History According to Hollywood: The Civil War – Part 1

“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.

In the 1870s, the South saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the Lost Cause cult that defined the way America remembered the causes and ramifications of the Civil War. As land was divided up and given to former slaves, many whites saw their former lives vanish before their eyes. Nostalgia for the bygone era of plantation life rooted itself in Southern culture. The disillusioned and delusional white elite wanted “redemption,” which included taking back their land from the Federal military power that had occupied their states since the end of the war and gaining influence through violence on African-Americans and poorer white voters. At the same time the defeated southerners started to rewrite history itself. The Lost Cause depoliticized the war, romanticized the past, and erased slavery as the primary reason for going to war. Lost Cause ideologues preached that the war was fought for state rights, and that the Confederacy was a simple agrarian country fighting against the powerful industrial North.

Organizations started to sprout up around the south that dedicated themselves to rewriting history in favor of white supremacy. Former confederate officer, Jubal Early, gave a speech to one such organization, the Southern Historical Society. In his peroration he exclaimed, “…It will be demonstrated that in no war which the world has witnessed were the instances of unselfish patriotism and heroic devotion so marked and so numerous in ours. In our war they were not confined to classes, or to age or sex, but were exhibited by the people as well as the soldiers, the woman as well as the men…” White northerners welcomed the romanticized imagery of the Civil War, and thus the war became an epic tale of white American brothers fighting on both sides. It also succeeded in erasing African-Americans from the historical landscape. It was this culture that indoctrinated young David Llewelyn Wark Griffith during his youth.


Hollywood was still in its formative years by 1915 when Birth of a Nation was released to the country. D.W. Griffith, like many other directors at the time, was making one-reel Civil War films. He directed films such as In the Border States (1910), The Fugitive (1910), and The Battle (1911),  directing 19 one-reel Civil War films in all. Then Griffith turned his eyes toward Thomas Dixon’s stage play, The Clansman, as the basis for his next Civil War film. The final result was incommensurable to other films of its day. Birth of a Nation was a technical and storytelling achievement in the history of film. For the first time in history, Griffith combined intimacy against the backdrop of war in a feature length film (a film lasting over an hour). It is to Griffith’s credit as a filmmaker, that even in modern times, audiences can summon up a miniscule amount of sympathy for the white slaveholding family, who make up the principal characters of the film.

If one looks, and one does not have to look too far, beyond the ambitious battle scenes and patriotic fervor, you find a film of America shot thorough a rose-tinted lens, directed by historical ignorance and used as propaganda by a race that believed they were the autochthonous rulers of a country. The main hero of Griffith’s film is Colonel Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall), nicknamed the “little colonel.” The film does not hide the fact that the historical persona that serves as the basis for the “little colonel” is Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest was the instigator of the Fort Pillow Massacre, where three hundred African-American soldiers were executed after a battle. After the war, he acted as one of the forefathers of the original Ku Klux Klan. Colonel Ben Cameron was a hero to audiences that sympathized with the mission of the Klan, or audiences that were oblivious to Griffith’s message to the filmgoing world. In 1915, obliviousness to race relations was not a luxury that many enjoyed. Jim Crow laws dictated where African-Americans could eat, sit, and live. Lynching was still a large part of the violent culture in the South. Often it was seen as a community event and the subject of many underground photographic postcards sent to relatives and friends.

Birth of a Nation portrayed the plight of the African-American as the sole reason for the ruin of American values and the Southern way of life.  In the pre-war scenes, slaves are shown to be happy and content with the lives that they have. They are delighted to see their white masters and do not hesitate to perform for them. The actors (some in black face) shuck and jive for Colonel Ben Cameron and his friends. When the slaves are given freedom and rights, they turn into a mob of looters, rapists, and murders.  The only African-Americans that are looked upon favorably by the film are the loyal slaves that stay by the Cameron family during the war and Reconstruction years. The Reconstruction congress as pictured in the film is filled with unruly elected black officials that stare lustfully at white women as a vote is passed for interracial marriage. In the climax of the film, the KKK, led by the “little colonel,” ride triumphantly toward the trapped Cameron family in a cabin being surrounded by a group of black soldiers. Upon the release of Birth of a Nation, the NAACP protested the exhibition of the film in fear that the film could spark violence as a result of Griffith’s work.


