Say It Isn’t So

It’s difficult to imagine what aspects of the Civil War that Ron Maxwell has yet to butcher. Stay tuned.

Ron Maxwell

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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40 comments… add one
  • Bryan Cheeseboro Aug 5, 2014 @ 4:17

    I was disappointed about this project when I saw the cast didn’t include any African-Americans. Someone online assured that it would not be as disappointing as “The Blue & the Gray” and Ron Maxwell’s films but I found that hard to believe.

    I’m still hoping a series of some kind will be done including as many perspectives- North, South, Black, White, free Black, slave, immigrant, civilian, Eastern and Western theatre.

  • Dee Brightley May 21, 2014 @ 10:22

    Well, what I have experienced runs very much in the opposite direction. Almost to a person, everyone I have discussed the film with considered “Glory” to be childish, superficial, pointless, and even destructive. For example, and to a person, they could scarcely hold back their snickering scornful laughter watching Matthew “Ferris Bueller” Broderick prance around playing a Colonel. And while Ferris, oops sorry, I meant Col. Shaw, was training the guys, almost everyone I know also said they fully expected the group to break out in a raucous rendition of “Twist and Shout”. And the sad, eternal buffoonery of his boyhood friend “Thomas” was another source of contempt and derision. As for the whipping scene, that was about as clueless, clumsy, vulgar, and despicable as any scene ever to reach the big screen. The message was, obviously, that a whipping really isn’t all that bad (Denzel barely flinched-just an itty bitty tear or two), and that under certain circumstances, it really is perfectly justifiable to whip African-Americans. A positively hateful and grotesque scene. And that barely skims the surface. Again, the film was among the worst of its genre, and I believe the absolute worst.

    • Bryan Cheeseboro May 21, 2014 @ 17:17

      “For example, and to a person, they could scarcely hold back their snickering scornful laughter watching Matthew “Ferris Bueller” Broderick prance around playing a Colonel. And while Ferris, oops sorry, I meant Col. Shaw, was training the guys, almost everyone I know also said they fully expected the group to break out in a raucous rendition of “Twist and Shout”.”

      I don’t mean any harm but the people you describe (“to a person”) sound like immature folks who had no intention or no capability of ever taking the movie seriously.

      I never saw “Ferris Bueller” though I know what it’s about (We have morning meetings every week on my job. When my boss asks for feedback from the staff, he always says, “Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?”). Since I didn’t see it, I had no real problem with Matthew Broderick as Colonel Shaw.

      The best part about “Glory” to me is that it told what I call the “everyman” story- will I stand and fight? Or will I prove myself a coward? I think this is something every man at some point asks himself. I don’t just mean in a military combat sense… I mean in any area of life where a man finds he has to prove himself. All of the men in the movie have personal struggles to overcome: Shaw, living up to his new responsibility and understanding his own soldiers; Trip, overcoming the abuses of enslavement and the resulting anger; and Searles, willing to be a soldier but not knowing how to fight.

      The good news about “Glory” is that it was one of THE BEST films of its subject matter. It added African-American men to the face of the Civil War soldier. Overnight, Americans discovered Blacks were not just slaves; they also were agents in their own freedom. Denzel Washington won an Oscar for the whipping scene, which you call “clueless, clumsy, vulgar, and despicable.” I’m just glad the people that mattered understood what that scene was about.

      The worst part about “Glory” is that it’s treated as if no other film about Black Civil War soldiers needs to be made. There are plenty of enriching stories of Black Civil War soldiers that I would love to see made into movies someday.

  • Chris Coleman May 21, 2014 @ 10:13

    While Gettysburg was OK (After the section on Chamberlain’s charge the rest of the film seemed anti-climactic) Gods and Generals was boring as hell, which was unfortunate, as the individual scenes were generally well acted. Evidently, the director thought rendering the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies into movie form was a great idea. Had it been, say two hours shorter and focused just on Stonewall Jackson, it would have been a great film. Maybe someone can get the rights to it, hack all the boring bits out and shoot one or two brief new scenes and release it under a new title: “Stonewall!” Don’t laugh; Hollywood has done it before.

  • Bob Farrell May 20, 2014 @ 15:06

    It must be remembered that these are MOVIES produces solely to entertain you and of course to make a profit. They are not scholarly volumes intending to give you each and every detail of a battle. You will find this in low production books more than likely published by a University press.

