Films and Television
Brian Steel Wills
Capturing the imagination of viewers from the silent film era to the present, the American Civil War has provided a rich mosaic of personalities and events. The images are powerful, and they transcend time to rest in the collective consciousness of a nation: the quiet dignity of Robert E. Lee, who gambles for victory yet accepts responsibility for defeat; the homespun wisdom of Abraham Lincoln as he guides the nation through its greatest test; a dashing Confederate cavalier on horseback whose defense of hearth and home is as valiant as it is futile; the former slave, freed from bondage but unwilling to remain outside the fight that will free others; a southern belle who experiences the harshest realities of war yet vows to endure. The fundamental nature of the conflict allows the war to lend itself easily to both the sweeping panorama of cinema's big screen and the intimacy of television's smaller screen.
The earliest films to feature Civil War themes borrowed many of their conventions and storylines from those established by literary and theatrical productions. Building on this familiar foundation offered viewers a relatively safe and acceptable transition from the detachment of the written word or the stage to the realism of cinema. Until World War I, directors like D. W. Griffith frequently used the Civil War as a central element of their work. Beginning with The Guerrilla ( 1908) and In Old Kentucky ( 1909) Griffith perfected his craft, enabling him to produce the silent film classic The Birth of a Nation in 1915. Adapted from Thomas Dixon novel The Clansman, this landmark film captured the battlefield in a way that no stage ever could. Evelyn Ehrlich brief essay in The South and Film ( 1981), edited by Warren French, has provided a