THE CIVIL WAR ON FILM…A HANDY TEN

What with all the chatter about a coming second Civil War and all those statues coming down, I thought it might be useful to provide a list of good movies about the first Civil War. There haven’t been all that many, considering the significance of the occasion (I settled on ten, though even ten is way more good ones than we have about the Revolution, which some people regard as being an event in its own right).

As often happens, the losers had the stories. Four of these are from a Southern perspective. Three are either balanced or apolitical. The other three are about Lincoln.

My experience with Birth of a Nation is too long ago, and left too limited an impression (VHS on a 25″ television was perhaps not the best way to experience it) for me to have much of an opinion about it. From what I do remember it wouldn’t have made the cut anyway.

The General (1926)
D. Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman

And we begin here, with the Silent Era’s real Civil War masterpiece. It’s such a great and lauded comedy (it competes with Some Like it Hot for the highest ranking comedy on all those Best Of lists compiled by the crit-illuminati, and that it’s even a competition would be proof God doesn’t exist if it weren’t greater proof that the Devil does), that it’s easy to forget it’s also an action masterpiece, a Great Romance, a better train movie than Hitchcock ever made, and, as such things go, pretty sound history (the event depicted was real and, underneath all the zaniness, the story doesn’t stray much from the facts). You can have extra fun running around the internet looking up all the breathless reviews and trying to catch anyone emphasizing that the movie is as pro-Confederate as Gone With the Wind, or, if memory serves, Birth of a Nation. Buster makes us laugh. He’s protected. For now.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
D. John Ford

The variety of approaches John Ford took to the Civil War–without ever quite making a straightforward Civil War Movie (even The Horse Soldiers, comes in at an odd angle)–would make for an interesting book. Ford was one of two major American film-makers whose movies had politics (see below for the other) and those politics were cranky, unpredictable, leaning toward the pragmatic but with a touch of poetry thrown in at key moments to tip the moral balance.

He was made for Abraham Lincoln, then, and Lincoln for him. Ford famously “shamed” a reluctant Henry Fonda into playing the lead. Fonda was overwhelmed by the idea. Forget the Great Emancipator, Ford said. He’s a jack-leg lawyer from Springfield.

And that’s what Fonda does. He forgets himself right into the jack-leg lawyer’s skin.

But Ford never lets you forget this jack-leg lawyer’s eye for the main chance. Every move he makes–whether defending innocents from a lynch-mob, judging a pie contest, or, in the movie’s most telling scene, moving, with seeming reluctance, from the easy company of the backwoods farmers who know he’s a card, to the lap of Springfield Society, where only a certain Mary Todd laughs at his jokes–is rooted in ambition. Any idealism would be–must be–forever tempered. The visage of the stone monument that emerged from the rain in the film’s final frames as World War II loomed counts the cost.

Gone With The Wind (1939)
D. Victor Fleming (among others)

The Great White Whale.

Or is it Elephant? I get confused.

Anyway, it’s not the History that bothers the termite-lauding gate-keepers. As a matter of abiding by facts (which is what the illuminati always mean by History, except when the facts are inconvenient), Gone With the Wind is better than almost any of the historical fictions that never seem to bother anybody.

It’s the perspective that grates.

You know….But it’s racist!

No kidding. It’s told from the point of view of a daughter of the Plantation South–a class not generally known for their enlightened views on the subject–and engaged entirely with what she sees, feels, deems important. And if you think she and hers have got a sense of privilege when it comes to black people, you should take a look at how they–and Mammy–feel about “white trash” hillbillies some time.

It’s dangerous to forget what people have believed or why they believed it. I’m sure I read somewhere or other that it’s the forgetting that will let them learn to believe again.

Unless, of course, we really have transcended mere human nature.

Watch it now, while it’s still legal.

The Tall Target (1951)
D. Anthony Mann

Mann watched John Ford’s movies even more obsessively than Orson Welles or David Lean. He studied them so hard, his movies ended up having politics, too, never more than here.

The story involves Dick Powell’s detective, John Kennedy–who has isolated himself by resigning his post–trying to stop the Baltimore Plot assassination attempt on Lincoln as he journeys to Washington D.C. by train for his inauguration.  It’s a fine thriller, a great train movie and an excellent historical drama, not to mention one of the great unsung films noir.

But it’s also sharp about the complexities involved in secession and slavery as seen by the people of 1861. There are fine performances all around–Powell was really good at this sort of thing and the unflappable Adolphe Menjou has one of his very best roles.

But don’t sleep on Ruby Dee’s “servant,” as loyal as Mammy or Pork, and under no illusions about where her real interests lie. The subject of freedom does come up, after all. And her I know what it is (in response to her mistress suggesting she couldn’t possibly) says more than any hundred books about why the seductive appeal that slavery held for the slavers could only be eradicated by the massive bloodshed that, by 1861, was inevitable whether the Baltimore Plot succeeded or not.

Worth remembering–and revisiting–as the Alt-Right seizes the Post-Millennial Narrative.

The Red Badge of Courage (1951)
D. John Huston

I wrote extensively about this one here. I would only add that its mutilation is not entirely without relevance to the question of why Empires fall. And that what is left is still essential viewing for anyone who hopes to learn from the mistakes we were beginning to make even as this still essential film was being chopped to pieces by its studio.

Escape From Fort Bravo (1953)
D. John Sturges

“How’d a decrepit old man like you ever get in the war?”
“Because all the smart young men like you was losing it.”

A rare western actually set in both the West and the Civil War. Its most stirring scenes involve Indian fighting. But it’s a first rate Civil War film, too, presaging the kind of cooperation between bitter enemies that was required to hold the West during the conflict, and conquer what remained of it afterwards.

Anyone who thinks that was easy or inevitable will be disabused of the notion by this one. The final clash with the Mescalero Apaches is among the most heart-stopping action sequences in cinema, nonpareil even for the man who made The Great Escape.

Meanwhile, William Holden and Eleanor Parker are at their considerable best–he never more bitter or world-weary (not even in The Wild Bunch, the movie Sam Peckinpah made after Major Dundee, which shares its main themes with Bravo, turned out less than half as good), she never more noble or fetching.

But the heart of the film belongs to William Demarest’s aging Confederate. He’s there for a reason.

You know because all the smart young men like you was losing it.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
D. Clint Eastwood

Of the Eastwood-directed films I’ve seen (eleven by my count, most of them entertaining), this is the only one with a touch of poetry. One wonders if the early involvement of Phil Kaufman–who’s known for such touches–had something to do with that. But, as it’s brutal poetry, it might have been Forrest Carter’s source material. Carter wrote two novels about the Josey Wales character, a renegade who, motivated by vengeance after his family is murdered by Kansas Redlegs, rides with Bill Anderson in the Civil War and refuses to surrender afterwards. Before that, as Asa Carter, he had been a speechwriter for George Wallace, credited with, among other things, Wallace’s “segregation forever” speech. Brutal poetry was his specialty.

Any chance Josey Wales would be rated as highly as it deserves (Orson Welles thought it a masterwork and, with Eastwood shedding most of the Sergio Leone influence and accessing his inner John Ford, I’m in no position to argue), was shot to hell once that got around. Perhaps Kaufman’s status as a sterling liberal would have helped ease the illuminati‘s collective conscience. There was no way for that to happen with Eastwood’s name under the directing credit.

Be that as it may, it’s an essential film. certainly the best made about a border raider. Unlike the Jesse James’ narratives it shadows, it doesn’t need a distortion of history to make the fictional Wales a protagonist who, if not exactly easy to root for, is still worth feeling for. The character suits Eastwood’s laconic style to a T (it might be his best acting job), and there’s good work all around, especially from Chief Dan George, who, in a just world, would have picked up the Oscar he already deserved for Little Big Man.

With time and patience I’ve even forgiven Sondra Locke for not being Shirley MacLaine (Eastwood’s partner in Two Mules for Sister Sara, who would have been perfect for this if she’d been ten years younger).

And, lo and behold, gleaming through at the end, is that old shibboleth, The American Dream.

The one where all men are brothers, forgiven their sins and living in harmony–a strange vision indeed, emanating from the Segregation Forever man and, perhaps for the last time, granted the power of myth.

Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1988)
D. Lamont Johnson

Television and, to my mind, a superior take to Steven Spielberg’s (still quite good) made-for-theaters Lincoln.

Gore Vidal’s source novel had enough authority to excise the inevitable sentimentality that’s built into Lincoln’s basic arc (so primal that little myth-making gild has ever been required) from any adaptation. And Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore, the best Abe and Mary since Young Mister Lincoln, look, act, move and speak as though they’ve absorbed everything John Ford implied forty years earlier–or that the real Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd left behind of themselves just shy of four score years before that. There is no better way–on film, television, stage or page–to experience the weight of Lincoln’s burden or the lasting tragedy of his being taken from the scene so soon after the guns grew silent.

Gettysburg (1993)
D. Ron Maxwell

The best battle film ever made. There are sequences in other films that match the combat scenes here, but no entire film that mounts with the same tension from peak to peak.

The battle itself was made for a three act drama, though no one seems to have realized it until Michael Shaara published The Killer Angels in 1974. It’s all captured here. Sam Elliot’s John Buford turning a skirmish into a battle on the First Day that established the respective positions of the armies (and the Union’s tactical advantage). Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain desperately clinging to Little Round Top and preventing the turn of the Union flank (in scenes of brutal close order fighting that have not been surpassed) on the Second Day. Stephen Lang’s George Pickett leading the fatal charge against the Union center on the Third Day.

Maxwell spent years trying to bring it all to the screen and the commitment shows. The weight of the matter is left in no doubt. The men on either side understood the battle’s–and the war’s–significance, to them and the nation. An impressive array of fine actors do their best work bringing them to life–not just Elliot, Daniels and Lang, but Tom Berenger (James Longstreet), Richard Jordan (Lewis Armisted), Brian Mallon (Winfield Hancock), C. Thomas Howell (Tom Chamberlain) and Kevin Conway (as a fictional Union Everyman)  are all indelible. Even the small parts are exquisitely cast and played–for me the strongest impression is made by Andrew Prine’s Dick Garnett, on screen for perhaps five minutes, and doing more than any man here to demonstrate the fatalistic sickness that descends on men who have seen too much slaughter.

And beyond all that is the movie’s most disorienting feature–Martin Sheen taking Robert E. Lee down from his pedestal and putting a human being in his place with a penetrating psychological portrait that does not shirk the idea that Lee was undone by the cult of personality his virtually unbroken string of successes before the Third Day at Gettysburg was bound to engender.

Ride With the Devil (1999)
D. Ang Lee

A box office disaster with the kind of mixed reviews that always result when a movie doesn’t come with the underlining in crayon that tells critics what they are supposed to think.

Don’t let that put you off. It’s a great sequel to The Outlaw Josey Wales, but it’s also it’s own thing–something that cannot be said of many films made post 1980, in the Frozen Silence of modern American “culture.”

Tobey Maguire reminds you of why he was such a big deal for a while there and Jewel caps a lovely performance by being the only white person in the history of film to keep the word “nigger” free of modern associations.

It’s the absence of all modern associations, especially those tied to moral or physical comfort, that make the film difficult to fit into any approved Narrative.

We’re back to the border wars again–the one part of the country where the War raged on for years after Appomattox, not as a test of political will, but as a killing field fought over by “irregulars.”

A German immigrant and a black man ride with the Southerners (this made many heads spin on C-Span), who are losing their identity anyway. The Southerners fight each other verbally as much as they fight the Enemy physically.

No one is ever right. Or safe.

You can see how the thirty-eight million dollar budget turned into six hundred thousand at the box office.

But the lessons for the future are there, if you choose to look and learn.

The main difference is that, next time, it will be down your street, and the bickering will be between men with Uzis and AKs, instead of six-shooters.

Else rocket launchers.

Watch ’em while you can ya’ll!

 

 

HISTORY AND MYSTERY (Monthly Book Report: 9/16 and 10/16)

I’m still trying to get back to full speed on my reading. Maybe next month! In the meantime, after a blank September, I did manage to finish a couple in October. First up is Mark Perry’s superb history Conceived In Liberty, a look at nineteenth-century America through the prism of dual biographies of the opposing commanders at Little Round Top. Next is Josephine Tey’s first mystery novel The Man in the Queue, a well-made whodunit that points the way towards a brilliant, unconventional career in crime fiction.

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Conceived In Liberty: Joshua Chamberlain, William Oates, and the American Civil War
(Mark Perry, 1997)

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Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (b. September, 1828) was a Bowdoin College professor of classics, fluent in ten languages and destined to become the school’s president. William Oates (b. November, 1835) was an Alabama roustabout who left a farm-boy life to adventure in the west before coming home and turning to the law and local politics. Both men were destined to become governors of their home states. Like hundreds of other volunteer officers in the Civil War, each fought and commanded honorably and well for their respective sides. Lacking West Point credentials, each man had limits placed on his military advancement and might have reasonably expected to be forgotten by history except for a twist of fate which found them faced off against each other in the most famous engagement of the most famous battle in American history.

On July 2, 1863, the men of Chamberlain’s 20th Maine, forming the extreme left of the Union line established the day before, fought the men of Oates’s 15th Alabama on a rock-strewn forest floor near the summit of a hill called Little Round Top.

The Maine men, under a “no retreat” order, were aware that the ground they stood on had to be defended at all costs. The Alabama men were equally aware that the ground had to be taken at all costs. Their respective positions prohibited any chance of reinforcements for either side.

The result was some of the fiercest close-order combat ever fought, with the two lines exchanging volley after volley of single shot musket fire at the distance of a couple of first downs and finally engaging in desperate hand-to-hand fighting. Oates tried a series of straightforward assaults mingled with repeated attempts to flank the hill. Chamberlain countered accordingly, with each side’s manpower and ammunition dwindling through the long afternoon.

When the smoke finally cleared, Chamberlain’s men held. In all likelihood, they saved the Union army at Gettysburg and, with it, the American Experiment.

The fight itself has been memorably depicted in numerous other historical accounts, in Michael Shaara’s brilliant novel, The Killer Angels, and in Ron Maxwell’s superb battle film, Gettysburg.

There’s a good description of it here, too. But Perry is after a larger narrative, one that weaves the lives of his two protagonists in and around the forward march of the nineteenth century America Chamberlain and Oates both so ably and memorably represented.

It’s a tall task and Perry is up to it.

He merges his biographies and battle accounts with not just useful histories of abolitionism and Reconstruction but the other burning issues of the century: women’s rights, temperance, the death penalty, the meaning of citizenship for freed slaves and much more. The writing is fluid and organic, enabling Perry to build a narrative that captures the romance of our bloodiest conflict–the one that had to be fought before any other issue could be fully confronted or the direction of our Experiment determined–without selling the tragedy and terror short.

Even more admirably, Perry takes a layered approach which never lets the reader forget that, then, as now, the world did not run in a straight line.

Chamberlain was much more the romantic, Oates the hard-headed realist, though neither was easily pigeon-holed.

Oates, a strict segregationist was nonetheless the first Confederate officer to argue forcefully and publicly for slaves to be given emancipation if they would agree to fight for the South, insisting, “If we don’t free them, the Union will.” Chamberlain, an ardent abolitionist and pre-war intimate of Harriet Beecher Stowe, nonetheless argued against full citizenship for freedmen after his war heroism elevated him to the governorship of Maine. Perry does a commendable job of placing both men in the full context of their times, stressing their contradictions without obscuring their very real (and, in Chamberlain’s case, history-altering) merits.

Highly recommended in any event, but especially urgent and poignant in this year when the cracks in our foundation are once more staring us in the face.

The Man In the Queue
(Josephine Tey, 1929)

themaninthequeue2“Josephine Tey” was the nom de plume Elizabeth MacKintosh adopted for her crime novels after she dropped “Gordon Daviot.”

Irrespective of name or genre, she was one of the twentieth century’s most interesting novelists.

After revisiting her devastating Miss Pym Disposes a few months back, I’ve decided to start re-reading her in order (there are only six more).

The Man in the Queue is, for her, atypical. It’s the only one of her novels that hues anywhere close to formula, having her Scotland Yard detective, Alan Grant, chase clues to the murder of an unidentified man, committed in theater queue.

Even here, Tey isn’t quite satisfied with the conventions. Among other devices, she narrates in gender neutral first person, from the perspective of an unnamed friend of Inspector Grant’s, who disappears for such long intervals that his/her occasional reassertion of “I” amounts to what, in theater or film, would be called breaking the fourth wall.

If it’s formula–nothing is done with the plot that Agatha Christie couldn’t have delivered at least as well– it’s satisfying formula. And more or less adhering to it leaves Tey room for side-trips into interesting places. The Scottish moors and London streets have been rendered many times, before and since (though never better), but who else has got so far inside the broken field running bound to dominate the mind of a Yard man who is no Sherlock Holmes but merely a dogged detective, prone to a flash of inspiration now and again, who knows his job?

Why had the man hidden his identity? Was it perhaps mere accident? Nothing but the tailor’s name had been obliterated from his clothes, and the maker’s name had been left on the tie–surely a most obvious place if one had been deliberately eliminating identification marks. But if it were a mere accident that eliminated the tailor’s name, how account for the scantiness of the man’s belongings? Small change, a handkerchief and a revolver. Not even a watch. It spoke loudly of intended suicide. Perhaps the man was broke. He didn’t look it, but that was no criterion. Grant had known many paupers who looked like millionaires, and beggars with large bank balances. Had the man, at the end of his resources, decided to end it rather than sink slowly into the gutter? Had the visit to the theatre with his last few shillings been merely a snapping of fingers in the face of the gods who had defeated him? Was it merely the final irony that the dagger had anticipated  his own revolver by an hour or two? But if he were broke, why had he not gone to the friend for money?–the friend who was so free with his bank-notes? Or had he? and the friend had refused it? Was it conscience, after all, that had prompted that anonymous twenty-five pounds? If he decided to accept the presence of the revolver and the absence of clues as evidence of attempted suicide, then the murder resolved itself into the outcome of a quarrel–probably between two members of a race gang. Perhaps the Levantine had shared in the dead man’s downfall and had held the dead man responsible. That was the most reasonable explanation. And it fitted all the circumstances. The man was interested in racing–probably a bookmaker–he was found without watch or money and evidently prepared for suicide; the Levantine was heard to demand something which the dead man either could not or would not give, and the Levantine had stabbed him. The friend who had refused him help in life–probably tired of pulling him out of tight places–had been seized with such a fit of remorse on learning of the man’s end that he had provided lavishly, if anonymously, for his burial. Pure theory but it fitted–almost!

There’s more, but it’s that “almost”–a standard device used here to punctuate a very non-standard stream of consciousness (which, in turn, is too diffuse to be the norm for the usual detective fiction, too linear–too much like a keen mind navigating a sea of confusion and too much a replication of the conscious mind at the expense of the subconscious–to impress the literati, who really do believe such things are simple)–that keeps us on our toes.

Combine that with a writer who could capture, in stark outline, an entire milieu of cultural, familial and psychological assumptions with a swift aside…

“I’m so glad you didn’t wait Agnes,” Mr. Logan said, in a tone which clearly said, I think you might have waited. 

…and it becomes obvious, even as early as a first novel written in 1929, that the web of convention she so ably replicated here, could never have held her.

SHADOW AND ACT….1879 AND NOW (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #85)

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Alonzo Garcelon

I didn’t quite finish any of the books I was reading last month, but this passage, from Mark Perry’s outstanding history of the 19th century, Conceived In Liberty, struck a chord. It serves as an interesting reminder for those who have hyped themselves into thinking these are turbulent (as opposed to merely depressing and soul-sapping) times:

By late 1879, [Maine] Governor Garcelon was under mounting public pressure to call out the state militia to disarm the political gangs and restore order in the state capital. Instead, he called for a hundred volunteers to protect the governor’s office–which only served to further inflame the situation. He attempted to arm these volunteers from the state’s stocks of weapons and ammunition in Bangor, but Republican forces refused to turn over the material. Finally, Garcelon found 20,000 rounds of ammunition, which arrived in Augusta on December 30. Garcelon’s army was supplied with the needed ammunition just in time: across the street from the capitol, a crowd of [James G.] Blaine’s riflemen was gathering to begin an assault on Garcelon’s forces. It was only when a clash became imminent, in early January, that Garcelon decided that an Augusta street battle would destroy his governorship. He therefore signed an executive order on January 5–“Special Order No. 45”–that called on the state militia, under its new commander Joshua Chamberlain (who had recently been appointed major general in the state militia, and its commander), to take control of Augusta until the political crisis had passed. For the next twelve days, in an environment bordering on civil war, Chamberlain acted as the state’s chief executive.

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Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

I’ll have more on Chamberlain, a former governor and war hero who, by his sober and effective actions in this instance, ended any chance for furthering his own considerable political ambitions, when I review the book next month. But I found it interesting that my parents, born around 1920, grew up in an age when this event (and many others like it) was well within the living memory of people in late middle age.

The message, as always, is that Civilization is fragile and requires constant care. It’s Barbarism that rests on the sturdy rock of human nature and requires no tending at all.

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James Blaine

James Blaine, incidentally, was a sitting U.S. Senator, a future Secretary of State (under two presidents) and the nominee of the Republican Party in 1884. Just in case you were thinking a guy threatening to take over a U.S. state with his own militia in 1879 must have been some wild-eyed John Brown type.

Face it folks. These are the Shadows we’re living in. All the Acts are in the past.

For now.