The Problem With Civil War Movies

There seems to be a good deal of anticipation for History’s upcoming movie, Gettysburg, produced by Ridley and Tony Scott.  I am not one of them.  Audience’s will likely experience a visually stimulating and gritty depiction of the actual battle.  The goal of the movie, according to the History website is the following:

Executive produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, GETTYSBURG strips away the romanticized veneer of the Civil War to present the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in a new light–a visceral, terrifying and deeply personal experience, fought by men who put everything on the line in defense of their vision of the American future. Cinematic in scope, GETTYSBURG is an information-packed look at the turning points, strategic decisions, technology and little-known facts surrounding the battle. Developed in collaboration with highly esteemed Civil War historians, GETTYSBURG reflects hundreds of individual accounts of the battle–the unique voices of struggle, defeat and triumph that tell the larger story of a bitterly conflicted nation. [Click here for a preview.]

Will this movie really highlight what was a “visceral, terrifying, and deeply personal experience?”  Wasn’t Ted Turner’s Gettysburg an example of just such a movie or is the difference here that the special effects will set the Scott production apart?  I guess in the end I have trouble believing that any Civil War movie can strip away “the romanticized veneer of the Civil War” entirely.  Our memory of Gettysburg is wrapped up in all kinds of romantic memes from “Brother v. Brother” to “A Battle that Decided the Fate of a Nation.”  We don’t have a Civil War apart from our romantic notions that define its continued significance and meaning.

We should also acknowledge the influence of reconciliation and reunion on the level of violence that we are willing to tolerate in Civil War movies.  Compare recent Civil War movies with this scene from the HBO series, The Pacific:

I’ve not seen the entire series and, to be completely honest, I am not sure that I will ever see it in its entirety.  It’s much too graphic for me.  This scene of the Marines landing on Iwo Jima, however, is a good example of a war movie stripped of everything romantic.  In the scene above we are able to suspend any attachment to a larger narrative and deal with the battlefield itself in all of its horrors.  I just don’t think that most of us want a Civil War movie along these lines.  We are much too invested in a larger narrative of American Exceptionalism that treats the soldiers on both sides as American brothers rather than others.  The bloodshed and violence functioned to build a stronger nation and guarantee the triumph of democracy.   Americans perhaps find it difficult to acknowledge that the kind of violence and hate that was directed at the Japanese or Germans during WWII might also have been present at Gettysburg and other battles.

What do you think?

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25 comments… add one

  • Andy Hall May 23, 2011

    The trailer for Gettysburg looks like they’re going for the same sort of gritty realism that you see here in The Pacific, or that Pamplin Park attempted (with mixed success, IMO) in their video.

    But I’m also hoping that the final product is different from the trailer, which looks like a cross between a music video and an SFX demo reel. The period uniforms not withstanding, little of the trailer for Gettysburg looked much like that battle to me, or the ACW, for that matter. With different costumes, almost all of it could have been footage from Black Hawk Down, or almost any small-unit action in the last 50 years.

    We’ll see.

    • Kevin Levin May 23, 2011

      We shall see. I am not optimistic.

  • Tim Abbott May 23, 2011

    I think that the Crater sequence in Cold Mountain did more to depict the gritty horror of Civil War combat than all those enthusiastic, well fed extras did for Turner’s Gettysburg. The best thing that a Civil War movie could do to show the horror and confusion of battle is to make it intimate, reduced to company size, with no sweeping panoramas or familiar touchstones to nod to the established narrative. Make it about fatigue, and boredom, and fighting alongside (or running away from) a few people you know well. It should be about how war changes people, like the personal demons and desires of the characters in Thomas Dyja’s “Play for a Kingdom” when they are in combat in the Wilderness and Spotsylvania (rather than playing baseball between the lines with the Rebs).

    • Kevin Levin May 23, 2011

      Hi Tim,

      You may want to check out the movie, “Wicked Spring” which focuses on a couple of Union and Confederate soldiers who find themselves together in the middle of the Wilderness. It attempts to capture some of the things you describe in your comment. The problem is that these are not the kind of CW movies that the general public seems to want. Rather, it is the sweeping panoramas and typical references that can almost be anticipated in movies such as Gods and Generals.

    • Will Stoutamire May 23, 2011

      Tim: Thanks for mentioning “Play for a Kingdom” – it sounds like a really interesting book and I just found a copy for $4 on Amazon.

