More movies have been produced about the Civil War than about any other aspect of American history. From 1903 (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) to the present, film studios have released more than eight hundred silent and sound pictures about the nation’s most cataclysmic event. In this wonderfully comprehensive study, Bruce Chadwick first shows us how historians, journalists, playwrights, poets and novelists of the late nineteenth century—partly as an effort to reconcile former antagonists—rewrote the war’s history to create enduring legends, most of which had no basis in reality.
Early silent films followed their example, presenting egregiously distorted—and anti-black—stories about the war, which viewers accepted as truth.
Dr. Chadwick gives us a clear (and sometimes humorous) recounting of those films’ plots and themes, including D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and goes on to describe dozens of movies from the twenties and thirties, among them the classic Gone With the Wind. In the forties and fifties many westerns were partly or chiefly based on the Civil War, presenting veterans of both armies gone West to make a new life in the territories, now united in their hatred of the Indians, another minority group.
Collectively, all these films created a deeply mythologized and racist version of the war, and of the antebellum period that preceded it and the Reconstruction era that followed. It was a war that, on film, no one actually started (unless they were radical abolitionists) and no one really lost. The movies gave us what the author calls a “moonlight-and-magnolias” view of the past, filled with gallant cavaliers, a saintly Abraham Lincoln, Scarlett and Rhett, brave Northern warriors and beautiful Southern belles. Slaves were portrayed as obedient servants pouring mint juleps, as happy “darkies” toiling long hours in the field for lovable and benevolent masters, or as mere background pieces, like furniture or bales of hay—and, once freed, as menacing and vicious. Thus, Dr. Chadwick tells us, Americans were given segregation and racism on screen in a way that not only validated the racism they saw in their everyday lives but also helped to maintain it. Even after the civil rights movement, which inspired powerful films like Glory that portrayed the courage of black soldiers, such prejudicial films did not entirely disappear.
The Reel Civil War is a book about the power and the perils of both movies and mythmaking, but more than that, it is a book about the American people and how for a very long period their false ideas about their country’s history—in this case a terrible war—were perpetuated by Hollywood.
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During the late nineteenth century, magazines, newspapers, novelists, and even historians presented a revised version of the Civil War that, intending to reconcile the former foes, downplayed the issues of slavery and racial injustice, and often promoted and reinforced the worst racial stereotypes. The Reel Civil War tells the history of how these misrepresentations of history made their way into movies.
More than 800 films have been made about the Civil War. Citing such classics as "Birth of a Nation and "Gone With the Wind as well as many other films, Bruce Chadwick shows how most of them have, until recently, projected an image of gallant soldiers, beautiful belles, sprawling plantations, and docile or dangerous slaves. He demonstrates how the movies aided and abetted racism and an inaccurate view of American history, providing a revealing and important account of the power of cinema to shape our understanding of historical truth.
“Chadwick’s dissection of the myths [these movies] helped to foster is superb. . . . [An] enlightening volume.” --The New York Times Book Review
“[A] fine book. . . . Sure to fascinate lovers of both the Civil War and the big screen.” --The Washington Times
“Chadwick ...brings to this effort a comfortable knowledge of American history and extensive research on the many hundreds of Civil War films and their creation.”–Kirkus Reviews
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