Tuesday, April 12, 2011

David Hudson: The Civil War @ 150

The Civil War @ 150
by David Hudson

"When South Carolina artillerymen opened fire on a small band of federal troops garrisoned in Ft Sumter exactly 150 years ago," writes Scott Collins in the Los Angeles Times, "the American Civil War officially began. Now Hollywood is getting ready to fight the nation's bloodiest conflict all over again with a passel of new sesquicentennial-ready film and TV projects from some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, including directors Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Robert Redford."

Spielberg is currently set to begin shooting Lincoln in the fall, with Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role; Scott and his brother Tony have created CGI-enhanced reenactments for the History Channel's two-hour documentary Gettysburg, airing next month; and Redford's The Conspirator, "with Robin Wright as Mary Surratt, the boarding house proprietor who was accused of aiding John Wilkes Booth in his plot to kill Abraham Lincoln in April 1865," opens on Friday.

You can't write a piece on cinema's treatment of the Civil War without consulting Ken Burns, of course. Last week, PBS re-ran his and his brother Ric's 1990 ten-hour documentary The Civil War, and he tells Collins that this war is still "the most important event in American history. Everything that came before the Civil War led up to it; everything since has been, in many ways, a direct consequence of it."

The New York Times has turned to Burns as well, for a piece in which he elaborates on that argument. Today, he writes, "we ask again whether in our supposedly post-racial, globalized, 21st-century world those now seemingly distant battles of the mid-19th century still have any relevance. But it is clear that the further we get from those four horrible years in our national existence — when, paradoxically, in order to become one we tore ourselves in two — the more central and defining that war becomes. In our less civil society of this moment we are reminded of the full consequences of our failure to compromise in that moment." As for that landmark doc, "It was an emotional archaeology we were all after, less concerned with troop movements than with trying to represent the full fury of that war; we were attracted to its psychological disturbances and conflicted personalities, its persistent dissonance as well as its inspirational moments. We wanted to tell a more accurate story of African-Americans, not as the passive bystanders of conventional wisdom, but as active soldiers in an intensely personal drama of self-liberation. We wished to tell bottom-up stories of so-called ordinary soldiers, North as well as South, to note women's changing roles, to understand the Radical Republicans in Congress, to revel in the inconvenient truths of nearly every aspect of the Civil War."

Back to Collins: "'Hollywood has a frankly terrible history with the Civil War,' said David W Blight, a Yale historian currently on a fellowship at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, whose 2001 book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory exploded many of the myths associated with the postwar Reconstruction period. A key problem, Blight noted, was the 'Lost Cause' mythology, which was promoted by Southern writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and depicted the Confederacy as a noble and idyllic civilization vanquished by impossible odds. In some viewers' minds, the notion of sumptuous plantations filled with contented, wisecracking slaves still persists. 'Gone With the Wind laid that down in cinematic terms, so that you can probably never pull its roots out,' Blight said."

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