      Kevin: Great post, and I agree wholeheartedly with your skepticism about this new drama-mentary, if we might call it that. I will probably record it, but have small hope that it will do anything to break down the romanticism attached to the Civil War. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong. As I’ve thought about it more, perhaps the romantic memory of the Civil War is an area in need of some serious scholarly study, as much as our much-debated Lost Cause, BCS, etc. I’m not familiar of much recent work in this regard, although it’s arguably an issue that crosses the Mason Dixon line unlike any other… Your post a few weeks ago of a speech recently given by Drew Gilpin Faust seems to illustrate that need fairly well – including the very real modern-day consequences of romanticizing wars of the past, which is something we must all keep in mind as we interpret such events.

  • Eric Jacobson May 23, 2011

    Frankly, I would prefer a movie version (well done like Saving Private Ryan, for example) of a compelling story like Franklin, or Shiloh, or even Antietam, be as factually graphic as necessary to help strip away much of the romantic nonsense that continues to attach itself to the Civil War. In my opinion, for people to truly understand what this country went through, they need to understand what actually happened. Similarily, a great little HBO mini-series would do the trick and allow the story to be properly told, from why the country went to war, through the horrific bloodshed and violence, up to the end in 1865.

    • Anita Henderson May 23, 2011

      Dear Eric:

      You must be telepathic. There is a HBO miniseries on the CW being casted as we speak called To Appomattox. They start filming later this year. The website is http://www.toappomattox.com and they also have a Facebook page. As a 13 year living history veteran, I am cautiously encouraged that this might be what you, I and other CW enthusiasts have been looking for. The cast includes cast members from Band of Brothers and John Adams. The producers and screenwriters have been asking us for possible actors for roles still not cast. I almost fell off my seat!!! This is the first time ANYONE from Hollywood has asked the living history community as a group for suggestions. I am keeping my fingers crossed that a better than average production is achieved.

      Historically I have mixed feelings about past Hollywood movies on the CW. I remember the late Brian Pohanka saying he had a love/hate relationship with Hollywood as that is how a lot of people get exposed their history thru film coupled with the fact that the films aren’t very accurate. That is how I got interested watching Mosby the Grey Ghost, Willie and the Yank, Johnny Shiloh on tv and reading Rifles for Watie and Across Five Aprils. Those films and books spurred me to read more serious historical account and sparked a lifetime interest in the subject. I think we have an obligation to stay engaged with Hollywood and help/encourage them to continually improve their depiction of the era.

      PS: I was an extra in the train scene in Wicked Spring and Kevin Hershberger and Lionheart Productions go the extra mile to be realistic about the horrors of war experience by both the blue and the gray.

      • Kevin Levin May 23, 2011

        Hi Anita,

        Thanks for the comment. I am familiar with the Appomattox miniseries, but I haven’t seen anything yet that gives me hope. In fact, the connection with NASCAR seems very strange to me. On the other hand I did like Wicked Spring and even taught the movie in my course on the Civil War.

        • Anita Henderson May 25, 2011

          Dear Kevin:
          Glad you liked my commentary ;-) Don’t lose hope yet, the fact they are listening to their audience is HUGE! A lot of Hollywood types think their stuff doesn’t stink and looks down their nose on folks who aren’t like them (eg. the rest of the country!) They usually are condescending and dismissive of their audience. I am encouraged about the new miniseries to date as I have been consistently impressed with the quality of most HBO miniseries productions. I have been a subscriber for many years and feel they outdo the quality/accuracy found in regular Hollywood films. Part of it is the genre. With movies you only have around 2 hours to tell a story. Miniseries allows you the luxury of developing a story line and evolving characters over an extended period of time. The stories therefore seem more complete than what you are afforded in a traditional movie. Also there seems to be a better feel/authenticity to their miniseries than your typical Hollywood garbage. Are they perfect?…no but the the quality of civil war films since the 1940s-50s has improved greatly. Glad you enjoyed Wicked Spring, Kevin has a passion for getting it right and accurately depicts the horrors of the Wilderness campaign and the poignancy of the plight of the average soldier, North and South.

          PS: I don’t understand the Nascar hookup either but I am into horses not the internal combustion engine lol!

        • Tim Abbott May 26, 2011

          At your suggestion, Kevin, I rented and watched “Wicked Spring” last night and am grateful for the recommendation. Filmed on a $500,000 budget, it may have had no alternative but to go to a character-driven intimate story, but I liked a great deal of what resulted. Some of the fireside vignettes (grinding coffee, changing shirts) were extremely effective. The blurring of distinctions between combatants, from gear to accents, was also intriguing.

