Cinematic Script as History; Book Shows How Films Shape Popular Understanding of Period

Article excerpt

Byline: John M... Taylor, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Winston Churchill called the American Civil War "the noblest and least avoidable" of the great wars up to that time. Mark Twain remarked that in the South, "the war is what A.D. is elsewhere; they date from it."

The war has been a boon to publishers, who have produced more than 60,000 books dealing with it. The war also has been a boon to Hollywood, and the themes of various motion pictures over the decades have been analyzed as the subject of a book by a noted Civil War historian, Gary W. Gallagher of the University of Virginia.

Mr. Gallagher focuses on four major themes: the Lost Cause tradition, which downplays the importance of slavery and stresses Confederate gallantry against great odds; the Union Cause, which emphasizes the illegality of secession and the bravery of those who fought it; the Emancipation Cause, which sees the war primarily as a struggle to end slavery; and the Reconciliation Cause, which seeks to exalt the united nation that emerged from the conflict.

Mr. Gallagher examines 14 movies and a large quantity of Civil War art to discern how interpretation of the war has changed over the decades. For a time, the Lost Cause had the field largely to itself. In 1915, "Birth of a Nation" lauded the South and rationalized the Ku Klux Klan.

It was "Gone With the Wind," however, released in 1939, that became the classic expression of the Lost Cause, with its depiction of the gallant South, especially Southern women. In it, Melanie Wilkes willingly parts with material things, including her wedding ring, for the Cause. Mr. Gallagher believes "Gone With the Wind" exposed generations of Americans to a positive depiction of the slaveholding South and a hostile treatment of Reconstruction.

More recently, the Lost Cause has had tough going. Mr. Gallagher states: "The Emancipation Cause has become the most influential of the four traditions in an industry where the Confederate narrative long held sway." Since the release of "Glory" in 1989, only "Gods and Generals" has reflected a tilt toward the Lost Cause. This trend, the author suggests, reflects the civil rights movement and a disenchantment with the public display of Confederate symbols.

Mr. Gallagher is most interesting when he discusses the minimal recognition America has accorded the soldiers of the Union who - their own land and hearths not threatened - took to arms in defense of an abstraction: that the Union was indissoluble. To be sure, both sides were soon obliged to introduce conscription, but the strength and depth of pro-Union sentiment remains one of the remarkable features of the Civil War.

Film is rarely the best medium through which to convey ideas and concepts. Mr. Gallagher points out that recent Hollywood films "fail almost completely to convey any sense of what the Union Cause meant to millions of Northern citizens. …