Four Problematic Movies About The Civil War
None of these should come as a big surprise. All four are landmarks in the history and development of American -- and by extension, world -- cinema, but there’s no avoiding the baggage they carry with them.
In order of most to least problematic…
Birth Of A Nation:
#1 with a bullet, Hollywood’s equivalent of Triumph Of The Will. Vile, racist propaganda based on vile, racist propaganda (full disclosure: I am a distant cousin of the Thomas Dixon who wrote the novel The Clansman that the movie is based on; I’m pleased to report he sunk his tainted profits into a company to make his own movies and went bankrupt). Still used as a recruiting tool by the Ku Klux Klan to this very day. Director D.W. Griffith was a Southerner who grew up listening to his father and uncles explain how they really won the war; like many Southerners of his generation he was a white supremacist but never thought of himself as a hateful bigot. The pushback against Birth… disabused him of that idea and he spent the rest of his cinematic career denying his previous held views, making such films as Intolerance and The Greatest Thing In Life in an attempt to undo the damage he had done. As a cinematic historical artifact, Birth… is important as one of the very first American feature films (the Italians had been doing them for a couple of years by that point) and as an encapsulation of Griffith’s mastery of technique, as an actual historical artifact it is a vile piece of hate mongering that boosted the Klan’s power and retarded civil rights for generations. Not recommended for anyone, though I can understand film and civil rights historians wanting to see it as an example of the era.
Gone With The Wind:
A truncated-yet-still-turgid adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, GWTW continues the pernicious historical revisionism pioneered by Birth… albeit in a slightly less hateful form. It embraces the lie of the noble lost cause while avoiding most of the overtly hateful racism of Birth…, and in doing so possibly inflicted more cultural harm by making racism less obvious and more genteel. Arguments can be made for Scarlett O’Hara as a proto-feminist character, true, and when the melodrama is going great guns it can be entertaining, but as more than one critic has observed, the Scarlett / Rhett / Ashley / Melanie quadrangle floats atop the uncommented on suffering of literally millions of people. African-Americans have little impact on the story other than as sounding boards for white characters to vent feelings; “good” African-Americans enable the whites’ emotional foolishness while “bad” African-Americans act independently. While it represents the Hollywood studio system at its technical apex (Casablanca a few years later would be the artistic apex of the studio system, but by then America and the world had changed irrevocably from the historical fantasy found in GWTW), its ranking as a classic is greatly overstated because of successful marketing; it’s too long by at least an hour and you could stop watching when it breaks for intermission and still have a solid story. While I’m no fan and wouldn’t recommend it except to people who are film buffs, neither can I fault those who still enjoy it.
The only fact-based film on the list is ironically one of the best silent comedies ever made. It also literally white washes the cause of the Civil War and despite being set in the American South during the conflict, I can’t recall any African-American characters being in the film. The story is a prolonged chase by Southern railroad engineer Buster Keaton after a Union raiding party that stole his train; it ends with Keaton wrecking a real locomotive by dumping it from a burning trestle into a river. In a purely visual sense the story is about the light uniforms fighting the dark uniforms, and as such can be watched and enjoyed without a scintilla of guilt. In an actual historical sense, it also enabled the white washing of history by pretending the conflict was over noble defenders of “states’ rights (to own people)” resisting despotic invaders. While not as culturally damaging as Birth… or GWTW, it did contribute to a gross misrepresentation of actual history. If you are the sort of person who takes righteous umbrage at that, The General is not a film for you; if you’re a film historian or if you just like comedy, I can recommend it with the aforementioned caveats.
Song Of The South:
This one is all over the map, with genuine critics and defenders among all ethnicities and on both sides of the issues. On the one hand, it’s part and parcel with the attitudes portrayed in GWTW, on the other it’s an open celebration of African-American culture; on one hand it’s that culture being celebrated in hokey sounding dialect by white writer Joel Chandler Harris (his original draft is virtually unreadable today with its burlesque spellings and pronunciations), on the other literally millions of people in the United States and around the world would have never realized how remarkably inventive and entertaining African-American story telling was without Uncle Remus. Walt Disney may not have been the most enlightened person to run a studio, but mark this: For his very first live action feature (and in Technicolor, no less, very costly at the time), he built his story around a black man -- that took guts in 1946 America (find another Hollywood film that did that). Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and the other cartoon characters are not the problem -- they’ve been peeled off and repurposed as all around funny cartoon animals -- but the live action framing story (which takes place during Reconstruction but already bears earmarks of Jim Crow). The live action portion -- both in attitude and cinematic style -- has not aged well, and if something like that could possibly mar one’s viewing pleasure, it certainly will mar that pleasure (when they recorded “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” the Disney studio had no idea of the racist implications in the minstrel song that inspired it). Still, while I would caution modern audiences before seeing it, I can recommend as worth seeing.
Text © Buzz Dixon