Men Go to Battle. Directed by Zachary Treitz. Written by Kate Lyn Sheil and Zachary Treitz.
Release Date: September 13, 2016.
When I heard someone had made a small indie Civil War comedy, I was naturally intrigued. America’s bloodiest conflict doesn’t lend itself to laughs, with the shining exception of Buster Keaton’s The General. If judged strictly as a comedy, I’m not sure Men Go to Battle is a success. It mostly offers subtle cringe-humor, without the obvious punchlines and payoffs of The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm. There is a light feel overall but it’s used to tell a surprisingly accurate and interesting story about two yeoman farmers in in rural Kentucky from the end of 1861 to the end of 1862. Indeed, despite its vague comedy trappings, this is one of the most realistic Civil War movies I’ve seen. Read More
I’m happy to announce that this week I started a new job as Research Historian for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. While I’ll miss my colleagues at The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, I’m delighted to enter a position that allows me to do more public history and help promote this amazing institution. I was involved with a few programs and exhibits at ALPLM during my time with the Papers (including the a very cool exhibit on the Cubs/Cardinals rivalry coming this spring), and it really opened my eyes to the potential for places like this to educate the public and spark interest in the past. It’ll be great doing that same kind of stuff full time. Read More
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Directed by William Beaudine. Written by Carl K. Hittleman.
Release Date: April 10, 1866.
It’s Halloween! There isn’t a lot of Civil War horror stuff (unless you count Gods and Generals! Zing!), but there is this little gem about one of Reconstruction’s most enduring figures, Jesse James. He played a big, sorta weird role in my childhood (more on that in a future post), so I’ve always known about this bizarre movie but never sought it out. Imagine my surprise when I found the whole thing on YouTube. Even more amazing, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter exceeded even my lowest expectations. But even in this campy Ed Wood-esque nightmare, there are still interesting elements of Civil War memory and James’s controversial legacy.
The Birth of a Nation. Directed by Nate Parker. Written by Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin.
Release Date: October 7, 2016.
Rarely have I walked into a movie with so much external context bleeding through the theater walls. Almost two weeks into The Birth of a Nation‘s run, and the film is more successful as think piece fodder than as a commercial enterprise, making it almost impossible to evaluate on its own merits. How does it relate to the controversial and complicated historical record of Nat Turner’s rebellion? Where does it fit in the new filmography of slavery? Why aren’t more people seeing it (I was alone in my 7pm Thursday night show) and, if they stay away, will the “white savior” remain Hollywood’s preferred slavery narrative? Finally, should we take the troubled personal histories of Nate Parker and Jean McGinanni Celestin into account when evaluating this film? Read More
Reviewing Shenandoah made me realize something: wow, there are a lot of sad sack leaders in Civil War fiction. In that film, it was George Kennedy’s Colonel Fairchild. He only gets one scene but spends all of it in a seemingly deep state of depression. His tone is muted, his eyes are downcast, and his whole demeanor suggests he’s lost faith in the Union cause.
Shenandoah. Directed by Andrew W. McLaglen. Written by James Lee Barrett.
Release Date: June 3, 1965.
I’ve been busy, busy, busy, so it took me a lot longer to get around to watching Shenandoah than I’d originally planned. My inspiration for watching it was Kevin Levin’s review of Free State of Jones. Arguing for Jones‘s originality, he says:
Even Shenandoah, released in 1965 and starring Jimmy Stewart as Charlie Anderson (the head of a family that includes four strapping young men who somehow evade the draft), fails to turn against the Confederacy. By the end of the film, the loss of his children and the destruction of his farm leaves Anderson confused and disillusioned about the futility of all wars.
Mostly unfamiliar with the film, I decided to watch it and test my own impressions against Levin’s. What I found was that Shenandoah is more anti-Confederate than Levin thinks it is, but hedges its bets by making war itself the true enemy.
Well, it finally happened. Earlier today, the University of Mississippi Athletics Department got a jump on the college football season by banning “Dixie” from all athletic events. This is a story I’ve been following for years, as it was a major part of my chapter on memory in Battle Hymns. The controversy at Ole Miss is a perfect example of how difficult, even impossible, it is to separate Confederate symbols from their white supremacist legacy (the flag being the other prominent example). The song’s author, Daniel Decatur Emmett, never intended “Dixie” to be the anthem of a pro-slavery southern state, but Confederates imprinted that meaning on the song and white supremacists reinforced it for decades after, giving “Dixie” a permanent subtext odious to most people. The Civil War generation left their mark on numerous songs (the multiple lyrics and associations given to the melody for “John Brown’s Body” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is the northern equivalent) and we can’t help but hear those songs the way they did. “Dixie” is no exception. For years, Ole Miss tried to dilute that context by pairing “Dixie” with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” but these efforts ultimately failed, as audiences made the song’s pro-Confederate associations explicit by chanting “The South shall rise again” over the “Battle’s Hymn’s” “His truth is marching on.” Read More
The Keeping Room. Directed by Daniel Barber. Written by Julia Hart.
Release Date: September 25, 2015.
I decided to watch The Keeping Room because it’s recent and in my Netflix queue. Turns out, it makes an perfect companion (or counterpoint) to Free State of Jones. Films like Jones are chipping away at popular culture’s longstanding love affair with the Lost Cause narrative, but others like The Keeping Room show we still have a long way to go. It’s not that The Keeping Room is a pro-Confederate movie. It’s using the Civil War to tell a story about gender and the horror of war but it incorporates elements of the Lost Cause seemingly as a matter of course. Yankees are murderous rapists, William Tecumseh Sherman is a monster, and slaves are invested in protecting their masters. I kept wanting to like this movie but the script’s outdated depiction of the Civil War proved more grating than I could bear. Read More
Free State of Jones. Directed by Gary Ross. Written by Gary Ross and Leonard Hartman.
Release Date: June 24, 2016.
I think I’ve gotten pretty good at generating quick opinions about pieces of culture, especially during the 18 months I’ve been writing this blog. But no entry has given me as much trouble as this one. Free State of Jones is a unique film that prizes historical accuracy over dramatic tension or traditional narrative tropes. This is a rare thing and challenged my usual assumptions about both art and historical fiction. Whether that makes it a good film largely depends on your interest in the Civil War Era and southern history.
Free State of Jones is only a week away and the New York Times ran a fascinating interview Wednesday with its director, Gary Ross. I was especially struck by Ross’s investment in establishing the film’s historical bona fides. He claims to have researched his subject extensively and consulted with multiple historians, many of whom appear in the article. He even took a pseudo-seminar with John Stauffer. Most remarkable of all is this website that essentially footnotes the film, explaining script choices and providing access to relevant primary documents and secondary citations. As a historian, I find all of this very commendable. As a critic, it makes me a little nervous. Read More