A ragtag group of rebels sustain an extended military revolution through pure gumption and righteousness against an omnipresent, corrupt, industrial empire. Sound familiar? You either just recognized the underlying narrative of the Lost Cause or, more likely, the plot of the most popular and influential franchise in film history. Star Wars never really left us, but it’s been inescapable for the past few months as we await The Force Awakens. I have only a scant impression of where this trilogy is going but I do know that, when George Lucas was in charge, the series wore its historical influences on its sleeves. Star Wars is often touted as an adept melange of Lucas’s cinematic influences, but it’s also a collection of historical echoes and allusions that resonate enough with audiences to add familiarity without becoming overbearingly allegorical. That begs the question: how much of the American Civil War is mixed into the Galactic Civil War? Read More
The big story in Hollywood right now is the upcoming seventh Star Wars film. Seemingly everyone (including me) is getting swept away by the hype while silently hoping the movie doesn’t stink. History geeks, however, are equally fired up for The Free State of Jones, starring Matthew McConaughey and based on Victoria Bynum’s excellent book of the same name. Few people are better positioned to comment on the film and its place in pop culture than Bynum herself, and I’d like to draw your attention to this thoughtful and personal blogpost she published last week. Read More
The Proud Rebel. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Written by Joseph Petracca and Lillie Hayward. Based on the short story, “Journal of Linnett Moore,” by James Edward Grant.
Release Date: November 2, 1958.
It might seem odd in a post-Glory world, but 20th Century pop culture often portrayed Confederate soldiers and veterans as beleaguered victims. Screenwriters defined these characters—usually protagonists—by their commitment to the Confederate service until the bitter end, making loyalty and toughness their primary traits. Think of Josey Wales, Johnny Yuma, or the narrator in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The Proud Rebel takes this concept to an extreme by placing the beleaguered Rebel in the North and creates tension from the harsh way northerners treat him. This generates some predictable historical problems, made worse because the film largely loses interest in the concept as it goes along and eventually devolves into a fairly standard Western. Read More
Abraham Lincoln. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Written by Stephen Vincent Benet, John W. Considine, Jr., and Gerrit J. Lloyd.
Release Date: November 30, 1930.
This was a hard film to review because it required me to modify my perspective in two ways. First, although it’s impossible to ignore D. W. Griffith’s earlier, highly controversial and influential Civil War film, Birth of a Nation, I wanted to judge Abraham Lincoln on its own merits. Second, this film is 85 years old and Hollywood stage conventions were very different then, so I attempted to take the purple prose and overacting in stride. I think I failed on both counts because the film’s artistic sensibilities really did seem alien to me and the history wasn’t much better. This made watching it interesting, if not particularly enjoyable. Read More
Dark Command. Directed by Raoul Walsh. Written by Grover Jones, Lionel Houser, F. Hugh Herbert, and Jan Fortune. Based on the novel, The Dark Command: A Kansas Iliad, by W. R. Burnett.
Release Date: April 15, 1940.
The McWhirter family is cancelling its Amazon Prime subscription, so I’m racing through a handful of Civil War movies I’d placed in my queue. The Conspirator was up first but the next few reach back further into Hollywood history. Today’s movie, Dark Command, is an interesting case because it focuses on Kansas and especially William Quantrill (which it mistakenly calls “Cantrell”). It also stars a young John Wayne and his charisma propels the film. Unfortunately, his presence also ensures this is really just a Western grafted onto a Civil War story. Read More
The Conspirator. Directed by Robert Redford. Written by James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein.
Release Date: April 15, 2011.
I should start this post with an admission: I avoid the Lincoln assassination like the plague. It’s not that I don’t understand its historical importance—obviously it’s a huge deal. What I mean is, I avoid the details and literature about the act itself. There seems to be a subculture obsessed with the minute details of presidential assassinations with little regard for genuine historical context, and that turns me off. Nevertheless, I’m aware there’s legitimate work being done on the subject. For instance, it’s clear I don’t know enough about the trial of the assassins, especially the controversy surrounding Mary Surratt. Thus, I approached The Conspirator with a pretty open mind and I did manage to learn a little about Surratt. Unfortunately, I also found myself doubting the script’s veracity because it’s clearly far more interested in constructing a parable for post-9/11 America than a historical drama about the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s death. Read More
The Better Angels. Written and directed by A. J. Edwards.
Release Date: November 7, 2014.
“The short and simple annals of the poor”; this is how Abraham Lincoln described his childhood (quoting Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”) and A. J. Edwards apparently believes him. Edwards’s debut film, The Better Angels, begins by establishing the contrast between Lincoln’s humble roots and the eventual heights he would reach–letting us hear the sound of a frontier river (probably Pigeon Creek) before presenting several imposing shots of the Lincoln Memorial. The river is a good metaphor: it is part of the rustic uncivilized world but always moving forward, just like Lincoln as he moved from rural Indiana to the pinnacle of the American social ladder. Read More
Glory. Directed by Edward Zwick. Written by Kevin Jarre.
Release Date: February 16, 1990.
Glory is my favorite Civil War film, as evidenced by the image in the blog’s letterhead. I have lots of opinions on it and would love to share them with you. However, my good friend Glenn David Brasher is a first-rate historian and has a much deeper personal relationship with this film. Indeed, I believe he’s one of the most qualified people to write about it and I’m delighted to hand the blog over to him. Enjoy. Read More
Some of you thought I was too hard on Gettysburg, especially in my first post. I’ve often complained that historians judge historical films unfairly, and maybe I’ve been a little guilty of that–at least where Gettysburg‘s concerned. So, to make amends (and because I know you are all dying for even more Gettysburg content), here’s a list of things I like about the movie. Taken together, they show why I would still recommend the film, despite some of its historical problems. Read More
“We should have freed the slaves, then fired on Fort Sumter.”
This is the line–spoken by Longstreet to Fremantle–that has haunted historians and fans of Gettysburg for 22 years. It’s built on so much faulty and potentially pro-Confederate history, some viewers see it as a clear sign Gettysburg is a Lost Cause film, plain and simple. Maxwell’s disastrous prequel, Gods and Generals, reinforced this view by depicting its Confederate characters through a clearly Lost Cause lens. It’s evident Gettysburg draws some of its inspiration from pro-Confederate myths, but I’ve always thought its overall approach to the Civil War is more nuanced. I kept this in mind during my recent viewing in an attempt to answer one of the central questions revolving around this movie: Is Gettysburg a Lost Cause film? Read More