So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low,
Thou must, The youth replies, I can.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Close your eyes for a second and think of the American West. What do you see? Do you see the cinnamon red dust and majestic lonesome buttes that tower over the plateau as a line of stagecoaches head into the unknown? Who is leading this charge into history? Is it John Wayne, Henry Fonda, or James Stewart? Maybe you picture blue uniformed soldiers battling Indians to secure Manifest Destiney for those who seek fortune in the untamed vastness of the West. “Go West, young man, go West.” The West pictured in Stagecoach, The Searchers, Fort Apache, etc., is not the West that existed in reality. The historical West clashes with the mythical West of John Ford films, but which version of the West do Americans remember? The same historical dissonance can be attributed to the Civil War.
In Hollywood, films about the Civil War are just as prolific as those that deal with the American West, and equally as influential. In the first part of this series, the white supremacist nature of the Lost Cause movement influenced the ideology of films such as Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. These films dictated how the Civil War was remembered by Americans for generations. Since the 1939 release of Gone With the Wind, America faced fascism in World War II, and Hollywood fought the proliferation of television sets in households across America. After the War, soldiers came home shell-shocked with tales of atrocities that took place in Europe. Technology allowed visual documentation of the war on an unprecedented scale, with affordable portable cameras merging to film the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. The perception of war was no longer glorious, and the injustices done to African-Americans could no longer be ignored. The sociopolitical climate infiltrated the minds of filmmakers in Hollywood and a new breed of Civil War films emerged. These films reversed the status quo which extolled the Southern cause and focused instead on slavery, African-American soldiers, the psychological effects of warfare, and reevaluating and oftentimes rediscovering important historical figures.
Films such as The Romance of Rosie Ridge, Glory, and Lincoln illustrate the evolution of Civil War films post World War II. The 1949 film Rosie Ridge is unexceptional, except for giving Janet Leigh her first role in what would become a long and celebrated career. As a family awaits the return of their son who went to fight for the Confederacy, they decide to take in a stranger (1940s heartthrob Van Johnson). The stubborn patriarch of the family, played by Thomas Mitchell (Gerald O’ Hara from Gone With the Wind), is wary of the stranger’s allegiance and cannot fail to notice that he has taken a liking to his daughter, Miss Anne (Leigh). As a romance begins to flower between Henry Carson (Johnson) and Miss Anne, rivalries between opposing factions, those who supported the Union and those who supported the Confederacy in their rural neighborhood, begin to turn violent. Carson admits that he fought for the Union and is immediately disavowed by the father. In a sentimental and overly predictable ending, Carson reveals that he was friends with Miss Anne’s brother, before he died valiantly in battle. In light of this new information the father happily consents to the marriage of his daughter to Carson.
The films speaks to an ideology that was prominent in the North as an offshoot of the Lost Cause. Reconciliation gained ground in northern states as a way to heal old wounds and move the nation forward. Veterans, once old enemies, now old men, shook hands in public ceremonies at Gettysburg or at statue dedications. Yet, African-Americans were once more erased from the public’s memory of the war. Not until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s did African-Americans’ version of the Civil War begin to be told. Rosie Ridge follows the trajectory of two warring factions that learned to cope with their differences and come together for the betterment of the community. Love triumphs over all political differences when Miss Anne and Henry Carson finally elope. The saccharine tone, typical of Hollywood, reflects the attitude toward Civil War memory before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Four tumultuous decades separated Rosie Ridge and the next film, Glory. The Martin Luther King Jr. years of the Civil Rights movement became the most productive in the search for equal rights for all Americans. The 1960s marked the Civil War’s centennial and the concomitant segregation that latched itself to the festivities in the South. African-American historians like John Hope Franklin became the torchbearers of the Emancipationist movement that honored the legacy of African-Americans in the Civil War. Books such as One Gallant Rush by Peter Buchard highlighted the bravery of black soldiers during the Civil War. Protests and violence against activists were captured on camera and televised across the country. Powerful images flooded the airways and the bloody battles of a hundred years ago seemed futile in the wake of the South’s viciousness toward protesters. The festivities were muted due to the civil unrest and the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. One year later, the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination due to race, color, or creed.
In the latter part of the decade, the war in Vietnam changed Americans’ views on war as a whole. War was no longer “beautiful,” as D.W. Griffith described it, but a formalized massacre using minorities and the poor as cannon fodder. Television once again led the way in giving Americans a glimpse of the carnage of war. Suddenly, Gone With the Wind and the World War II epic The Longest Day, that trivialized war and excluded African-Americans from the narrative, seemed passé and faced ignominy from a young audience that included protesters and minorities eager to face the ugly truth of war and race relations in cinema.
