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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Naturally, there are historical inaccuracies in Glory. Some examples include: The film portrayed the black soldiers as being former southern slaves, but in reality, most were born free men in the North; the 54th Massachusetts actually came together in 1863, not in 1862 as the film depicted; and Robert Gould Shaw didn't jump at the chance to become the outfit's commanding officer--he initially rejected the posting before eventually agreeing to assume the role. But when the film's producer, Freddie Fields, was asked about these inaccuracies, he brushed them aside:

You can get bogged down when dealing in history. Our objective was to make a highly entertaining and exciting war movie filled with action and character.

Most Civil War films that have followed Glory have been part of either the Emancipation or Reconciliation Cause--even if they had elements of Lost Cause. Two examples of this shift in thinking are Gettysburg (1993) and Gods and Generals (2003). The former has several Lost Cause themes, including "the idea that Gettysburg represented a dramatic moment when the Confederacy could have established its independence." But Gallagher notes that Gettysburg repudiates the Lost Cause in one important respect: "There are innumerable Confederate flags in evidence but no sense of Confederate nationalism animating soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia--many of whom in 1863 would have described the army as the embodiment of their nation."

Meanwhile, its prequel, Gods and Generals, displays many Lost Cause traits but also "allocates a few minutes to Union motivation," leading to discussions of emancipation. As well, the movie is not a balanced presentation, missing themes like "the thousands of slaves who ran to Union lines," the use of slavery "as a precipitant of secession and war," and "white citizens unhappy with the Confederacy."

Overall, Gettysburg and Gods and Generals "unfurl a far more conventional reconciliation banner in scenes involving both officers and common soldiers," and the absence of speaking roles for black characters in Gettysburg also "sets a reconciliationist tone." Both films may deal with the Lost Cause, yet they aren't Lost Cause films.

But therein lies a major problem: Gallagher asserts that the Union Cause, which carried the most weight during the Civil War era, has become "Hollywood's real lost cause." Today's entertainment industry has, for the most part, ignored the growth of the Union army and "Lincoln's vision of a democratic nation devoted to economic opportunity." There really haven't been vivid accounts of what it meant for a northern soldier to join the Union army and fight for the American dream.

Even worse, Hollywood has been serving up "a post-Vietnam vision of the Union army as a cruel, racist juggernaut that wreaks havoc and stands for nothing admirable." From Dances with Wolves to Cold Mountain to Pharaoh's Army, the Union is seen as a vicious, bloodthirsty outfit that is hell-bent on destruction rather than its true goal of nation-building. In fact, Gallagher points out the lack of a strong Union theme "must be read on one level as a triumph for the Lost Cause" and a victory for old-style anti-Yankee sentiment.

The art world has also decided against paying homage to the Union Cause. According to Gallagher, the last quarter-century of Civil War art "would warm the hearts of former Confederates who laid the groundwork for the Lost Cause tradition." Civil War artists like Mort Künstler and John Paul Strain have overwhelmingly depicted beautiful portraits and military scenes of famous Confederate military figures like Robert E. Lee, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart.

Even examples of 19th- and early 20th-century Civil War art show a remarkable dominance of the Lost Cause tradition. Artists such as Everett B.D. Julio and William DeHartburn Washington painted majestic scenes of Lee and Jackson leading the rag-tag Confederate army in battle after battle. They are seen as heroic and pious figures, and typically painted with strong, dominant features and an air of confidence, such as George Bagby Matthews's 1907 masterpiece, Lee and His Generals.