The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film

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9780375409189: The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film

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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