By the time Glory reached theaters in 1989, American moviegoers viewed few African-American heroes in the cinema. John Ford’s films failed to feature any African-Americans in a title role. The only African-American in Ford’s troupe of actors was Woody Strode, who was relegated to supporting roles. Actor and activist Sidney Poitier broke barriers in the 1960s, but Hollywood regressed using blaxploitation films in the 1970s as a way to attract “urban” audiences to the theatres. Glory depicted a different narrative, showing the heroism and sacrifice of African-American soldiers in the fight for their freedom.
The film was based on the aforementioned Peter Buchard book that chronicled the creation and tragic end of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry made up entirely of African-Americans under the supervision of white officers, led by the resolved but naïve Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick). The recently formed infantry battles racism, lack of supplies, and infighting to secure their place on the battlefield. Director Edward Zwick does not shy away from the scars of war or slavery. In an act of defiance, the recalcitrant Private Trip (Denzel Washington) deserts the infantry and is flogged for his punishment. The shirt is torn from Trip’s body to reveal the scars of his past indiscretions by his former masters. Shaw and Trip lock eyes as the whip replaces fresh wounds over the old.
The needs of his men are at first alien to Shaw. Although he is a scion of a wealthy abolitionist family in Boston, he cannot relate to his men who come from a world of cotton and bondage. Shaw bonds with John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), the elder wiser infantryman who lived as a slave in his former life. Shaw gradually learns the needs of his men and in turn receives the respect of the 54th Massachusetts. To prove his men’s ability to fight, Shaw voluntarily elects that the 54th Infantry be the first to charge the Confederate stronghold, Fort Wagner. At the day of the charge, Shaw unsaddles his horse and lines up with his men, former slaves, now soldiers, to rush the impenetrable fort. In the last hours of their lives Shaw, Rawlins, Trip, and the rest of the infantry are no longer separated by race or background but united under a common cause. In the end, the fort was never taken; Shaw died and was buried with his men. The cynical might say they died in vain, but that would be wrong. The 54th Massachusetts Infantry personified the will of the righteous to sacrifice everything in the name of freedom, not just for them but for future generations. They showed that race was not a repellant, but rather given the chance, a means through which people could overcome their differences and work together. Shaw and his men discredit the Lost Cause and the white supremacist nature of the South’s Civil War memory. Glory continues to be the truest of the Civil War films, not just for its costumes or set design, but for realizing the true meaning of the Civil War—the fight to end slavery. Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry suddenly became household names and the Augustus St. Gauden’s monument that honors their sacrifice in Boston became a popular attraction.
The year before Glory was released, historian Eric Foner authored the definitive work on Reconstruction, aptly titled Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution. Foner, like John Hope Franklin before him, battled the Lost Cause ideology and won. Foner’s work helped usher in a modern view of the years that immediately followed the war. Reconstruction was a grand ideal that died in infancy. Many of the four million freed men traded iron shackles for unbreakable contracts formatted by white plantation owners to keep former slaves working for them. The de facto segregation that exists today can be linked to the failure of Reconstruction. In 2010, Eric Foner’s study of Abraham Lincoln’s changing views on the issue of slavery, The Fiery Trial, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for history. At the same time, Steven Spielberg was ramping up efforts to make his new film chronicling the 16th President’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment.
Lincoln, as it was finally titled, found its historical basis from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s popular study of Lincoln’s political aptitude in Team of Rivals. The book and its author made the television rounds during the 2008 Presidential election amid the speculation surrounding President-Elect Obama’s first term cabinet. The film version was released four years later as a message to the President and a dysfunctional congress to put differences aside and work together. Daniel-Day Lewis’s immersive portrayal of Lincoln separates Spielberg’s Civil War film from any that had come before. Lewis’s performance marks an outstanding achievement in acting. The rest of the film is meandering, intermediately enlivened by the appearance of Tommy Lee Jones’s bombastic characterization of the radical Republican, Thaddeus Stevens. Spielberg includes some trademark saccharine moments in the film to highlight the importance of Lincoln and the necessity of the 13th Amendment. The beginning of the film opens with Lincoln entertaining two African-Americans soldiers. The President’s appearance allows the two soldiers to recite the famed Gettysburg address. Moments such as this are filtered throughout the film, but reiterate that the Civil War was a fight over slavery. Lincoln must choose between accepting Confederacy delegates for a peace treaty or allowing the war to continue and pass the 13th Amendment.
Lincoln becomes the last stop on a long journey beginning in the early years of cinema. Oscar Wilde purported that life imitated art more than art imitated life. In the case of Civil War films, the inverse of Wilde’s mimesis is true. Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind captured the glorification of war and slavery steeped in an ideology that entrenched itself in the American psyche. The advent of television allowed Americans to have direct access to pictures of war and racial violence. Glory responded with a refreshing look at the Civil War, picturing African-Americans as heroes and not villains or the butts of jokes. Lincoln used the political climate of its day to make a statement using events from the past. The evolution of Civil War films is a microcosm of America’s changing views on the meaning of history, war, and race.