Entry 37: Jimmy Stewart and the Cruel War

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.

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Entry 35: Putting History First in Jones County

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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.
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Free State of Jones and Historical Accuracy

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

What Does Underground’s Success Mean?

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

Dreaming of Mercy Street

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2016’s slate of original high-profile Civil War entertainment keeps coming fast and furious, with PBS’s Mercy Street starting Sunday. About this time last year, I shared my plan to review Point of Honor on an episode-by-episode basis if Amazon picked it up. Fortunately, that didn’t happen (although, in all honesty, writing more reviews would have been fun given how terrible it was), but Mercy Street is a different animal. PBS is running the series in 6 parts over 6 weeks. I think reviewing each episode separately is a little much for all of us (I might rip off the AV Club a lot here, but I don’t have to copy everything they do), so the plan is to review the first episode, then do the next four in pairs, with a wrap-up for the finale. I had high hopes for the series months ago, but the recent promo press and Twitter comments have made me even more optimistic, so I think it’s worth almost entirely turning the blog over to it until March. As always, I’m very curious to hear your opinions, so feel free to sound off in the comments.

PS – Speaking of 2016’s Civil War entertainment, we got our first trailer for The Free State of Jones last week. I’m sure most of you have already seen it but, as with Mercy Street, my expectations for this movie just keep getting higher.

The Potential of The Free State of Jones

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

What Does Point of Honor’s Failure Mean?

Point of Honor is dead! Long live Point of Honor!

By now, many of you know Amazon did not greenlight Point of Honor. Given that the pilot episode was almost universally panned–including by me (other examples are here, here, and here)–we can call this a win for good history and good TV, but I’m reluctant to declare total victory. Viewer votes determine which pilots Amazon greenlights, so Point of Honor‘s failure clearly indicates audiences weren’t impressed. But why weren’t they impressed and what does that mean for the current state of the Civil War in popular culture? Read More