          Tim

  • Scott Manning May 24, 2011

    Kevin, I completely understand your apprehension, but war movies are the gateway to history for many people. While far from perfect, they bring in prominent names and events into pop culture that provide a great starting place for discussing history with folks. Consider that before the movie 300, I struggled to find more than a few friends who even recognized the name Xerxes. Now because of that movie I at least have a frame of reference to tell people stories about ancient Greece and Persia.

    As for the new Gettysburg movie, I think we can all agree that there will be issues with it. It will have some historical inaccuracies (liberties?) and it will never capture the true horror of the battle. However, consider that several people have pushed me to host a viewing party so that we can watch and discuss the film. This will not be a celebration of how much we enjoy the movie, but a discussion about what we know from reading about the battle and visiting the field. This is a good thing. We will discuss history and this time, a war movie inspired the talk.

    • Kevin Levin May 24, 2011

      Hi Scott,

      I am not sure you understood the post. I agree 100% that war movies can function as gateways to history. My brief commentary was more about how the Civil War has been represented on the big screen in comparison with other productions.

      • Scott Manning May 24, 2011

        Gotchya. I read more into your post than what you originally meant.

        • Kevin Levin May 25, 2011

          Not a problem, Scott.

      • TF Smith May 24, 2011

        Chandra Manning has a great comment in one of her footnotes to “What this Cruel War is Over” where she is talking about a seminar discussion in one of her courses and she asks the students, who have been very engaged so far, what the combatants did NOT have in common, and they all fall silent..which she responds to with “well, 600,000 men did not kill each other because they agreed” and of course, that leads her to research and write the book…

        I made the comment above, but maybe it fits better here:

        …one question I had is the “war that killed more than 600,000 Americans” comment.
        What is the consensus on this? Were the combatants on both sides of the Civil War all “Americans”? Really?

        Best,

        • Andy Hall May 25, 2011

          Were the combatants on both sides of the Civil War all “Americans”? Really?

          Brag Bowling, the former SCV Division Commander for Virginia, just printed a piece in the WaPo’s “House Divided” blog, in which he says,

          Lincoln’s premeditated bad choice set in motion a series of events which would lead to the death of 600,000 American citizens and the total devastation of the South for over 100 years.

          That’s a pretty interesting choice of words — “600,000 American citizens” — for the guy who seems to be the de facto spokesperson and media go-to-guy for all things SCV.

          That group today likes to remind people that, in the 1950s, Confederate veterans were formally designated to be American veterans, so would it be appropriate to put U.S. flags on Confederate graves this weekend? (That question is only half in jest.)

          • Kevin Levin May 25, 2011

            I am more impressed with Bowling’s emotional investment in reducing causation and explanation to a moral scapegoat such as Lincoln. It’s essentially a child’s view of the war.

            • Andy Hall May 25, 2011

              It’s an advanced case of Lincoln Derangement Syndrome. There is no cure.

              • TF Smith May 25, 2011

                Undoubtedly. After Manning, Dew, and so many other excellent studies of the issue, it seems bizarre anyone trying to be taken seriously can write like that.

                What is your feeling regarding the “600,000 Americans” trope? It certainly illustrates the “re-union” emphasis, but hardly seems historically accurate or intellectually honest.

                Certainly speaks to memory, however.

                Best,

        • Late to the party as usual, but for what it’s worth:

          The Congressional Research Service has a table of “U.S. Military Personnel Serving and Casualties” (http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL32492.pdf, dated February 2010) that’s interesting in the context of this discussion about who were and were not Americans. The CRS counts Union personnel and casualties only. You have to look in the table’s notes to obtain Confederate statistics.

          For the pedantic among us, if you take it at face value, the CRS table also calls into question the “more than 600,000″ figure in general. Although the CRS notes that authoritative Confederate statistics are unavailable and that figures for Confederate deaths are incomplete, if you total both sides using CRS numbers (including Confederate deaths in Union prisons, cited separately), you come up with about 530,000 deaths. However, that total is almost surely too low, I think. The CRS figures indicate the Union suffered 1.6 “other deaths” to every “battle death,” while the corresponding, unreliable Confederate ratio is only 1.2. Given the differences in availability of medical care and supplies of all kinds, I have to think the Confederate ratio would be much higher than the Union’s. Or did the sick ones all desert?

