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
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.
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
14 months ago, I wondered what the failure of Amazon’s Civil War drama series, Point of Honor, meant for the Civil War in popular culture. I worried audiences didn’t reject the show because it was objectively terrible but because they just weren’t interested in the Civil War. I saw promising signs in Hollywood—with Free State of Jones being adapted for the screen (coming this June!)—but it looked like the Civil War Era and my television weren’t going to be friends anytime soon. It wasn’t long before I heard about Mercy Street and things started looking up. Then came news the History [Channel] was remaking Roots. The jury’s still out on Roots, but Mercy Street was a solid, if slightly disappointing, stab at serialized Civil War fiction. Throughout, Underground was completely off my radar. WGN’s bold slave resistance drama seemed to come out of nowhere and turned out to be one of the best (maybe the best) depictions of the Civil War Era on TV. What Underground achieved demonstrates how rethinking what “Civil War popular culture” means can draw new audiences and make for riveting, smart, and original entertainment. Read More
As some of you know, I have the privilege of serving as editor for the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. I’ve only overseen 5 issues so far but, during that time, I’ve tried to expand the journal’s scope by incorporating various aspects of Lincoln’s life and legacy. One of the things I’m most proud of appeared in last summer’s issue. It’s is a roundtable featuring four scholars giving their opinions on The Better Angels. I reviewed the film on this blog back in September, but the roundtable gives a much fuller analysis and just became available on the journal’s website.
I tried to get four scholars with different academic backgrounds and points of view and that really paid off. William E. Bartelt, Jackie Hogan, Megan Kate Nelson, and John Stauffer not only approach The Better Angels from very different directions, they also disagree on the basic fact of whether or not the film is any good—with the boys generally liking it and the ladies largely unimpressed. Regardless, all four give interesting takes. Since I wasn’t editor when Spielberg’s Lincoln came out—or ever Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter—here’s hoping I’ll get additional opportunities to put together similar pieces in the future
The Hateful Eight. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Release Date: January 1, 2016.
We now have the third in Quentin Tarantino’s run of historical films, and just as the last one, Django Unchained, built on the revenge-fantasy structure of its predecessor, Inglourious Basterds, so too does The Hateful Eight build on Django. Bookending the Civil War (Django was set in 1858 and The Hateful Eight takes place at least a decade after Appomattox), The Hateful Eight borrows Django‘s central theme: race. Black and white relations occupy the most space but no one gets off easy, creating a vision of America where racial tensions and history infect everything and everyone. This isn’t all the film is trying to say, but for at least its first two acts, The Hateful Eight is a movie about the country the Civil War made as much as anything else. Like Django—and really all of Tarantino’s films—it uses an exaggerated lens, but that exaggeration serves to emphasize very real aspects of America’s past and present.
[Note: Mild Spoiler Warning!! I’m not going to discuss anything here that isn’t revealed in the film’s first 30 minutes, but stay away if you want to go into the movie fresh. I’ll have a well-marked section for substantial spoilers after the end of the post.]