“But as Pontius Pilate said, what is the truth?”
– D.W Griffith
In a bout of historical irony, the first Union troops to enter Richmond at end of the Civil War were African-American. The Confederacy Capital, bombarded and shelled, stood defeated as former slaves and slaveholders now looked at freemen marching through the once resplendent city wearing the navy blue of the victorious Union. The war was over and slavery was abolished. It was time for the nation to heal. Yet events cruelly interrupted the healing process when actor and southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth crept into the overlooking private booth in Ford’s Theater, shooting and mortally wounding President Abraham Lincoln. The Presidency was succeeded by Andrew Johnson, who, like Booth, was a white supremacist. The era of Reconstruction had only just begun and the people of the South, black and white, were flung into the most tumultuous non-war years in American history. The drama of Reconstruction provided a natural background for film epics such as Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. As with most films, these two works blurred and distorted fact and fiction. History is ugly, but Hollywood films are romantic. This disconnect is often resolved with the revision of the facts. The sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the seventy-fifth anniversary of Gone with the Wind in 2014 make this year the perfect time to look behind the glitz and glamour of old Hollywood and analyze the falsification of history through some the best remembered Civil War films, from Birth of a Nation to The General and Gone with the Wind.
Films say a lot about the time in which they were released, and D.W. Griffith’s Civil War epic Birth of a Nation spoke volumes. Birth of a Nation was the first film to be screened at the White House. The presidential occupant was Woodrow Wilson. Rumor has it that Wilson remarked that Birth of a Nation was “like writing history with lightning!” True or not, it tells much about the views of many in the nation. Griffith’s epic is modernly known as a film that upholds the ideals of white supremacy, degrades African-Americans, romanticizes slavery, and idolizes the Ku Klux Klan. The disappointing reality is that President Wilson was not outraged by the portrayal of African-Americans or the lionization of the KKK. He said nothing. His silence speaks louder than his rumored paroxysm. How is it that a film defined by its racial ethnocentricity was acceptable to mass audiences and even to the 28th President himself? The answer lies at the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, when the South started to revise history on its own terms.