Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Civil War and Film

Kevin Levin is less than optimistic about the upcoming Ridley and Tony Scott film version of Gettysburg.

Will this movie really highlight what was a “visceral, terrifying, and deeply personal experience?”  Wasn’t Ted Turner’s Gettysburg an example of just such a movie or is the difference here that the special effects will set the Scott production apart?  I guess in the end I have trouble believing that any Civil War movie can strip away “the romanticized veneer of the Civil War” entirely.  Our memory of Gettysburg is wrapped up in all kinds of romantic memes from “Brother v. Brother” to “A Battle that Decided the Fate of a Nation.”  We don’t have a Civil War apart from our romantic notions that define its continued significance and meaning.
In a sense we have come a long way in our memory of the Civil War. We now center African-Americans in the experience. Historians almost all call slavery the primary reason for the war. Yet somehow this has not created space for new tales of the War to be told on screen. With the arguable exception of Glory, which still managed to tell a tale of heroic soldiers fighting for what they believed in, our Civil War films have not progressed too much in the last half century. Filmmakers are still as wary of offending Southerners as they were in 1926, when Buster Keaton switched the story of The General from a Union to a Confederate officer in order to appease southern sensibilities. The films aren't as openly racist as Birth of a Nation or even Shenandoah, but they tend to still tell tales of two armies fighting for their beliefs without judgment of their ideology. The message is the glory and valor of putting up a strong fight rather than treason in defense of slavery.

This version of Gettysburg is going to have 3 elements:

1. Gritty war scenes.
2. Manhood defined through war
3. Ideological vacuity

Can we not tell stories that move beyond 19th century battle reunions? I guess not, even when employing our most famous directors.