    In light of what movies that are being produced for general consumption we should thank Ron Maxwell for attempting something historical, dispite the flaws, to the general public

    It is far superior than some super human with an inter-galactic gun in each hand flying thru the air. I personally prefer Buster Killrain

  • Dee Brightley May 20, 2014 @ 12:43

    Trying to impress you Mr. Allen? I couldn’t care less if you fell off the planet tomorrow. I think your needlessly inflated male ego had rendered you delusional. You asked a question and I answered it. Period.

    • Ben Allen May 20, 2014 @ 13:19

      All right, not “impress” but “show off.” Then again, you don’t have to know somebody to try to impress him or her. Anyway, it’s hard for me to see “Glory” fall into many of your categories. Therefore, it seemed to me that you wrote many of your descriptive terms mostly, if not solely out of immodesty.

      I can now sleep better at night knowing that I am rendered “delusional” by my “needlessly inflated male ego,” and that there are still people in the world who exhibit “political correctness” (otherwise known as “politeness”). Thank you so very much. 🙂

  • Dee Brightley May 20, 2014 @ 12:06

    Hello Bryan,
    As I said, or perhaps implied, I did not think much of either “Gettysburg” or “Gods and Generals”. I just thought that “Glory” was so dreadful and dismal that it deserved to be identified as the worst film of its genre. Beyond that, I agree with you, it is just a movie.

    • Bryan Cheeseboro May 20, 2014 @ 17:17

      All I know is that in the 25 years since “Glory” was released, I’ve met very few people (I can literally count them on one had) who didn’t like the movie or were not moved by it.

      Many people I’ve talked to liked “Gettysburg.” Like “Glory,” it’s good as a movie but it’s not very accurate historically. And with “Gods & Generals,” most of the reviews I’ve seen say the movie is not that good. I love it that Ron Maxwell has a deep passion for the Civil War to the point where he films his movies as close as he can to the actual battlefields (unlike “Cold Mountain, ” which was filmed in Romania) but there’s just no other way to say it… the man is a horrible filmmaker. G&G contained so much pointless crap and tried to paint Stonewall Jackson as some sort of Confederate Jesus or something. I don’t care about seeing Stonewall play with a little kid. I don’t believe he had a conversation with Jim Lewis like a job interview, as seen in the film; I think he spoke with Lewis’ owner while Jim never said a word. I think the conversation where he tells Lewis the Confederacy should be accepting Black men as soldiers in late 1862 was a big, steaming pile of doo-doo. And instead of shooting Private Jenkins for desertion, he should have had the two no-name Confederates shot so he could get rid of them. They added 0% to the film.

  • Dee Brightley May 20, 2014 @ 8:16

    Oh dear, in so many ways. The acting was forced, excessive, melodramatic, and shallow, the dialogue was stiff, unnatural and exaggerated, the characters and character development were predictable and insipid, and the subplots were counterproductivve, distracting, and contrived. It has been awhile since I had the misfortune to see it, but the film was really little more than a ridiculous caricature of itself.

    • Bryan Cheeseboro May 20, 2014 @ 9:59

      Hi Dee,
      You’re certainly free to not like “Glory;” it’s just a movie. But everything you’ve described about it can most definitely be said about “Gods & Generals” and “Gettysburg.” The scene of the ANV cheering Lee before the Pickett-Pettigrew Charge is a nice movie moment; but so is the scene of the Brigadier General Truman Seymour’s Division cheering the 54th right before the attack on Fort Wagner.

      I’m not a film critic on the level you are but there are things I liked and dislked about all three of these films. In my opinion, “Glory” simply told a better story.

    • Ben Allen May 20, 2014 @ 12:13

      “The acting was forced, excessive, melodramatic, and shallow…” It was not as forced as John Wayne’s in “The Horse Soldiers” (the only real film in which he shined was “True Grit”). The only actor who seemed to force it was Matthew Broderick, but that is what reserved people tend to do, and Robert Gould Shaw, I have heard, was described as being reserved. It seemed to come naturally to the rest of the cast. On that note, I wouldn’t call their performances excessive. Broderick’s wasn’t, and neither was Morgan Freeman’s. It seems that they have been criticized, at least concerning “Glory,” for not acting excessively. Nor would I call it melodramatic. I’ll concede that the story was changed for the purposes of drama, but I wouldn’t extend melodrama to the acting. Perhaps James Horner’s music score tricked you into thinking it was melodramatic. I would argue that neither Broderick or Denzel Washington was shallow in the movie, although it is tempting to draw that conclusion after only a cursory watching. Broderick’s Shaw is a martinet until it is discovered that Tripp, after being whipped, was just trying to get some shoes. The New Englander seems to realize that he might have been too harsh on his regiment. The slight transformation is indicated when his friend Thomas, with whom Shaw has heretofore refused to converse in camp, exchange Christmas greetings. The moment is small, but it is significant. As for Washington’s Tripp, he seems to be a malcontent until Freeman’s sergeant major slaps some sense into him. (In many ways, what Freeman says could be applied to many misbehaving classmates I have encountered in the public school system.)

