Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten

Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten:
How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know
About the Civil War
by Gary W. Gallagher
University of North Carolina Press
Hardcover, $28.00
284 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8078-3206-6

Book Review by Kam Williams

“Films undeniably teach Americans about the past – to a lamentable degree in the minds of many academic historians. More people have formed perceptions about the Civil War from watching Gone with the Wind than from reading all the books written by historians since [producer David O.] Selznick’s blockbuster debuted in 1939. Even moderately successful movies attract a far larger audience than the most widely read non-fiction books dealing with the conflict.”
-- Excerpted from the Introduction (page 10)

To what extent are your beliefs about the Civil War based upon false myths spun by movies as opposed to the truth? If you think that of the ante bellum South as a place populated by “cheerfully loyal slaves and genteel white people,” then your beliefs have probably been substantially shaped more by Hollywood nostalgia for an idyllic utopia that never existed than by fact.
This is the contention of Gary Gallagher, Professor of History at the University of Virginia. As the author of dozens of highly-regarded books on the subject, he is ostensibly frustrated that his and his colleagues painstakingly-researched texts tend to take a back seat to cinematic characterizations of the conflict.
Acknowledging that he’s not a film critic, Gallagher explains that the purpose of this opus is not to assess the artistic merits of Civil War movies. Nonetheless, he does dissect the genre in terms of historical accuracy. Among the classics thus assessed are such so-called classics as Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation (1915), though he also focuses on a host of relatively-modern offerings, including flicks like Cold Mountain (2003), Glory (1989), Dances with Wolves (1990) and Gettysburg (1993).
We learn that D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was originally titled “The Clansmen” because it was based on an unapologetically-racist novel of the same name. Between its depiction of freed blacks as depraved and their former owners as paternalistic and kindly, the film painted a sympathetic picture of the Confederacy.
Similarly, Gone with the Wind blamed invading Union soldiers and carpetbaggers for upsetting the peace of the longstanding slave-master relationship typified by Old Sam’s assuring Miss Scarlett, “Don’t worry, we’ll stop them Yankees.” In general, these epics present rabid rebels like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis as beloved heroes while slave revolt leader John Brown and Union General Sherman are treated as cruel for having dedicated themselves to eradicating a benign institution. In the upside-down world created by Cold Mountain, “Virtually all white southern women… are either indifferent or deeply opposed to the war.”
The book also discusses the War between the States from an African-American perspective during a discussion of The Confederate States of America (2004), a feature film directed by Kevin Willmott, a black director. Overall, Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten is an excellent read, likely to leave you rethinking long-held attitudes about the Civil War and wondering how much you might have been manipulated by movies in forming those opinions.

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