          Anyway, according to the CRS tally, of those 530,000-plus overall deaths, only 215,000 (if you can use “only” in this context) were combat deaths. I think that distinction is often misunderstood in discussion of the “more than 600,000″ figure — at least among us amateur observers.

  • Richard Mahler May 24, 2011

    I think that anything which reveals the reality of any war – the ultimate failure of humankind – serves to strip away any illusion that there is anything romantic or heroic about it. The American Civil War stands as a war where no one on either side had anything but illusions about what would transpire and what price would be paid in life and material. Many, not all, lived to see how utterly foolish their predictions were in the run up to that war, and once having paid the price almost no one was willing to accept that it was worth the cost or was inevitable, so, like most wars in human history, they began to hide their stupidity behind myths of the “glorious” cause! The true story is only now being written by competent historians who are far enough removed from cultural pressures to make a valid assessment.

    • TF Smith May 25, 2011

      I watched the trailer and one thing that really generated a reaction was the close-up of the US infantryman fixing bayonet while covering behind the barn or shed; that really resonated for me, epsecially the little moment where the actor appears to say a prayer or at least gather his courage before going over the top is very effective…

      Granted, that is exactly what it is designed to do (the Scotts know their audience, obviously), but – as others have said – anything that brings home the reality of conflict by “laying them in our dooryards,” as it were – is useful, for the study of history and simple understanding of the reality that our ancestors were not “marble” but were living, breathing individuals who lived and loved as we do.

      So, yes, I am planning to watch it with my boys.

      I will be impressed if they include any footage of the ANV kidnapping AAs from Pennsylvania and sending them south; that would be a watershed in Hollywood portrayals of the CSA…

  • London John Jun 1, 2011

    I thought it was a fairly significant pointn of the Union cause that the Confederates were, in fact, American citizens whether they wanted to be or not?
    As for the new Gettysburg, is it clear what it’s supposed to add to the film made some years ago based on the novel The Killer Angels?

    Re other Civil War films, I believe the first worth seeing was The Red Badge of Courage – still one of the best, IMO. How is it rated on this site?
    My impression of Gods and Generals was that the director had lost control and the re-enactors were just showing off.

  • Kurt L. Jun 3, 2011

    This is a fantastic post that wonderfully articulates something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. One thing I’d add is that the public opinion about how much violence is appropriate and what is realistic changes over time. When the Gettysburg Cyclorama was unveiled in the late 1800s, veterans thought it was so realistic they were brought to tears. Now it’s almost quaint in its depictions of the battle. Fast-forwarding to the late 20th century, “Glory” was considered shockingly violent when it came out in 1989. Now, as Tim Abbott mentioned above, “Cold Mountain” probably takes the cake for the most violent, realistic portrayal of Civil War combat. I think it’s probably on par with anything in “The Pacific”, “The Patriot”, or other recent war movies. The History Channel’s new “Gettysburg” film also comes close. So maybe our sensibilities HAVE changed and audiences are ready for this new breed of Civil War movie. At least the filmmakers seem to be.

  • Mike Hawthorne Nov 24, 2012

    For me, a good way to stage a Civil War movie battle would be to try and replicate, as exactly as possible, a detailed panorama from, say, a Harper’s Weekly engraving based on an Alfred Waud sketch. The best of these prints are so animated that they almost seem to move across the page – and the ‘special artists’ were eyewitnesses. For hand-t0 hand fighting, close-ups of rifle butts smashing out brains, or bayonets and bowie knives going into screaming victims, would provide opportunities worthy of any ‘slasher’ movie. Don’t forget the ‘coshes’ carried by many New Orleans rebels and Union Irish. We even see biting, stone-throwing, gouging fist fights, as prisoners make a last effort to break away. Shelled, riddled, fragmented and disemboweled corpses litter the ground. Their own mothers wouldn’t recognize them. Heavy with the smoke machines. Dead horses everywhere. It’s not gratuitous. It should be an obscene gore fest, as all battles are.
    Yes, and starve the plump extras before dragging them through hedges. Make ‘em grow real manly beards. Most of these guys had the bloody flux of dysentery staining their pants, were lice-ridden, ill-shod, powder stained, ragged and filthy, especially during the last stages of epic three-day confrontations. They resembled armed hobos. They would be greedily gulping water, or alcohol, whenever given a chance, endlessly smoking pipes and cheroots. The sound effects, complete with terrifying war cries, should be deafening interspersed with quiet interludes and twittering birdsong for contrast.

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