The unprecedented success of Birth of a Nation helped the Lost Cause movement and influenced how America remembered Reconstruction. It led to the revival of the KKK in the 1920s, who then donned the white uniform as an homage to the film.  It gave credence to racial stereotypes of African-Americans and encouraged violence against minorities. The film paved the way for Hollywood studios’ comfort in adapting novels like Margaret Mitchell’s novel in 1939, filled with Lost Cause ideology. In the 1930 prologue to the re-release of Birth of a Nation, Griffith was asked to comment on his feeling towards the Klan, African-Americans and the war. The famed director still believed that the KKK was needed in those years after the war; he labeled Pickets Charge during the battle of Gettysburg “beautiful,” and called African-Americans “niggers.” Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is not solely responsible for the despairing reality of race relations in America, but like gum stuck in the rug, films like Griffith’s 1915 silent epic make it harder and harder to scrub away the racial evils and prejudices from the fabric of American culture that last even today.

The success of Birth of a Nation helped spawn several Civil War films that emulated Griffith’s work, sometimes in the worst ways possible, making use of Klan iconography. Others just used the Civil War as backdrops for their films.  Griffith continued to make silent epics in the 1920s. Silent films were the gateway to the minds and hearts of America. Rudolph Valentino made girls swoon, Douglas Fairbanks gave the cinema swashbuckling excitement, and Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton mesmerized audiences with their amalgam of gymnastics and slap-stick comedy. It was the Jazz Age, a time of limitless possibilities, and a seemingly endless supply of money. Directors like Griffith and Keaton took full advantage of the abundance of money they were given by the studios. Keaton took the money and ran to make his Civil War comedy The General (1926). Keaton portrays a plucky southern locomotive engineer trying to save his love from Union spies that have kidnapped her and are planning to cut off the supply route to the Confederate army. The film showcases Keaton’s abilities as a storyteller, a director, an acrobat, and a comedian. The comedy director and star’s hubris is showcased as he pratfalls over a moving full-sized train and eventually crashes it at the climax of the film; all in sepia tone splendor.

Unlike Griffith, Keaton had no ideology he wanted to communicate to the audience. Laughter was Keaton’s only goal. The General highlights the power and success of the Lost Cause, and how it had seeped into America’s psyche by the 1920s. In the film, the Confederacy is once again populated with heroes fighting against the villainous Union. Johnny Gray (Keaton) personifies the Lost Cause as he fights for honor, love, and family against the overwhelming forces of the Union kidnappers. There is no explicit racism in the film, although the complete lack of African-American actors in the film is noticeable to modern eyes. Keaton’s comedy is a case study in the power of the Lost Cause and cannot be faulted beyond that.


In the years that followed, Griffith’s and Keaton’s stars faded, sound was added to the lips of movies stars, and black and white turned into color. The roller coaster that was the Jazz Age ended with a crash. Americans were out of work, and if one listened closely, they could hear the march of Fascism in Europe. Films were offering escapism for those who could afford it. Under these circumstances, David O. Selznick bought the rights to Margaret Mitchell’s sweeping Civil War novel, about the journey of a young southern woman as she loses everything in her life and must fight to regain it. Released in 1939, Gone with the Wind used the techniques first used by Griffith to create a another Civil War epic that is still revered, disliked, emulated, and spoofed seventy-five years after Scarlett O’ Hara last stood looking over her beloved Tara as the screen faded to black.

1939 is considered by many to be Hollywood’s most illustrious year. Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz opened a few months apart, each under the direction of Victor Fleming. Both films take you to fantastic worlds and introduce you to larger than life characters. Dorothy and Scarlett struggle to gain back all that they lost, a message to which many Americans related at decades end. Paradises, like Oz and Rhett Butler’s Atlanta mansion, turn into traps, and the only safe haven is home. In the case of Gone with the Wind, the warped depiction of slavery and Lost Cause ideology makes the film the most famous case study for Hollywood’s rewriting of history.

