From 'Glory' to 'Gone with the Wind,' Fascination with Civil War Endures

Article excerpt

The Civil War, which began 150 years ago Tuesday, has long been a potent theme in film - highlighted by the release of a new Civil War film by Robert Redford Friday.

From the earliest feature film - D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" - through "Gone with the Wind," "Glory," and even Ken Burns's groundbreaking documentary, the Civil War has been, and remains a potent theme in mainstream popular culture.

Filmmakers and novelists, poets and TV mini-series have tackled this most divisive time in US history as a means to explore both historical and modern notions of American identity. Indeed, as Tuesday marks the 150th anniversary of the war's first shots, Friday will see the release of the new Civil War film, "The Conspirator," directed by Robert Redford.

"The general public's perception of the American Civil War is significantly shaped by popular culture on the subject, largely because it is virtually the only exposure they have to the subject matter," writes Richard Goedkoop, a professor of communication at La Salle University, in an e-mail. "Gone with the Wind," along with other films, "are the Civil War," he says.

Mr. Goedkoop, who is also a licensed battlefield guide at the Gettysburg National Military Park, says he sees this when tourists come to the historic site.

"Those who have seen 'Gettysburg' come to the battlefield with a great deal of interest in the battle but very limited knowledge of what really happened," he says.

He points out that the film was based upon "The Killer Angels," a novel written by Michael Shaara in the 1970s, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Virtually no mass media depictions get the history just right, he says, adding, that even Mr. Burns's masterful PBS documentary, "Civil War," buys into many of Mr. Shaara's concepts.

Of course, mass culture does not have the same obligations of a history class, says Thomas Flagel, author of "The History Buff's Guide to the Civil War. …