Jun 23, 2016

Why the Civil War Still Inspires Cinema

Scene from Free State of Jones
There are a lot of events that have gone on to define American History. In the 20th century, there were two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, and even the assassination of John F. Kennedy. These are the things that when forced to compile a list of significant moments will unbearably show up as important notes. Thanks to the rise of film technology, we have been able to create depictions of history spawning centuries. Still, there doesn't seem to be one era that is quite as covered as the Civil War. Whether it focuses on before, during, or after the events; some of cinema's most successful works have done their best to depict America's only war on native soil. So why does it continue to resonate, especially with Free State of Jones coming out this Friday? It's likely because of how staggering it is to recall in history textbooks that the land of the much fabled equal opportunity wouldn't live up to it. It's also just a period of such radical shifting that some people got left in the dust.
There are those likely reading this and are already confused. World War II may forever hold the record for most cinematic contribution thanks to its expansive scale. There's no denying that an event that gave us both Schindler's List and Downfall is hard to top. However, one doesn't need to travel back to the 19th century to understand the appeal of the Civil War. For starters, the first feature length movie was 1915's The Birth of a Nation, which chronicled the Civil War but was quickly overshadowed for its racist second half. Gone With the Wind, a film about the fall of the Antebellum South, remains the highest grossing film in history. Even the president of the era, Abraham Lincoln, has been given so many depictions over the years that he may be the most recognizable president (Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln is also the only presidential performance to win an Oscar). Still, this is only a broad overview of the Civil War in pop culture, which is itself expansive.
The events took place between 1861 and 1865. It was a time where Northern and Southern states were divided on a variety of issues, namely the right to own slaves. This eventually lead to the rise of the Confederates and the hostile divide that inspired Battle of Gettysburg reenactments. Even if most people cannot recall the specifics, or that Lincoln supposedly was inspired by Harriett Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," everyone knows who won. It was the North: the side without slavery. Without going into specifics, it was considered a major loss for the south - whose main resources were plantations and having field hands would allow the job to be done more affordably. This was perfectly detailed in Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind," in which protagonist Scarlett O'Hara watches Georgia crumble as they lose supplies and men in rapid succession while losing the vanity and simplicity that made her life so blissful.
The interesting note is that most of the quintessential Civil War movies don't actually feature prominent war scenes. While The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind have their share, most of the Civil War is often depicted in later films like Lincoln as being done through intense negotiations. While the culture is vastly different, the idea of a post-racial society remains an idealized goal that is far from being met. It is why Selma managed to resonate despite taking place 50 years prior to release. It is why films like 12 Years a Slave have altered the way that society talks about history. Even if the biggest hits in the Civil War film canon were released during the first half of the 20th century, there's its own progression in the decades to follow where the racism is replaced by discussion of change. It's not always clean and fighting fellow citizens is itself a tragically chaotic plot device. Still, film is most vivid when it has danger, and fighting for freedom has proven to be one of the medium's most vivid archetypes.
As mentioned, not every big Civil War movie takes place in battle. While filled with inaccuracies, Django Unchained chronicles a freed slave as he gets revenge on his former owners. It's violent and messy, but almost seems fitting because of how cartoonish and of the time the characters are. By the time that he gets to the ultimate sign of evil in Calvin Candie, it's a slow and methodical build-up. The film's director, Quentin Tarantino, would continue to explore themes in The Hateful Eight, where a smaller cast of characters embodied American culture following the war. A black man has what he calls "The Lincoln Papers" to prove his freedom. Still, it doesn't stop the racial tension from heating up. It's even messier than his revenge film, and more vulgar in racist and sexist manners. It's a type of confrontation that is meant to uncover some deeper problems within American culture, and these two films may be some of the most successful and inventive repurposing of Civil War era culture in decades. It also helps that while uneven, Tarantino's quest to explore racial themes is some of the boldest and discomforting that have been seen in years.
It does help that The Birth of a Nation was only 30 years after the Civil War, and thus several survivors were still alive. While the film's text would later be used as a KKK marketing tool, it made the Civil War one of the most viable events to cover in cinema. Both Gone With the Wind and Dances With Wolves won Best Picture Oscars, with plenty of nominations from many other titles. It is bizarre, especially as the world moves further away from the 19th century, to think that there was a cultural overlap. Even if many could argue that their viewpoints are unpleasant, or that the much ballyhooed Confederate Flag doesn't deserve to keep flying over the south, there's still a romanticism that anyone would have for a forgotten way of life. While the Civil War ended slavery, it didn't end racial tensions and only increased bitterness. 

Scene from Cold Mountain
Among more recent films to romanticize the south following the war is the underrated Cold Mountain. On the surface, it's a typical story in which a loving wife patiently waits for her husband to return home from war in North Carolina. Unlike more skewered visions like Gone With the Wind, the film is more about the protagonist becoming an independent woman who learns to live life with the help of friends. It's a sweeping, beautiful epic that romanticizes the south in beautiful ways, never quite achieving the charred remnants of Georgia. With beautiful costumes and cinematography, it's a film that definitely sympathizes southerners without making them appear as bigoted or crazy as Tarantino would later. If anything, it makes a good case for living there because of how helpful everyone else seems to be.
So, why does the Civil War continue to inspire cinema? While it started likely because it was a war in America's recent past, it is just as rich with subtext as World War II would later be - but on home soil. There's many conflicting elements and the idea of pitting neighbors against each other is particularly tragic. However, it also has a nostalgic factor in the way that those admiring 1930's screwball comedies. Those who suggest that "They don't make them like they used to." should have an easy time understanding the appeal of the Civil War as an allegory. The south used to have a way of life, as simple and divisive as it may be, that was blissful to the white population. It was beautiful and expansive. With it gone, there's the tragedy of never getting that moment back. Yes, the gradual removal of slavery was a positive change. However, Lincoln once noted that he was sure that it would be hard for people to give up slaves as much as it was hard for people who had never had use for them. He may have ended up changing history for the better, but that analogy likely seeps into many films that romanticize the south.
Free State of Jones is likely going to try and be one of the more progressive tales of the Civil War. However, it joins a rich and complex history of how American history's big war rattled society and changed the psyche for better or worse. There may be many events that compare in the century to follow, but none could've been as possible without Lincoln or those wishing to make a difference. If nothing else, the Civil War is on par with the Revolutionary War in terms of major wars that altered the country and made it what it was today. The only thing is that, much like this summer's Captain America: Civil War, it is interesting to see two friendly sides competing against each other for moral high ground. It also tells us a whole lot about who we are as a country today.

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