When War Meets the Movies: A Look at the Civil War in Films

Many decades after the American Civil War, many of us learn about this historical event in the classroom, from books or by going to the movies.

Many decades after the American Civil War, many of us learn about this historical event in the classroom, from books, or by going to the movies.

A significant turning point in our nation’s history, the Civil War is a subject that appears often on the big screen.  Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, for example, was one of the very first films to portray the stories of the Civil War and its aftermath. In fact, akin to other cinematic treasures such as Good Morning Vietnam, when the first Civil War movies were released, many veterans of this war were still alive and saw their stories transformed into film.

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, film scholar Lance Rhoades talks about the significance and historical accuracy of Civil War movies in his presentation From Birth of a Nation to Ken Burns: The Civil War in Cinema, as a part of the Humanities Washington’s Speaker Bureau.

Rhoades currently is the Director of Film Studies at the Seattle Film Institute, a faculty member of the Pacific Northwest Film Scoring Program and the Program Director for the Mercer Island Library and Arts Council. His presentation explores the stories behind the cinema’s near-constant obsession with the Civil War, and how movies about the Civil War have influenced people’s perspectives of it.


WhatAmerican Indians in Cinema:  Portrayals and Participation, Onscreen and Behind the Scenes
November 6 in Tulalip  [Details]

What: From Birth of a Nation to Ken Burns: The Civil War in Cinema
Dec 11, 2014 in Seattle [Details]

Spark recently talked with Rhoades to gain more insight about his presentation.

Humanities Washington (HW): The title of your presentation is From Birth of a Nation to Ken Burns: The Civil War in Cinema. Why do filmmakers D.W. Griffith and Ken Burns especially stand out?

Lance Rhoades: D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Ken Burns’ The Civil War stand out as epic undertakings whose creators draw grand conclusions about the war’s significance. Theirs are also among the most influential – and controversial – of all Civil War films.

Additionally, as the works are separated by seventy-five years, with at least 150 Civil War-related features and documentary films made in the interim, they are indicative of the persistent interest in the war and the diversity of attitudes toward the war that we find throughout the history of film.

Ken Burn's The Civil War (1990)

Ken Burn’s The Civil War (1990)

D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915)

D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915)

HW: In your opinion, what are some must-see Civil War movies and why are they important?

Rhoades: Birth of a Nation must be reckoned with because of its monumental role in shaping American narrative cinema, but also because of its troubling messages. Birth of a Race, a 1918 response to Griffith, would have been a must-see film, but only fragments of it survive. 1927’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the most popular of many early twentieth century adaptations of the book that Lincoln said instigated the war. Gone with the Wind is a monumental work that as much a part of American history as it is an account of it.

Among films of the past twenty-five years: Glory (1989) recounts the creation of the first all black army unit (led by a white commanding officer) and its heroic-tragic fate; Andersonville (1996) brings to light the deplorable conditions of a Confederate prison camp, and Northerners’ role in creating them; and Ride with the Devil (1999) is an underrated film that explores the complicated and confused motives of people fighting guerrilla battles against pro-Union Jayhawkers in Missouri. The Conspirator (2011) recounts how society’s calls for revenge in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination led to the execution of an innocent woman, and Lincoln (2012) looks at the delicate line the president walked between principles and pragmatism in order to secure passage of the Thirteenth Amendment by a deeply divided Congress.

HW: What do you think is the most challenging part of creating movies about the Civil War, given the complex and traumatic historical background behind it?

Rhoades: The enormity and the catastrophic impact of the war make it impossible to create a definitive, all-encompassing statement, which is a big reason why there are so many different kinds of film on the war. While a few Civil War-related feature films, like those by Griffith and Burns, aim high and try to present a large-scale picture.  However, the majority of Civil War films are less ambitious, focusing more selectively – amidst their often conventional dramas – on specific aspects of life during the war (for example, Hearts in Bondage – the story of the Ironclads, The Red Badge of Courage – facing fear in battle, Andersonville – life in a prison camp). At the very least, we get a clearer glimpse into the true complexity and anguish of the war years when we see the accumulation of multiple perspectives.

HW: From your perspective, do movies about the Civil War realistically depict people’s lives during that era, or are they more of an idealistic representation of the war derived from Hollywood glamour? 

Cinema’s romanticization of the Civil War has allowed the industry to participate prominently in a larger cultural phenomenon – the mythologizing of the war, which could be construed as a kind of national therapy. Movies can certainly affect how one sees the war, but ultimately they are for their audiences a reflection of what they recognize – or would like to see – in themselves as a people and a nation.

Rhoades said cinema’s romanticization of the Civil War has allowed the industry to mythologize the war, which could be construed as a kind of national therapy.

Rhoades: As is often the case with films “based on a true story,” or any historically-inspired film for that matter, the exigencies of dramatic narrative and the market invariably take priority over factuality – especially where the extremes of drudgery, mortal terror, and prolonged agony that are so much a part of war are concerned. Some of the most popular – and perhaps we can say most influential – Civil War films (Birth of a Nation, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Gone with the Wind, Ken Burns’ The Civil War) romanticize the period in one way or another, which is perhaps their most pervasive and insidious effect.

HW: Ken Burns has said, “The Civil War was the greatest event in American history – where paradoxically, in order to become one, we had to tear ourselves in two.” Do you think that is part of the reason the American movie industry makes so many films about the Civil War?

Rhoades: It is a strong statement to make, one that surprisingly echoes an assertion Griffith made in his infamous film.  In a way it is an  optimistic sentiment.  The fact remains that America is still coming to grips with the Civil War, its causes and effects, and what it did and did not accomplish. Consequently, it has remained one of the most enduring topics in cinema history, and it is without a doubt one of Hollywood’s most commercially successful. Gone with the Wind remains officially the highest-grossing film in history (adjusted for inflation), by a long shot. What is more, there is a case to be made that if better records had been kept at the time, Birth of a Nation would actually be the most profitable film in history. Burns shows that the only clear conclusion to draw is that division and debate are themselves defining national characteristics. Americans were processing the war fifty years after it had officially ended when Griffith made his American film mythologizing an American event; and he, Burns, and other Civil War filmmakers have only added to the material that we have to think through as a nation.

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