Are Things Looking Up for the Civil War on TV?

Mercy Street PBS Cast

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor in Mercy Street.

Two months ago, I rejoiced that Amazon users did not greenlight Point of Honor. On the other hand, I wondered if the reason had less to do with the show’s crappiness and more to do with a general lack of interest in the Civil War from TV audiences. Surveying the scene now, it looks like producers don’t share my concerns. No less than three major networks are developing projects dealing with some aspect of the Civil War era. I have some reservations but the fact this is happening at all–and on the heels of the sesquicentennial, when one would expect Civil War fatigue–seems like a win.

The first project to show up on my radar started to get attention during Point of Honor‘s brief lifespan, PBS’s Mercy Street (I’m happy to think it’s named for the Peter Gabriel song until someone tells me otherwise). The most surprising aspect is that Ridley Scott, a major Hollywood director, is producing it. Some of the initial buzz suggested it would be America’s response to Downton Abbey, but that seems like an oversimplification. Here’s a synopsis from Deadline:

Mercy Street follows the lives of two volunteer nurses on opposing sides of the Civil War — New England abolitionist Mary Phinney and Confederate supporter Emma Green. The Green family’s luxury hotel in Alexandria, VA, has been transformed into Mansion House, a Union Army hospital tending to the war’s wounded. The series, being shot in the Richmond and Petersburg, VA areas, is inspired by memoirs and letters from real doctors and nurse volunteers at the hospital in Alexandria, the longest occupied Confederate city of the war.

This all sounds very promising and there is enormous potential in a Civil War hospital for moving and deep historical drama. Concentrating on women from the Confederate and Union sides is also intriguing (since southern women typically get all the attention in historical fiction). Old Town Alexandria makes an awesome backdrop, so I’m a little surprised they’re filming in Richmond and Petersburg. On the other hand, at least they’ll make better substitutes for 19th-Century Alexandria than whatever Walking Dead is using for its post-apocalyptic version of the city.

Old Town Alexandria, one of my favorite places.

Around the same time, reports emerged for two more projects–each related to Civil War era African American history. First came new of a History [Channel] remake of Roots with Allen Hughes directing. I’m a little embarrassed to say I’ve only seen parts of the original miniseries (I plan on remedying that for this blog) but I’m familiar enough with it and Alex Haley’s book to know the story makes for excellent source material (despite potential historical problems). The History [Channel] got the rights back in 2013 but didn’t do anything with them until now. I suspect the success of 12 Years a Slave and Selma inspired the network to move forward. I just hope Hughes applies some of the historical nuance and realism that made those films great.

I was even more excited to learn that HBO has greenlit a TV film based on Kate Clifford Larson’s biography of Harriet Tubman. It will star Viola Davis as Tubman from an adaptation by Kirk Ellis, who also penned the network’s outstanding miniseries based on David McCullough’s John Adams. Tubman is generally underrepresented in popular culture, so this is a particularly welcome development. She’s been in the news a lot lately–recently winning a poll of potential replacements for Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill–so, hopefully the film will get a big audience and make Tubman a more widely-known historical figure.

All three projects have strong potential, but there’s some room for doubt. I’m most skeptical of Roots, if only because it’s a product of the History [Channel] and the network’s most recent stab at historical drama, Sons of Liberty, was over-the-top horrifying. I’m aware that series was intentionally campy and Roots obviously calls for a more serious treatment, but the History [Channel] has done little to convince me that it can handle subjects as weighty as slavery and the black experience in America, so I’ll keep a little pessimism until proven wrong.

Sam Adams, as ridiculously imagined by Sons of Liberty.

Mercy Street looks better but also has possible signs of trouble. Its focus on characters from New England and Virginia in a hospital could help writers explore how the war affected different groups of Americans, but it could also result in the same “brother against brother” cliches we’ve seen a million times. Ridley Scott’s involvement may cause trouble too. His last really good film was probably Gladiator and, whatever strengths it had as a movie (It won the Oscar for best picture), it was a horrible piece of history–and don’t get me started on Kingdom of Heaven. What’s more, Scott’s only other foray into the Civil War, his Gettysburg documentary for the History [Channel], was an overwrought mess. On the other hand, Scott directed at least two undisputed classics (Alien and Blade Runner), which also happen to be two of my favorite movies, so his guiding hand could be a strong one. Taken alongside a pretty good cast and PBS’s dependable track record with historical fiction, Mercy Street has more going for it than against it, so I’ll remain optimistic for now.

