Entry 3: Scarlett Gets a Makeover

Cold Mountain Movie Poster

Cold Mountain. Written and directed by Anthony Minghella. Based on the novel by Charles Frazier.

Release Date: December 25, 2003.

In his book on the Civil War in popular culture, Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten, Gary Gallagher argues that Cold Mountain is, in part, a revision of Gone with the Wind‘s take on Confederate women. I decided to focus on this as I re-watched the film for the first time since it came out in 2003. It didn’t take long for me to realize this is, in fact, the only way to watch Cold Mountain. This movie is all about the ladies.

The narrative is split between Ada Monroe’s (Nicole Kidman) travails in the fictional Appalachian town of Cold Mountain, North Carolina, and her beau Inman’s (Jude Law) desertion from the Confederate Army and journey home. While Inman’s odyssey is somewhat interesting, he himself is not. Inman is almost a completely passive and nondescript figure, and I didn’t feel like I knew much more about him at the end of the film than I did at the beginning. All I can say is that he loves Ada and—like all modern Confederate protagonists—hates slavery and has no sense of Confederate nationalism. His decision to desert drives the action but even that is in reaction to Ada’s constant epistolary pleas for him to do so.

Ada, on the other hand, is a sort of anti-war neo-Scarlett O’Hara. She’s spent her life among the planter class, like Scarlett, but her father (Donald Sutherland) is not a planter nor does he appear to be a slaveholder (Ada mentions “the negroes” in an early scene but we never see them and they seem to vanish after the first act). Instead, he’s a preacher who takes her out of Charleston to Cold Mountain for unspecified health reasons and thereby forces Ada to reconcile her genteel manner with her new rugged, rural, and romanticized surroundings. The connection to O’Hara is made almost immediately, as Ada’s first act is to begin flirting with Inman on a dare in a very Scarlett-like fashion, but she’s soon both smitten and subdued by his unsophisticated manner. Her subsequent interactions with Ruby (Rene Zellweger, in a deservedly Oscar-winning performance), a poor local yeoman girl sent to help Ada manage her farm after her father dies, are similarly designed to contrast Ada’s overly-cultured lifestyle with the brutal but practical life of a Cold Mountain farmer. However, Ada develops a sense of self-awareness and independence much more quickly than Scarlett. When Ada starts working with Ruby, she declares that “pretty much everything to do with me” has no real purpose and that “this fence is the first thing I’ve ever done that might produce an actual result.”

But what really stood out for me was the way every single woman in Cold Harbor opposes both the war and the Confederacy. I realize the film takes place in western North Carolina, where Confederate nationalism was always a little shaky, and during the period between the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, and the next winter, when Confederate morale started to flag, but the fiery pro-Confederate women who appear repeatedly in primary sources and were revered by Confederate memorialists are entirely absent.

Three major female characters openly voice their opposition to the war. A single mother who lost her husband at Gettysburg, Sara (Natalie Portman) introduces herself by telling Inman, “If I had my way, they’d take metal altogether out of this world. Every blade, every gun.” Ada and her neighbor, Sally (Kathy Baker), are the only female characters we get to see when secession is declared and each reacts with dread. When Inman shows even the slightest interest in enlisting, Ada snidely asks him if he’s gotten “a tintype, with your musket and your courage on display?” Of course, Ruby gets the choicest lines, both conveying her disdain for the war and positioning warfare as a man’s game in which women have no interest. She best conveys these sentiments in a rightfully famous lament: “Every piece of this is man’s bullshit! They call this war a cloud over the land, but they made the weather. And then they stand in the rain and say, ‘shit it’s raining!'”

This is not to say that these depictions are totally inaccurate. As Drew Gilpin Faust, George C. Rable, and others have shown, Confederate women suffered and many opposed the war, even from the beginning. But the women of Cold Mountain are too uniformly anti-war to be believable. What’s more, the script makes it easy on them by almost completely removing slavery from their experience. Even more than the Rhodes family in Point of Honor, Ada, Ruby, and Sara are free to reject the Confederacy because they do not directly benefit from its most lucrative institution. This paints the Civil War as a purely martial contest—something akin to the “football analyst” interpretation I mentioned in my first post—between bloodthirsty men with no political or ideological context. I think Gallagher was right that Minghella hoped to provide a corrective to Gone With the Wind, but Cold Mountain goes overboard by removing slavery and the Confederacy from the narrative almost altogether.

Additional Dispatches

  • Minghella’s depiction of the Battle of the Crater is rightfully criticized for being overblown and remarkably white. Nevertheless, it’s emotionally effective and visually stunning.
  • Both T Bone Burnett and Gabriel Yared did an amazing job with the soundtrack.
  • Ada cleans up that farm and changes her entire personality in record time. Assuming Ruby shows up sometime shortly after the Crater, Ada’s transformation must take place over a mere five months at most. I haven’t read the book, but I understand it starts at Fredericksburg, which would provide enough time to make Ada’s arc more believable.
  • I forgot Jack White was in this movie! Though, I’ll always prefer him as Elvis Presley in Walk Hard.
  • Man, is Philip Seymour Hoffman good as the womanizing Reverend Veasey. It’s like he’s in a completely different, better, and weirder Civil War film.
  • Despite the film’s pacifist message, the Yankees are still total jerks. The only ones we spend any time with come upon Sara’s farm and immediately loot it and try to rape her. She shoots the last one herself, giving us another echo of Gone With the Wind.
  • Does it mention slavery?: Barely. No one in the film appears to actually own slaves and almost every character opposes the institution. Inman encounters some runaways at one point but they refuse to interact with him and quickly get killed by Confederate Home Guards. Black soldiers barely show up too, despite their key role in the actual Battle of the Crater.

Next Entry: Ultimate General: Gettysburg

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2 comments

  1. Marie McWhirter · January 28, 2015

    I have never read Cold Mountain but I had the impression from the film that Ada is quite a bit older than 16-year-old Scarlett. This makes Scarlett’s transformation all the more impressive and Scarlett states her strong opposition to the war on the third page of the book, expressing her belief that war is strictly something the men are desiring – and that it is ruining all the parties 🙂 The women of both Cold Mountain and Gone With the Wind are depicted as very strong and admirable in their coping with extreme hardships. If I had to bet on any one of them, though, to rise above the ashes, my money would be on Scarlett.

  2. Scott A. MacKenzie · January 28, 2015

    First, here’s a video of a Mad TV clip from 2003 pitting the cast of Lord of the Rings against Cold Mountain in a “Family Feud” gameshow. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbPDwmcRuSk

    Second, I agree that Cold Mountain does not portray Appalachian views on slavery accurately at all. In the beginning, one man says that he won’t fight for “a rich man’s slave” but this is another common misconception. If Civil War films are faulty, Appalachian ones are even more so – but far fewer in number. The only other film besides Cold Mountain set in this period and place is The Journey of August King.

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