. It nearly killed producer David O. Selznick, his team of revolving directors, his tormented writers, and his bewildered cast to make it. If it occasionally pulls punches, at least it made a grand effort. The film succeeds just as the novel did largely because we are taken with Scarlet and Rhett as characters. They could be southern aristocrats or London street thieves; it makes no difference as to time and place. They may talk about “the cause” but they serve no cause but themselves, and their personalities are irresistible.

“The Red Badge of Courage” sells itself to a Post-World War II audience with Audie Murphy in the lead, the most decorated American soldier of World War II, whose citations included the Medal of Honor. Bill Mauldin, “Stars and Stripes” cartoonist who created the beloved “Willie and Joe” characters in the army newspaper, plays another Union soldier. Even this obvious attempt at transference of the shine of World War II onto a Civil War epic made from a book we read in high school was unsuccessful. The film didn’t do well at the box office. Perhaps no one believed real-life hero Murphy was really a coward who could “skedaddle.”

“Shenandoah” skirts the political edge of the war just as James Stewart’s farm skirts the edge of the battlefield. Stewart was another World War II decorated serviceman. When he expresses disgust for the war and everything about it, we believe him. His own real-life experience lends cache. But where is the wrong and the right of it his character’s world? Where is the message? That war is bad? We already know that. But if a man expresses a couple of film hours’ worth of a lack of conviction, how are we supposed to care about him?

So, Memorial Day comes around, and World War II becomes our film focus for it. It’s easier that way. We knew who the bad guys were, and we’re not ashamed to point them out. It’s easier to find our heroes, too. They were everybody who served.

But the holiday actually began as a thoughtful, careful, tenuous gesture to reconcile the war-torn nation. It was slow to be accepted. Most of the nation did not adopt the holiday until after World War I, and many southern states still hold separate Decoration Day events for Confederate soldiers. World War II, though there are many still living for whom memories of that war are deeply painful, is a more comfortable subject, both in film and in real life. We know where we stand. We all stand together. Roll camera.


Evangeline Holland said...

You can add WWI to the list, I feel. WWII and the Revolutionary War are the easiest to express in any medium, since the enemy was pretty clear-cut. A lot of people see WWI as senseless slaughter, so it hasn't been featured as much in movies since the outbreak of the second world war.

I don't think this country has healed enough to view the Civil War as "entertainment."

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, Belle, and thank you for your comments. You've made some good points. It's true we've seen less of WWI in film since WWII, but it did have coverage before this in the '20s and '30s, even if just to contemplate the senseless cruelty of war. At least the subject was addressed. You may be right that the country has not healed enough to view the Civil War as "entertainment." Or perhaps it has become so remote as to seem unreal, cliched and irrelevant. Difficult to say.

Anonymous said...

This is a really fine post, Jacqueline. Your thoughts are very clearly expressed here. Thank you.

"An earnest desire to see all sides sometimes leads to a diluted image." I completely agree. I prefer films that have a point and argue it with conviction--even (especially?) if I disagree with that point.

Despite the fact that the country was divided over intervention in World War II before Pearl Harbor most of the (or these) United States contributed to that conflict once the country was attacked. I'd say that contributes to our preference to recall WWII movies and events on Memorial Day. Those shared memories and Hollywood myths don't tend to divide us the way the Civil War might. Likewise we don't see much about the Korean War or the Vietnam War on that holiday. It will be interesting to see if/how memories and movies about the current conflict enter future observations of the day.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Thom. You're right about a lack of coverage on the Vietnam and Korean wars as well. As for the current conflict, there have got to be a lot of stories, not necessarily "big picture" stories, but small ones that would be very moving and dramatic, and give us a slice of what is happening and has been happening over the last several years. I don't know if we've got to wait another generation for filmmakers to be objective or an audience to be receptive. As a filmgoer, I'm not looking for a primer on war or a particular political slant, just a mirror on the human experience. William Tecumseh Sherman got it right when he said "War is all hell." Aha, there we go back to the Civil War again.

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