      If you want to see “stiff, unnatural and exaggerated” dialogue, go see “God’s and Generals.” Whole passages are excerpts from letters. In “Glory,” the brigade commander’s anti-Semitic line (“We must wipe out secession like the Jews of old,” or something similar) might seem exaggerated, but a lot of maniacs are seemingly prone to hyperbole. For relatively quiet people like Shaw, conversations might indeed feel sort of “unnatural,” and might be accompanied by a stiff demeanor on the part of the reticent individual.

      I’ll concede that some, thought not all, of the characters are cliches. Shaw’s character development is only predictable if you know beforehand that his kind of personality is more likely to develop in such a manner as it did than, say, George C. Scott’s Patton. The story is also unpredictable, unless you are a student military history who knows what is going to happen. Even then, the movie and especially the music makes you feel like you’re in the moment, like when I repeatedly watched Pickett’s Charge in “Gettysburg” as a youngster, hoping against hope, like Faulkner’s youth, that next time would be different.

      How were the subplots counterproductive? Is it because they don’t portray all African Americans as saints and all Union troops as perfect gentlemen? As for their “contrived” nature, the burning of Darrien, Georgia, really happened, and there were corrupt Union generals like Benjamin Butler. Aren’t subplots supposed to be sort of distracting? Aren’t they supposed to be only loosely connected to the predominant plot? The subplots in “Glory” seem to be so.

      Perhaps you should see it again. I’ve watched it several times, and recently. I suppose you saw it only once, and “awhile” ago at that. You seem to be trying to impress me with your vocabulary more than elaborating on your sentiments.

  • Dee Brightley May 20, 2014 @ 7:10

    There is a very old movie with John Wayne called “The Horse Soldiers” which I thought was excellent. It’s really the only Civil War movie I enjoyed. With the exception of Cold Mountain”, which is only marginally a Civil War movie, most of the Civil War movies within the last 25 years or so have been dreadful, with “Glory” being the absolute worst. “Gettysburg” was a little smarmy, however, that scene with Lee be hailed by his troops, although obviously fictionalized, was chills to the bone. It was exceptionally well done, and if you look carefully at the faces of some of the men in that scene, you can detect that there is no doubt that they are so caught up in the moment, they were no longer acting. In that moment, they truly believed. It was awe inspiring, and I have never seen anything like it in film.

    • Ben Allen May 20, 2014 @ 7:24

      How was “Glory” “the absolute worst?”

  • Wallace Hettle May 20, 2014 @ 5:19

    I wrote a book, _inventing Stonewall Jackson_ (LSU, 2011) which includes a brief chapter gently poking fun at Gods and Generals.

    Jackson was an “oddball.” I am very skeptical of putting him on the autistic spectrum: that is something very difficult to diagnose even in the living.

    I never did “figure out” Jackson, and just tried to get at him through people who knew him. One thing I do know: Maxwell imposed his values on 19th-century society in an ahistorical manner that ultimately does Jackson’s memory a disservice.Which is another way of saying that I would like you to buy my book. 🙂

    • Ben Allen May 20, 2014 @ 7:35

      “I am very skeptical of putting him on the autistic spectrum: that is something very difficult to diagnose even in the living.” I didn’t say I was diagnosing him. I just said it is very likely he had mild Autism, or some other undiagnosable mental condition. I emphasize that nobody will ever know for certain. Rather, it is, like J. Edgar Hoover’s probable homosexuality, something to muse over, something that might deserve an appendix on the next Jackson biography. However, Jackson did exhibit some Autistic symptoms: his head slightly tilted downward in apparent introspection; his literalism (I was especially struck by a passage in Robertson’s biography of him failing a cadet at VMI for not identifying three simple machines in order as described in, I think presumably, the textbook, although the answers themselves were correct); his zeal for a routine; his frequent inability to take a joke; his reticence; his lack of sociability; and his sensitivity to light.