One of the important relationships in Gone with the Wind is between Scarlett O’ Hara and the house slave, Mammy. Mammy acts as Scarlett’s mother figure, closest confidant, and conscience throughout the film, a sort of indentured Jiminy Cricket to Scarlett’s Pinocchio. Like Gone with the Wind itself, Scarlett and Mammy’s relationship is purely romantic. The peculiar relationship comes from stories that former slave holders promulgated about a loyal slave that stayed with them, even after emancipation. This fictitious relationship was central to Lost Cause literature and negated the reality that if former slaves stayed with their old masters, it was not out of loyalty, but out of necessity. Mammy is a plump, feisty woman ready to save Scarlett from trouble. The portrayal of Mammy is similar to the loyal slave in Birth of a Nation. Actress Hattie McDaniel (Mammy) became the first African-American to win an Academy Award, but never graduated from playing house servants after her historic achievement.

The representation of slavery as a whole continues to be an albatross around Gone with the Wind’s neck. The first people that are shown in the film are slaves herding cattle as the Atlanta sun drops behind the hills creating a golden hue in the sky. The romantic imagery of plantation life is key to the film and the Lost Cause. The Old South as pictured in Gone with the Wind is filled with chivalrous gentleman, proper ladies, and willing slaves to answer their masters’ every beck and call. Life is one grand party for Scarlett, Rhett, and their contemporaries. Masters are gentle to their slaves, and treat them fairly with an abundance of kindness. Whites treat slaves so nicely in Gone with the Wind that Scarlett’s slaves are overjoyed when they reunite during the evacuation of Atlanta! In one telling scene, Ashley complains to Scarlett about using white convicts to work in their new lumber mill:


Scarlett, I will not make money from the enforced labor and misery of others.


But you weren’t so particular about owning slaves.


That was different. We didn’t treat them that way. Besides, I’d have freed them all when Father died if the war hadn’t already freed them.

Those few lines are laughable today. The glorification of plantation life and the sanitization of slavery make Scarlett and her family sympathetic heroes, free from all guilt, and not violent sociopaths willing to use free labor to better their lives.  Gone with the Wind’s success illustrates America’s willingness to believe the stereotypes of slaves and the romantic vison of plantation life in the old South.

Gone with the Wind continues to garner critical praise as well as criticism. There are a growing number of opponents to the film, especially from the millennial generation. NPR recently looked at a younger generation of filmgoers’ views on Gone with the Wind. Many had not seen Gone with the Wind out of apathy, or in protest to the film’s portrayal of slavery and rape. Regardless of the growing number of dissenters, Gone with the Wind continues to have a life in the 21st century. The official Facebook page has more than one million likes, certain lines and images are imprinted onto the American consciousness, and the film continues to be the subject of many articles and discussions as it celebrates its diamond anniversary. Unlike Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind continues to endure, warts and all.

Photography was only in its infancy during the Civil War. Battles were not photographed, as only the dead were still enough not to blur photos during exposure. Photographic evidence of the horrors of slavery was few and far between. This made it easier to allow a mythos to be created around slavery and the war. The Lost Cause ideology surfaced because whites could not face the changes of their society, and a lack of photographic evidence made it easy for ideologues to distort history.  Film spectacles like Birth of a Nation, The General, and Gone with the Wind gave photographic proof and credibility to the Lost Cause legacy. Griffith claimed in Birth of a Nation the use of accurate historic illustrations to create scenes in the film. Who could argue? Few historians, if any, countered Griffith’s claim. A respected historian occupied the White House in 1915 and did nothing to disown the film. It is only recently, beginning in the 1960s, that historians started to fight back against the Lost Cause. Some might argue that Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind are only movies and shouldn’t be taken seriously.  Yet, the release of Birth of a Nation resulted in the death of many African-Americans and the ignominious return of the Ku Klux Klan.

In the last couple of decades, filmmakers have recognized the social impact of historical films. Movies like Glory (1989), 12 Years a Slave (2013), and Lincoln (2012) have made attempts to use fact and not myth for the basis of their drama. The tide is turning in favor of historical accuracy and shining a spotlight on groups that were forgotten or unjustly ridiculed in cinema of a bygone era. Filmmakers can learn from past mistakes creating new films that help audiences understand the events that shaped America. After all, as someone once said, tomorrow is another day.


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