History is written by the victors, the old saying tells us, but this has not always been the case with films about the American Civil War. Since the silent era, many films have embraced the myth of the old South. In this, plantation life is held to be the last bastion of genteel traditions and aristocratic living, slavery is portrayed as a benevolent institution, the war is caused by northern aggression, and the postwar reconstruction period is depicted as tyrannical. Remarkably, this myth informs two of the greatest box-office successes of all time, The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. The more recent Cold Mountain departs from the myth, but it made far less of an impact with audiences.
1) The Birth of a Nation
Dir: DW Griffith, USA, 1915. With Lillian Gish, Henry B Walthall, Mae Marsh
This epic film, based on a novel and play entitled The Clansman, suggests that the true birth of the United States was not achieved in the War of Independence but when the Civil War was settled some 100 years later.
Care is taken to show sacrifice on both sides of the conflict. The story centres on two white families, the southern (and slave-owning) Camerons and the northern Stonemans. Each loses a son in battle, and the two families are united by marriage after the war. Furthermore, northerners and southerners alike mourn the death of President Lincoln, whose assassination forms a major dramatic sequence in the film.
Such unity and reconciliation extends only to white Americans, however, and it is achieved at the expense of African Americans. They are seen happily picking cotton (as slaves) before the war, but then in the aftermath of war they are portrayed as unable to handle their new freedom.
In the reconstruction scenes, rioting African Americans rampage through the Camerons’ home. They form the majority in the newly elected state legislature, where they are depicted as barefoot, eating and drinking while in session, and jubilant at passing a bill legalising interracial marriage.
A rapist pursues young Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh), who leaps off a cliff (to her death) to avoid her pursuer. He is lynched by the Ku Klux Klan, formed to re-establish white supremacy throughout the South and treated here as an heroic organisation.
The racism is worsened by many of the African American roles being played by white actors in blackface. Yet the film is not easily dismissed.
In aesthetic terms, it was a landmark achievement in 1915. It was the longest (at three hours) and most complex film made in the United States, and demonstrates Griffith’s genius as a pioneering filmmaker. While there were some protests against it, many Americans accepted its vision of history. Indeed, the Klan was revived at the time of its release, and became a national organisation rather than one based in the South.
But is it accurate?
Griffith was adamant his film was historically accurate, but he had been raised in the South, by a father who fought for the Confederacy and probably belonged to the Klan. He genuinely believed in the film’s lies, distortions and exaggerations, and was talented enough as a filmmaker to make many other people believe in them as well.
2) Gone with the Wind
Dir: Victor Fleming, USA, 1939. With Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia De Havilland, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen
Margaret Mitchell was also raised in the South, and her thousand-page novel was based on the stories she remembered her family telling about the war and its aftermath. But the film of Gone with the Wind was made by the producer David O Selznick, and he had no vested interest in its southern perspective.
Although Selznick was noted as a filmmaker who adapted books faithfully, in this case he was willing to consult the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People [NAACP] and to take its advice on how to tone down the novel’s racist elements.
Nevertheless, Selznick recognised that a key part of the story’s appeal lay in its mythical treatment of life in the old South. Tara, the imposing mansion at the centre of the film, is far too grand to be the home of an up-country Georgia planter, but it fit the audience’s expectations of plantation life. So, too, did the sense of propriety that the story portrays as typical of southern ‘civilisation’.
Slaves are once again seen as contented, although at least some of them are significant characters. In fact, Hattie McDaniel won one of the film’s ten Oscars (and the first to be awarded to an African American) for her portrayal of the formidable Mammy.
The story, of course, is focused not on Mammy but on the spoiled belle of the ball, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), her infatuation with the refined Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) and her marriage to the roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable).
In the midst of this love triangle, which spreads throughout the film’s four-hour running time, there is a gripping account of the old order being swept away by war. The siege and burning of Atlanta are given particularly vivid treatment. Ultimately, this is a film about a woman’s struggle to survive ‘total war’, and that was one reason for its extraordinary popularity in Britain during the Second World War.
But is it accurate?
The governor of Georgia certainly endorsed this account of the state’s history: he declared a state-wide holiday on the day of the premiere. But there were also detractors, including one African American critic who argued that, whereas The Birth of a Nation was so bold that even a “moron” could see through it, Gone with the Wind’s subtlety made it the more dangerous film.
This less strident rendition of the myth would enable more people to believe in the escapist fantasy of a refined and elegant American past.
3) Cold Mountain
Dir: Anthony Minghella, UK/USA, 2003. With Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, Renée Zellweger, Donald Sutherland, Brendan Gleeson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eileen Atkins, Ray Winstone
Cold Mountain is based on another novel by a southern author, Charles Frazier, but he was not intent on pursuing the myth. Frazier was intrigued by the story of his great-great-uncle, a captured Confederate soldier who escaped from a Union prison in Illinois and made his way on foot back to North Carolina, only to be shot as a deserter when he was just three miles from home.
The story focuses on a more humble southern lifestyle and the film, faithfully adapted by the British director Anthony Minghella, steers clear of imposing plantation houses and contented slaves.
The love story is unlikely: Inman (Jude Law) and Ada (Nicole Kidman) barely know each other when Inman leaves to join the fighting. As the war engulfs the separated couple, the promise of their reunion offers each of them a beacon of hope, and a way of maintaining their humanity amid its brutality. On Inman’s long journey home he is dogged by bounty hunters, renegade Union soldiers, and Confederates who would kill him for desertion. Death is around every corner.
His odyssey is intercut with Ada’s story. At home in the rural settlement of Cold Mountain, she faces starvation and a home guard that has turned into a pack of murderous vigilantes.
Like Gone with the Wind, this is at heart a woman’s film, and its most interesting characters are the elderly backwoods hermit (Eileen Atkins) who nurses Inman, and the rough diamond Ruby (Renée Zellweger), who saves Ada from starving by helping her work the farm.
Zellweger’s broad performance would not be out of place in the Beverly Hillbillies, but she breathes some needed energy and humour into the film. It is telling that she won its only Oscar (for best supporting actress).
Normally, the Academy loves an historical epic, and especially one as beautifully filmed as this. Yet Cold Mountain is a bit too quiet, a tad too slow, and its leading stars a little too underwhelming for it to be the box-office giant and award-winner it was clearly intended to be.
But is it accurate?
While Inman was based on a real person, the account of his journey is largely imagined, and so too is the character of Ada. Although one very brief scene shows runaway slaves being shot on the spot, for the most part the film seems wary of engaging slavery.
That point aside, Cold Mountain offers a credible account of a rural southern community in the midst of the Civil War.
Other films about the American Civil War:
(Dir: Edward Zick, USA, 1989)
A rarity: a Civil War film focusing on African American soldiers fighting for the Union.
(Ronald F Maxwell, USA, 1993)
The epic battle is re-enacted on a vast cinematic canvas, from the perspective of both North and South.
Ride with the Devil
(Ang Lee, USA, 1999)
Tobey Maguire stars in this anti-heroic tale of guerrilla warfare in Kansas and Missouri.
Mark Glancy teaches film history at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of When Hollywood Loved Britain (Manchester University Press, 1999) and The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide (Tauris, 2003).