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America's (Un) Civil War
by Jon Schuller

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Griffith's classic

Griffith's classic
In keeping with important anniversary years reflected in films I thought I would devote this column to the Civil War. The 150th Anniversary of the beginning was marked on April 12, 2011. The first shots fired at Fort Sumter, in Charleston's harbor, were the culmination of decades of strife and division over one subject: slavery in America. Many historians continue to analyze all the reasons the war was fought and some postulate it should never have happened at all. The effects of all this history still echo throughout the country today. We have seen many changes, good and bad, since 1861. The South bears the scars and history from the military defeat and the after-effects of Union occupation. African-Americans, descendants of the slaves, are still working to throw off an old yoke from the past. I want to discuss how the Civil War has been represented in movies.

One of the earliest films (but not the first), still famous, still controversial, is The Birth of a Nation (1915). D.W. Griffith had previously made what may very well be the first Civil War film, The Fugitive, in 1910. It chronicles the story of two families facing the war. But it was Birth of a Nation, longer and more expensive, that made him famous. The film seemed to glorify (and actually promoted) the Ku Klux Klan and employed no African-American actors; Griffith used white actors in blackface the ultimate minstrel show. Re-working basically the same plot as the previous drama,
Keaton at his best

Keaton at his best
Griffith used a large cast of extras and elaborate scenes to portray the battles. The controversy came from demeaning the slaves (and later the freedmen) and glorifying the KKK. A second wave of KKK recruitment used the film to get new members. Even if historically flawed the Birth of a Nation did show the war to masses of people 50 years after it ended.

The Civil War as a plot device made for many Silent Era films, some of which I'll mention. 1922's Grandma's Boy, starred Harold Lloyd as a timid guy who gets a magical (Civil War-era) umbrella and captures the villain. The movie is notable for Lloyd turning a comedy into a feature-length film in several episodes. Hands Up, a 1926 comedy, starred Raymond Griffith as a Confederate spy trying to capture Union gold. Historical figures are woven into the fictional plot. A notable film from this period is Buster Keaton's The General based on the incident in 1862. Union spies capture Keaton's train in Georgia and plan to destroy the rail-lines on their way northward. Keaton, as engineer Johnny Gray, works to foil their plans and get his train back. He is helped by his girlfriend (Annabelle Lee). Both eventually find the train and, in the most expensive stunt of the Silent Era, it's destroyed in an attempt to cross a sabotaged bridge. Not a success when it was released The General is now considered one of Keaton's best works. It was re-made in 1962 as The Great Locomotive Chase.

As silent films made
Before Scarlett there was Jezebel

Before Scarlett there was Jezebel
way for sound films the subject of the Civil War was again used in multiple features. But these movies, as the years passed increasingly treated the subject with more realism: not just the sound effects of battle or wounded men, but the realities of war, the pain, the desperation of people at home. In the 1930's we see several films, but two stand out for me. Bette Davis did not get the role of Scarlett O'Hara in the much-publicized fanfare surrounding Gone with the Wind. She was offered the lead in William Wyler's Jezebel (1938), an anti-bellum melodrama with Henry Fonda as the male lead. Many at the time said it was just the Warner Brothers' attempt to steal the publicity and spotlight of Gone With the Wind before that film's release in 1939. The plot for Jezebel certainly looked like the other movie and Davis' character closely resembled that of Scarlett O'Hara.

Much has been written about Gone with the Wind, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Margaret Mitchell in 1936. Whether or not it was historically accurate as seen by the grandeur of Tara Plantation versus the reality of the ante-bellum South is not my concern here. It attempted to deal with controversial subjects, including a featured role with an African-American actress, Hattie McDaniel, and did portray the Civil War in less than glowing terms as the picture progresses. It won ten Academy Awards and was the longest (almost four hours) sound movie (totally in color too)
There's only one

There's only one
of its time. I believe it was break-through film because, while it did romanticize the Old South, it showed the old ways crumbling, making way for a new reality on-screen and off-.

Honorable mention here for Operator 13 (1934), a romanticized spy film featuring Gary Cooper and Marion Davies as a female Union spy who becomes involved with the Confederate Captain Cooper. Not seen too often but important nonetheless.

By the 1940's several treatments of the Civil War were released. Santa Fe Trail, starring Errol Flynn as J.E.B. Stuart, shows the rise of abolitionist John Brown (Raymond Massey), determined to break up the Union in order to free the slaves. The movie fictionalizes the friendship of several famous Civil War Era soldiers who capture Brown at Harper's Ferry in 1859 but eventually must choose sides in 1861. I like this movie, even though it's somewhat inaccurate, because it does portray Brown as he was: fiery, with a religious fervor, who lets nothing stand in the way of his mission. The scene with the Native American sooth-sayer predicting that the Army friends will soon become enemies always gets my attention. True, it is a cinematic device but still effective.

There were a few lesser-known films in the 1940's but nothing could match the box-office power and star-studded cast of Gone with the Wind. Not until the 1950's and 1960's do we begin to see some seriously accurate film treatises on this purely American phenomenon, The Civil War.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

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Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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