      Anyway, I’ll try to buy your book some time in the future. I trust LSU, since it published Rhea’s masterly Overland Campaign volumes. 🙂

  • James F. Epperson May 20, 2014 @ 4:57

    I thought Gettysburg was a good movie. It did not get in to the horror of war, but then, neither did the source material (“Killer Angels”). It really was a movie about command decisions and the men who made them.

  • Rick Britton May 20, 2014 @ 1:23

    As much as I loved Crane’s novel about Chancellorsville, both movie adaptations of “The Red Badge of Courage” were disasters. In the first, watching the Union soldiers pretending to muzzle-load Indian War-era Trap-Door Springfields is too much. The director, too, had no grasp of the fact that Civil War units sometimes actually moved in formations.

  • London John May 19, 2014 @ 23:28

    “Why can’t we have a Civil War war movie that is equivalent to Band of Brothers, Pacific or We Were Soldiers? These are movies that at least catch a glimpse of the horror and human experience. ”
    How about The Red Badge of Courage? Still the best, IMO.

  • Ben Allen May 19, 2014 @ 16:52

    Maxwell likened the book and the movie to one of Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps the movie’s Shakespearean nature is why there are cliches. I have to admit: I can do without some of the Shakespearean monologues (save Chamberlain’s close to the beginning). I presume for “simplistic” you don’t mean “black and white,” because one side isn’t “good” and another “evil” in the film. There is no “us” and a “them.” Rather, “Gettysburg” is tragically “grey.” (If you want to see “incredibly simplistic,” go watch Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot” and “Braveheart.” 🙂 )

    Stephen Lang is a superb actor with a wide range, and his acting in “Gods and Generals” demonstrates that fact. The problem is that his Jackson seems to be more sociable than what the real one actually was. I saw none of Old Jack’s famous shyness in the movie. Indeed, although nobody will ever know for certain, it has been speculated that Jackson had what is now unofficially called Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of Autism. Looking at the evidence, I think it highly probable that he had it. Perhaps Lang should have tried to channel more Autism into his portrayal of him, not to mention try to study character descriptions and anecdotes of the general more closely. (On that note, Maxwell might have written a better script had he studied Jackson more carefully.)

    • Kevin Levin May 19, 2014 @ 17:13

      I am not a fan of Braveheart or The Patriot. We will have to agree to disagree regarding Gettysburg. If Gettysburg is characterized as grey it is owing to the lack of depth f the script.

      Good point re: Jackson’s sociability, but I will refrain from speculating on his condition.

      • Ben Allen May 20, 2014 @ 6:12

        “If Gettysburg is characterized as grey it is owing to the lack of depth [o]f the script.” So you wanted both pure villains in it, too. None of the characters in the book and movie were, in real life, a Sergeant Barnes, to make a reference to Oliver Stone’s “Platoon.” There are absolute heroes in the film, however: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and, all to far lesser extents, Lewis Armistead, James Longstreet, Winfield Scott Hancock, and John Buford. I’m guessing that a better version of “Gettysburg” to you could be rated R. You wished there were fleeing African Americans and looting Rebels, yes? Perhaps some “Flags of Our Fathers” gore would have been a nice touch to you. Maybe if I had directed that movie, or somehow have the opportunity to do a remake in the distant future, I’ll put in all those aspects. We’ll see where the trail of life takes me. 😉

  • Scott A. MacKenzie May 19, 2014 @ 16:26

    Does this mean he’ll make The Last Full Measure?

    I’m not sure if anyone saw but the producers of To Appomattox launched a Kickstarter campaign to get the series started. I pledged $100 to it. Unfortunately it failed, barely raising $75,000 of the $2.5m they needed. Is this the end? Who can say.

    • Kevin Levin May 19, 2014 @ 16:29

      Forgot to follow up on that Kickstarter campaign. I am not surprised they didn’t come close.

      • Scott A. MacKenzie May 19, 2014 @ 16:31

        It was way too ambitious. They asked too for too much. Their producers said today that they haven’t given up on finding the funding.

        • Kevin Levin May 19, 2014 @ 16:35

          It will never see the light of day.

          • Trevor Rowland May 19, 2014 @ 16:58

            “When the new project is announced later this week, you will actually be able to get directly involved yourselves.”

            It almost sounds like he’s going to attempt a “To Appomattox”-esque crowdfunding venture, so this will probably end up in a similar fashion.

      • Andy Hall May 19, 2014 @ 19:44

        Lochlain Seabrook’s crowdfunding project did about the same, in proportion.

