Hollywood's Fascination with the Civil War

By Sharrett, Christopher | USA TODAY, January 1994 | Go to article overview

Hollywood's Fascination with the Civil War


Sharrett, Christopher, USA TODAY


TED TURNER's Civil War epic, "Gettysburg," has received mixed reviews at best and has been all but ignored in various critical articles on the current movie season. The problems are obvious. It is a four-and-a-half hour, originally made-for-TV miniseries turned into a bloated theatrical release whose emphasis on historical detail is not sufficient to divert viewers from often inert acting and direction.

The intimacy of Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, the source for the film and one of the best historical novels in recent years, often is lost in the picture's sprawling and overdrawn set pieces. Still, "Gettysburg" plays an important role in reiterating the nation's preoccupation with the Civil War, no better evidenced than in its numerous replications in the American cinema.

While Civil War buffs doubtless will have unpleasant things to say about this film (for example, although compelling in his effort, Martin Sheen is woefully miscast as Robert E. Lee), and while there is not a great deal in it that illuminates the philosophical and political underpinnings of the war, it returns audiences to that conflict as the center of the national experience. As author Shelby Foote has remarked, anyone seriously interested in understanding America must know something about the Civil War.

In fact, the Civil War is implicated closely in the development of the American cinema. D.W. Griffith, the director usually touted as the "man who invented Hollywood," chose the conflict as the subject matter of his first major film. "The Birth of a Nation" was a breakthrough on numerous stylistic and technical counts, not the least of which was convincing Hollywood moguls that a three-hour "historical epic" was a viable commodity to 1915 audiences.

The choice of the Civil War was a natural for Griffith. A 19th-century man in origin, manner, and turn of mind, he could think of no story more important to honor in a then-new medium than that apocalyptic cataclysm of the early 1860s. Griffith's source material, a contemporary novel called The Klansman, was unfortunate. "The Birth of a Nation," as anyone vaguely familiar with American cinema knows, is about the birth and glorification of a white, Aryan nation, specifically the Ku Klux Klan. For Griffith, the Civil War is about the nobility of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, and this narrow-mindedness is one factor in making a quaint museum piece of this pioneering motion picture.

Most of Hollywood's depictions of the conflict have tended to romanticize the Confederacy and its heroes. This is not so much because of American fascination with "rebellion" (and the Civil War reminds us of the reactionary turns rebellion can take), but because the Lost Cause lends itself well to nostalgia and a yearning for a halcyon time of stability.

Nowhere is this suggested better than in the veneration afforded the overrated, endlessly recycled "Gone With the Wind," a film enormously influential in everything from its poster art (replicated on countless romance novels where the beefcake hero sweeps away a damsel overpowered by his cavalier machismo) to its characterizations (bowdlerized in one way or another in the evening soap operas). …

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