The Magazine

Lessons in Celluloid

Hollywood, history, and the War Between the Takes.

Jun 30, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 40 • By MICHAEL TAUBE
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Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten

How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War

by Gary W. Gallagher

UNC Press, 288 pp., $28

Here's a sad but true fact: Popular culture and historical accuracy just don't mix. And one of the main culprits has been (brace yourself) the entertainment industry, which would revise everything from the Dawn of Man to the 2000 presidential election--if given half the chance and a few million bucks. As Michael Medved wrote in Hollywood vs. America, "The days when Hollywood captured the imagination of the entire world with stirring accounts of our heroic history have given way to an era of self-flagellation and irresponsible revisionism."

Sadder still, the Civil War almost always falls into this wayward category. If you think that an accurate reflection of this important historical period would be a routine procedure, think again. Movie studios and artists have taken it upon themselves to recreate this war in a manner that suits their needs. While it doesn't mean that an alternate reality has been devised in which the Confederate Army is victorious, it does mean that the true historical cause of the Civil War has been lost in the shuffle.

This leads us to Gary W. Gallagher, professor of history at the University of Virginia and a leading Civil War scholar and author. Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten sheds light on the common misrepresentations of the conflict between Blue (North) and Gray (South). While freely admitting that he's "trained as neither a film critic nor an art critic," Gallagher has nevertheless produced a superb analysis of a war that defined a nation--but that has lost its definition thanks to liberal amounts of creative license afforded to the celluloid and pen-and-ink crowds.

Gallagher classifies films under four traditions which have underscored Civil War-themed movies and art. There's the Lost Cause, which casts "the South's experiment in nation-building as an admirable struggle against hopeless odds." Next is the Union Cause, which frames "the war as preeminently an effort to maintain a viable republic in the face of secessionist actions." Then there's the Emancipation Cause, which depicts the war as "a struggle to liberate four million slaves and remove a cancerous influence on American society and politics." And last, the Reconciliation Cause, which represents "an attempt by white people North and South to extol the American virtues both sides manifested during the war."

In Hollywood's early years, the Lost Cause was dominant in films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939). Some people vividly remember the positive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan in the former film and Rhett Butler not giving a damn about Scarlett O'Hara in the latter. But these cinematic masterpieces also "exposed generations of Americans to strongly positive depictions of the Confederacy and the slaveholding South." The Old South was viewed as being both heroic and romantic, passionate discussions of emancipation barely registered, and the Union was often viewed in a negative fashion.

According to Gallagher, Shenandoah (1965) represents a "watershed in Hollywood's relationship with the Lost Cause." This popular film is rife with historical inaccuracies. Even though 90 percent of Virginia's military-age white males were conscripted in the Civil War, the Anderson family's five sons somehow avoided it. Integrated U.S. military outfits also magically appeared, defying history and reams of literature. The author places this film squarely in the Emancipation Cause, and argues it "should be considered pre-eminently as an antiwar film."

Still, Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten notes that while "Shenandoah's emancipationist elements built on these insubstantial precedents ... it remained for Glory to thrust the Emancipation Cause into heroic cinematic relief." Glory (1989) is the epic story of a mighty struggle to form an all-black regiment--the 54th Massachusetts--in the Union army. The film tugged at heartstrings and introduced audiences to a very different side of the war they knew little about. Only the black soldiers are portrayed in a sympathetic light, along with the sole exception of their white colonel. The white soldiers are depicted in a racist manner which "certainly would have been repellent by modern standards."