Civil War Pop’s Sad Commanders

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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.

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Entry 27: Tarantino Re-fights the Civil War

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.]

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Entry 24: Sympathy for the Rebel

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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

Entry 22: John Wayne [almost] Saves Lawrence, Kansas

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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