The Civil War On Film – Review

The Civil War On Film - Review

Because the Civil War ended less than 30 years before the first motion pictures, it became a favorite subject for the new medium and has remained so ever since. Unfortunately, many of these Civil War films are historically inaccurate. According to Lamphier (humanities, California State Polytechnic Univ.) and Welch (screenwriting, Stephens College), films of the Civil War “almost universally erase the past” in order to forget that it was so “painful, destructive, and unpleasant” (p. ix). To illustrate the varying approaches to Civil War history and memory, the authors selected ten significant films—ranging chronologically and thematically from Gone with the Wind (1939) to Free State of Jones (2016)—devoting a chapter to each. All the chapters present the historical background and cultural context for the film, contexts that include, among other things, combat, gender, immigration, leadership, pacifism, race, and slavery. Other works—e.g., Bruce Chadwick’s The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film (CH, Mar’02, 39-3875) and The American Civil War on Film and TV: Blue and Gray in Black and White and Color, ed. by Douglas Brode, Shea Brode, and Cynthia Miller (CH, May’18, 55-3151)—cover more films and themes; the present volume will be especially useful as a tool for teaching cinematic representations of the past. — J. I. Deutsch, George Washington University

Movies profiled in this book:

The Civil War On Film – 36 in a series – “Hattie McDaniel, who would not be allowed in the segregated theater where the film premiered.”

The Civil War On Film - 36 in a series -  

Local politicians and MGM publicists alike planned a gala three-day celebration that involved all the major cast members except Leslie Howard, who had returned to England when he heard his home country had declared war on Germany, and Hattie McDaniel, who would not be allowed in the segregated theater where the film premiered. Another African American was present, though his fame would not come until later in life. Martin Luther King Jr., then a ten-year-old member of his father’s church choir, sang four spirituals at the gala.

Movies profiled in this book:

The Civil War On Film – 35 in a series – “Lincoln wasn’t always popular.”

 Lincoln wasn’t always popular.

Lincoln wasn’t always popular. His presidency was contentious even in the North, as the contested 1864 presidential election suggests, and most white southerners reviled him. David H. Donald, one of Lincoln’s many biographers, contends that the sixteenth president did not take on heroic, even mythological status until the early twentieth century (Donald 1969).

Movies profiled in this book:

The Civil War On Film – 34 in a series – “…purports to be a history of the gangs of New York…”

The Civil War On Film - 34 in a series -

Judging the truth of the history portrayed on screen begins by judging the truth of the history portrayed in the original source material. While Asbury’s book is shelved with non-fiction and purports to be a history of the gangs of New York, the subtitle admits it is “An Informal History of the Underworld.” On top of that, unlike other films adapted from books, which work hard to remain loyal to the text, when Scorsese thought about making Gangs he admitted being more interested in being loyal to the town than its residents.

Movies profiled in this book:

The Civil War On Film – 33 in a series – “…the conflict that arose in Kansas in the seven years before the Civil War known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

The Civil War On Film - 33 in a series -

The roots of the Kansas-Missouri border war can be found in the conflict that arose in Kansas in the seven years before the Civil War known as “Bleeding Kansas.” In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act created the two territories and solved the “slavery problem” with the addition of a popular sovereignty clause. While the notion that Kansas settlers would vote on whether they wanted slavery or not sounded like a sensible solution to the nation’s increasingly anxious conversation about slavery, it inadvertently caused a kind of war between anti-slavery and pro-slavery settlers.

Movies profiled in this book:

The Civil War On Film – 32 in a series – “…because it was insufficiently sympathetic to the Confederate point of view.”

The Civil War On Film - 32 in a series -

Predictably, some Civil War movie fans didn’t like Andersonville because it was insufficiently sympathetic to the Confederate point of view. Neo-Confederate viewers, who surely expected a different film from Georgian Ted Turner, pointed out Confederate soldiers in Union prison camps suffered as greatly as Union soldiers in Andersonville. On the whole though, Andersonville fairs well with Civil War movie fans who enjoy (or at least tolerate) a Northern point of view.

Movies profiled in this book:

The Civil War On Film – 31 in a series – …the heroism slathered on the men who survived Gettysburg…”

The Civil War On Film - 31 in a series - ...the heroism slathered on the men who survived Gettysburg...

Much of the heroism slathered on the men who survived Gettysburg on both sides, but mostly regarding the Confederates, came from the literary work of their wives and widows published for years after the war. For example, in 1913 La Salle Corbell Pickett published The Heart of a Soldier As revealed in the Intimate Letters of Genl. George E. Pickett C.S.A. Due to his wife’s efforts, his reckless and ill-conceived charge became synonymous with heroism – and with her husband and her husband alone – despite the fact that two Confederate divisions charged up Cemetery Ridge that day.

Movies profiled in this book:

The Civil War On Film – 30 in a series – “… some took issue with the way a movie about black soldiers focused on the regiment’s white colonel.”

The Civil War On Film - 30 in a series -

Film critics universally embraced Glory as both a cinematic success and social justice tour de force. Leonard Maltin called it “breathtakingly filmed” and “faultlessly performed” (Maltin 2008). Historians liked the film nearly as much, though some took issue with the way a movie about black soldiers focused on the regiment’s white colonel, but most critics tempered their criticisms with some discussion of the need to make movies for diverse audiences.

Movies profiled in this book:

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The Civil War On Film – 29 in a series – “…his attitude about the futility and ridiculousness of war comes from his own experiences as a child during World War II.”

The Civil War On Film - 29 in a series -

Many film historians attribute anti-Vietnam war sentiment to Sergio Leone personally, but this is not particularly accurate. Leone is Italian and he wasn’t making films for the American market, at least not until United Artists approached his producer with a film deal, at which point the first two films in the trilogy had already been made. Leone’s attitude about the futility and ridiculousness of war comes from his own experiences as a child during World War II.

Movies profiled in this book: