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!

 

 

THE GIRL RIGHT NEXT DOOR (Mary Tyler Moore, R.I.P.)

She had the same job in the sixties and seventies that Ginger Rogers had in the thirties and forties and Jennifer Aniston (who will be the last) had in the nineties and yesterday.

The job description was simple: Dancer’s grace, improbable cheekbones, trouper. Must be able to hang with the kooks without becoming one. Must be able to represent the normals without forgetting you belong to us, improbabilities and all.

Of the thousands who applied, only a handful–mostly children of Show Biz–managed to grab a moment.

Only those three were able to make a career of it.

And, of those, our Mary may have had the hardest job, if only because we asked her to represent “normalcy” at the moment when the concept was shifting at light speed from the old paradigm to the new.

The new paradigm is no paradigm at all. Normalcy is the new tyranny. But that isn’t her fault. We couldn’t have asked for better representation.

Of course, like any woman who resolves too many contradictions without seeming to sweat, she was deemed “difficult.” Any good looking female who makes it look easy while holding that much power over our imaginations is bound to get a reputation. (Ginger was a puppet, Jen a lightweight. It’s always something). Personally I never cared. If being difficult was what it took for her to be what she was, then it was worth every bottle of Pepto every producer in Hollywood ever poured down his throat.

She did such a good job of being difficult that, before all was said and done, she was one of the handful to ever be part of the DNA of two iconic television shows, one of which carried her name, and had a host of Emmys, a Tony, an Oscar nomination and most everything else we could throw at her. If we didn’t throw anything at her for her portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln in Gore Vidal’s Lincoln–which was probably the finest performance of her career, so good that, just be existing, it kept Sally Field’s turn in the more recent Spielberg movie from ever lifting off–it was probably because not enough of us could make the shift in our minds.

Not that I imagine too many people ever thought she was “really” Laura Petrie or Mary Richards, in the way that we thought James Garner just might be Bret Maverick or Jim Rockford. But that only made her more improbable, not a whit less valuable. Actors, after all, the iconic ones at least, have the reverse job of most who seek space in our heads, including other actors. We’re forced to measure their value separately. For them, it is not the being, but the doing that matters. It’s the doing that matters–to us and to them–even in those rare instances where we dare to suppose their being and doing are one and the same.

It wasn’t finally important for Mary Tyler Moore to be Mary Richards, any more than it was for James Garner to be Jim Rockford. It was only important for them to do.

And the vital thing for those of us in the cheap seats–be it Broadway balcony, metroplex cushion, or the recliner in the den–was to be allowed to eradicate the distance in our minds for that time that they chose to represent us.

No one represented us more, or longer, or better, when, not so very long ago, there was an “us.”

ACTING LESSONS (Segue of the Day: 5/6/15)

I’m off this week, which means I’m way busier than usual. Watching movies, listening to music, reading books. That’s what I call busy!

Oh yeah, and cleaning house. After enough of that, I need a break.

So I’ve been staying real busy.

Day before yesterday brought back-to-back, first time viewings of The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004, Niels Mueller directing, Sean Penn’s show all the way, 95 minutes that felt much longer), followed by Norma Rae (1979, Martin Ritt directing, Sally Field’s show all the way, 110 minutes that made time stand absolutely still).

RICHARDNIXON4

Penn nailed his performance. There was never a moment when I wasn’t saying to myself, “boy that guy can really act.” Of course, he didn’t get inside the killer with sociopathic tendencies he was playing (a gentleman named Sam Bicke, based on one Sam Byck, who actually did try to assassinate Nixon by hijacking a plane and crashing it into the White House), because, well, Sam, however his last name is spelled, was a killer with sociopathic tendencies.

It’s not really a place the Method can take you, try as actors, writers, et al, will.

Or, to put it another way, it’s not a place the Method can take you unless you’re not planning to come back (a place only Vivien Leigh in  A Streetcar Named Desire has ever been willing to go in front of a movie camera when playing anyone dangerous…her exact quote was “it tipped me over into madness,” which in real world terms meant she was hauled off her next movie set in a strait-jacket).

One thing I know about Sean Penn. He’s always planning to come back.

I bring this up because I wonder how much time our “culture” has actually spent trying to get inside the heads of the violently deranged.

More time, I’ll wager, than we’ve spent celebrating any textile mill workers, even those occasional heroes in the fight for basic labor rights.

I’ll grant you there are a lot of pitfalls to doing anything really good–as opposed to “worthy”–with a story like Norma Rae. Martin Ritt had worked magic with everything from The Spy Who Came In From the Cold to Hombre, to Sounder, so, with a fine cast assembled, he probably could have been trusted to at least keep the thing on track.

But I had my reasons for staying away from it all these years.

The union-is-coming-to-save-us narrative (which I rightly suspected was at the heart of the thing) was hardly uncomplicated for somebody like me, who lost a mother to brown lung acquired during a twenty-year stint in an unprotected textile mill not unlike the one in Norma Rae and nonetheless had about the same use for unions as my father, who once spent an off-season from the carny circuit working in an auto plant where the union was firmly enough established to threaten square pegs (my dad’s natural born state) with the very same tactics used by employers in places where the square pegs were union organizers like the one played by Ron Leibman in Norma Rae.

I figured it was just going to be a pure shot of Hollywood-style two-hanky adrenalin then, and I’d need to have my bullet-proof heart-valve safely installed whenever I did get around to watching it.

My real qualm, though, was being none too sure about what Sally Field could do with a southerner (the record of southerners playing southerners in Hollywood is deeply mixed…that of non-southerners not named Vivien Leigh playing southerners is considerably worse). Mind you, everybody in the south likes Sally Field as much as everybody everywhere likes her and, back in the days when Norma Rae was being cast, shot and released, she was sort of an adopted daughter. Anyone in this part of the world would have been very surprised indeed to learn how hard she (and Martin Ritt, to his everlasting credit) had to fight for the right for her to carry even a small budget movie because nobody in Hollywood considered her a big enough star.

Apparently those people had never heard of Smokey and the Bandit!

I’m sure none of them had ever heard of Heroes, her first chance at a serious part on the big-screen, which might well have changed how the world felt about her and both of her co-stars (Henry Winkler and Harrison Ford) if the behind-the-camera talent had been on the order of Martin Ritt and his crew.

So it wasn’t like I had anything but fond feelings for Sally Field, before or after they handed her an Oscar. Loved her in Smokey and the Bandit. Loved her more in Heroes.

I had no doubt she had probably been just fine in Norma Rae, even if they did give her an Oscar for it.

And “just fine” wasn’t going to be good enough for a movie that was going to kick me in the heart valves if it was anything but completely incompetent, which, given that Martin Ritt directed it, I knew it wouldn’t be.

It wasn’t going to be good enough if she was only as good as she was playing a southerner (at least I think that’s what she was playing) in Forrest Gump, which I’ve never quite seen, but have seen enough of to know I don’t exactly need to see the rest.

It wasn’t going to be good enough even if she was only as good as she was playing Mary Todd Lincoln, where she was very good indeed.

If somebody wants to kick me in the heart, take me inside the world my mother married my father to escape, then no “performance” was ever going be quite good enough to earn the right. And knowing that was the main reason I couldn’t ever quite get around to either watching Norma Rae or entirely putting aside the idea that I needed to watch it.

So one day this week I was fingering my stack of unwatched movies and I suddenly decided it would make a perfect followup to the pluperfect professionalism of Sean-Penn’s-show-all-the-way in The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

So there.

Before I could talk myself out of it, I put my bullet-proof-heart-valve-vest straight on. Set my tissue box to hand (okay, I have what we call “sinuses” which means not just any old sinuses but sinuses that “act up,” so I generally have my tissue box to hand anyway but I don’t always double-check before popping in a DVD if you know what I mean).

I fully prepared myself, therefore, to accept the thing for what it was bound to be.

And it turned out to be exactly what it was bound to be and exactly what I was prepared for it to be.

All of it.

Except for Sally Field playing a southerner.

So-Cal-acting-class-Flying Nun-Gidget-Enquirer-bait (well, when she was dating Burt anyway) Sally Field.

Making time stand still.

Turning this… OPELIKAIMAGE1

(Alabama’s Opelika Cotton Mill, where Norma Rae was filmed in 1978, circa 1908: Library of Congress. Mill abandoned, 2004.)

And this….

CANNONMILLS1

(Above and below: Cannon Mill in Concord, NC, about a generation before my mother started working in the one in Kannapolis: Library of Congress: Cannon Mill sold to Fieldcrest, 1984; sold to Pillowtex, 1997; bankrupt, 2003. Cannon brand now licensed and headquartered in Hong Kong.)

and this…

CANNONMILLS2

into this..

NORMARAE1

or this…

NORMARAE2

or pretty much any other frame in a movie that would just be a movie (and no doubt quite a good movie) except for the improbable thing she made of it.

Life as somebody in a particular time and place might have lived it.

Not necessarily as my mother lived it (though I wish I’d given myself a chance to ask her). Probably not quite as Crystal Lee Sutton (nee Pulley), the inspiration for Norma Rae, lived it. Certainly not “movie life” as we are accustomed  to having it delivered to us, from Citizen Kane on down, in a neat, small package we can carry around in our pockets.

But life just the same. Life with enough force to live outside of the movie celebrating it or, as it turned out, the Overlords bent on crushing it.

Good thing. Because, in the real world, crush it they did.

If Field’s Norma Rae Webster had been who and what the logic of even the most supreme craft dictated she should be, the movie and the performance would be well-made curios now. The unionization the film celebrated was a heartbeat away from having its own heart ripped out. Adjusted for inflation, the nation’s handful of remaining textile workers (since amalgamated into a larger union) now make about what Crystal Lee Sutton was making the day she decided not to take it any more. Whether they make it in somewhat better working conditions is probably in the eye of the beholder. Let’s say I have my doubts.

Because wherever they are weaving and folding the bulk of the towels these days, I’m guessing you can still get a brown lung in there.

But, once upon a time, Sally Field went beyond craft. So Norma Rae ended up being something more than a finely wrought tract or “story” or even “narrative,” something that might actually survive the well-planned economic blight and not-entirely-unplanned cultural collapse that were nesting inside the very events the film depicted to a tee.

A hundred years from now (go ahead and laugh if you think it will be longer) when whoever is picking over our bones decides they really want to know “Just what the Hell was an ‘American’ anyway?” they could do a whole lot worse than to start with what So-Cal Sally Field did here when she stripped herself away and made time stand still.