  • Mike Rogers May 19, 2014 @ 16:22

    I thought that Gettysburg was pretty well done in terms of keeping with the narrative of Killer Angels. However, Gods and Generals was, as you mention Kevin, just filled with cliches. And too boot, I paid the $10.95 or whatever it was to watch it in a hotel on a business trip. I’m worried about a “series of movies” – especially if they’re in the Gods & Generals mode.

    • Kevin Levin May 19, 2014 @ 16:31

      I thought it was a horrible movie. Why can’t we have a Civil War war movie that is equivalent to Band of Brothers, Pacific or We Were Soldiers? These are movies that at least catch a glimpse of the horror and human experience. Gettysburg made me laugh.

      • Clay Knick May 19, 2014 @ 17:00

        That is a stupendous point, Kevin. And it is a question that I wish someone in Hollywood could answer. I’d love to see something about the Civil War up to the quality of “Band of Brothers.” Did “Glory” come close?

        • Scott A. MacKenzie May 19, 2014 @ 18:53

          Glory is the gold standard – so much to love about it that we excuse the flaws. It dared to suggest that the war was about race and slavery, the issues other movies either minimized, ignored or slighted. When Tom Berenger as Longstreet said in “Gettysburg” that the south should have freed the slaves before secession, I nearly barfed. Sickeningly poor history there. “To Appomattox” promised to be the “Band of Brothers” or “The Pacific” for the Civil War but, as Kevin said earlier, it’ll never be made. The money just doesn’t exist. Even then, I fear it would have made the same errors previous films have made.

          • Robert Ortega May 20, 2014 @ 7:19

            I thought “Gettysburg” was a good movie as well. While I will admit the movie had its share of flaws, most of which were the result of the budget and Ted Turner trying to present a family friendly take on the Civil War, I thought the film’s strengths outweighed its weaknesses. I also enjoyed Daniels performance as Chamberlain and the music score. In addition, I choose to judge the movie by how well it measures up to “The Killer Angels” novel rather than to the actual battle. And, I agree with the misleading quote about slavery from Longstreet being one of the low points of “Gettysburg”, especially considering that it was an unnecessary departure from the novel as well as history.

  • Ben Allen May 19, 2014 @ 14:20

    Maxwell might do better the next time around. Keep in mind that he did a splendid job with “Gettysburg,” butchering it as much as David Lean did the story of T. E. Lawrence, Stanley Kubrick Spartacus, and Cy Endfield the famous stand at Rorke’s Drift (might I add that for all its inaccuracies, “Zulu” seems to remain a favorite among military historians fifty years after its release). In fact, the only movie I think he truly butchered was “Copperhead.” He might also have learned a thing or two since mediocre “God’s and Generals,” namely to divide up a story into multiple movies if you have to cut many scenes for one. The rest, as General Lee (or at least Lee played by Robert Duvall) might have said (say), is all in God’s hands.

    • Kevin Levin May 19, 2014 @ 14:22

      Keep in mind that he did a splendid job with “Gettysburg,”…

      We will have to agree to disagree. All three of these films are disasters.

      • Ben Allen May 19, 2014 @ 14:33

        All right, I’ll concede that “Gettysburg” got a little slow at parts; but you have to admit: the battle scenes are awesome (even though the cannons don’t recoil at all), the music score is epic, and Jeff Daniels does a superb performance as Chamberlain. 🙂

        “God’s and Generals” had such a great potential. What made it a disaster was that Maxwell didn’t make it a trilogy or something and the dialogue was unrealistic, quoted largely from letters (human beings tend to speak a bit more succinctly than they might write, although the people living in the mid-Victorian period frequently had less brevity than what anybody living today has). Other than that, it shined.

        • Kevin Levin May 19, 2014 @ 14:39

          It’s not that it was slow, but that the script was incredibly simplistic and one-dimensional not to mention the nauseating string of cliches.

          The only thing that I liked about G&G was the Jackson character. I have no trouble believing that Jackson was that much of an oddball. 🙂

          • Scott A. MacKenzie May 19, 2014 @ 17:05

            I’ve concluded that the best Civil War movies to come out since Glory in 1989 are “Lincoln” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

            • Ben Allen May 19, 2014 @ 17:37

              I would replace “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” with “Cold Mountain,” provided that “Gettysburg” isn’t your cup of tea.

  • Joshua Brown May 19, 2014 @ 12:14

    Considering that each film will be no shorter than 4 1/2 hours, he may be going for the film equivalent of both Foote and Catton’s Civil War trilogies combined. We should expect nothing short of a scene-by-scene account of every. single. battle.

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