Gladiator was a good movie but so historically inaccurate that it really should be considered pure fiction.

I’m not going to cast any shade on the Tubman film because everything I’ve read only inspires confidence. Indeed, it would be great to see all three projects do well. Point of Honor made a terrible ambassador for the Civil War on TV, but good productions about slavery, the African American experience, and the impact of the war on those who experienced it could spark renewed public interest in the conflict as well as enjoyable, smart entertainment. Pair them with the upcoming Hollywood treatment of The Free State of Jones and we could be looking at a full-blown Civil War pop culture renaissance.

Fingers crossed . . .

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7 comments

  1. Andy Hall · May 28, 2015

    I’m most skeptical of Roots, if only because it’s a product of the History [Channel] and the network’s most recent stab at historical drama, Sons of Liberty, was over-the-top horrifying.

    The network’s current Texas Rising is the subject of much derision in this part of the country.

    • Christian McWhirter · May 28, 2015

      I’d heard the same but hadn’t seen a second of the series until last night, when I got a preview before a movie I went to see. Wow! It didn’t quite reach the same tackiness level as Sons of Liberty but it came pretty close.

  2. Pingback: Reconstruction, Civil War & slavery on TV, the misuse of Memorial Day, Reagan &FDR, and naughty nuns. | history&thenews
  3. gdbrasher · May 26, 2015

    Good stuff, Christian. I was always excited about Mercy Street, but even more so when the cast list was announced. I was a fan of How I Met Your Mother (yes, I will admit that. Although I am STILL angry about how they ended the show), so I was glad to see Josh Radnor was cast. And I have had a crush on Mary Elizabeth Winstead ever since she was in Tarantino’s Grind House (Death Proof). Best of all is that Gary Cole is in it, and that dude can’t help but be awesome.

    I too am very worried about History Channel being involved in a Roots remake. I am not sure why it even needs to be made. I am against remaking classics in general, but the series was already ahead-of-the curve in slave interpretation and actually seems to anticipate much of the work that followed it. It holds up pretty well. I have no faith that the History Channel can do it better.

    As for Tubman, I am VERY excited that HBO is involved in her project (they tend to nail history) but I have to disagree with you that she needs to become a more widely known historical figure. She is already one of the two or three people I lecture on that the students come in from high school already very familiar with. She shows up in almost every history curriculum the kids take from grade school to high school and is probably the only historical figure that the majority of students can instantly identify when I put her face up on the screen. I would argue that the reason she won that poll for the $20 dollar bill is because she was the most recognizable name on the list. Most of my students have never heard of Alice Paul, are only slightly familiar with Eleanor Roosevelt, and it is 50/50 on Rosa Parks. But Tubman, they all know. That being said, you’re right, she is pretty underrepresented in movies and TV. Can’t wait to see her (and Antebellum slavery in general) get the HBO treatment.

    • Christian McWhirter · May 26, 2015

      Thanks for the comments, Glenn. Was Tubman a major figure in school when you were a kid? I didn’t encounter her in any depth until college but, then again, I went to a Canadian high school. I never would have guessed she’s more well-known than Parks.

      • gdbrasher · May 29, 2015

        Yeah we got a bit on Tubman even back when I was in school, but she is much more prevalent now in school curriculum. As for Parks, every semester I find that students are lacking in knowledge about just about anything to do with the Civil Rights movement.

  4. Sean Munger · May 26, 2015

    Great analysis. It’s hard to do the Civil War in popular fiction without lapsing, perhaps even unconsciously, into “brother vs. brother” or “Lost Cause” narratives, and every project with a hint of romance anywhere in the plot is hampered by the fact that it’s inevitably bound to be compared to “Gone With The Wind.” I agree with your strong pessimism that the History Channel can handle this. I recall hearing that they recently did a show arguing that space aliens were secretly involved in the Civil War. Let that sink in for a moment. Space aliens. Giving them “Roots” is incredibly irresponsible.

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