Gone With the Glory: The Civil War in Cinema

(Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, Md., 2006, $24.95).

More than 20 years ago, after a few years’ stint teaching ninth grade U.S. history, I ran into a former student of mine who had just watched the made-for-TV movie The Blue and the Gray.He enthusiastically told me how much he had enjoyed it and added,“I was never really interested in the Civil War until I saw it.” Therein perhaps lies the major redeeming grace of historical movies. Entertainment begets more serious exploration of the subject. This premise is woven into the text of Brian S.Wills’ Gone With the Glory: The Civil War in Cinema.

Wills’ study begins with an essay titled “Hollywood’s Civil War.” Here the author traces the genre from the overtly racist yet classic The Birth of a Nation through the more thoughtful productions such as Cold Mountain and Ride with the Devil.The next chapter takes a closer look at The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s controversial classic that set the pattern for many a movie with its “moonlight and magnolias”South,Lincoln the Great Emancipator and Lee’s surrender to a magnanimous Grant at Appomattox— ignoring the still-active operations of Generals Joseph E.Johnston,Kirby Smith,Stand Watie and others.

Griffith’s spectacular battle scenes with extras wearing actual Civil War uniforms were not matched for authenticity until decades later in movies such as Raintree County and Gods and Generals. However, the overt racism of Griffith’s movie, manifested by “happy darkies”and the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan,make it a forever flawed classic.

One chapter examines works such as Shenandoah and Friendly Persuasion that depict families and friends divided by war. Others look at the war’s influence on individuals, such as Audie Murphy’s Red Badge of Courage and Clint Eastwood’s The Beguiled. One chapter covers movies dealing with the war on the Kansas-Missouri border,primarily The Outlaw Josie Wales and Ride With the Devil—arguably among the best Civil War movies ever made.A significant amount of space is devoted to discussing how Hollywood westerns featured Civil War story lines.In the ’50s these often featured teen idols of the day—such as Elvis Presley in Love Me Tender giving a concert and wiggling his hips at a county fair in Reconstruction Texas.

Nearly an entire chapter is devoted to the movie Glory and the struggles of African-American soldiers against racism. This is coupled with a brief survey of the movie Gangs of New York as a microcosmic example of the violent racism manifested in the New York draft riots. Other films are seen as metaphors for current events.Wills sees The Horse Soldiers with John Wayne as a production done in the context of the Cold War. One pundit linked Charlton Heston’s Major Dundee to “the paradoxes of Vietnam.”

The major assumption that this reviewer challenges is the author’s treatment of the Hollywood classic Gone With the Wind.Wills believes that “in terms of its racial composition…[Gone With the Wind] is cut from much the same cloth as Birth of a Nation.” Wills cites no less an authority than historian William Davis,who observes that Gone With the Wind depicts almost none of the war itself: “It tells nothing of the causes, presents a distorted and one-sided view of the consequences and barely hints at a few events in the conduct of the war.”So what! This is entertainment, not PBS!

A closer examination of Gone With the Wind reveals that African Americans have many positive roles in the movie.They help manage plantations when the white men are away.This representation has been confirmed in countless studies of plantation life by contemporary academics.

A few years ago,an advocacy group criticized the HBO production The Sopranos for allegedly portraying Italian Americans as ignorant.About a year ago I attended a Sons of Confederate Veterans meeting, and they were convinced that the movie Cold Mountain set in the mountains of North Carolina made Southerners “look stupid.” The answer to all of these protests is simple.Neither uneducated, enslaved African Americans, criminals of any ethnicity, nor 19th century Appalachian whites should come across as Rhodes scholars,so live with it.All celluloid productions deal in stereotypes whether it be Gone With the Wind, Roots or Ozzie and Harriet. In fairness to the author, after much belaboring of the flaws of Gone With the Wind,he concludes that the movie has served as the introduction to the Civil War era for generations of moviegoers and that it will “continue to influence audiences for generations to come.”

A nice touch in the back of the book are appendices listing movies and actors.Appendix A ostensibly lists every Civil War flick ever produced in the United States, from classics such as Cold Mountain to the forgettable Fastest Guitar in the West starring Roy Orbison.A few made-for-TV movies make the list, but the mega productions of North and South and The Blue and the Gray somehow are excluded.

Appendix B is a list of“Actors Who Wore the Blue.”There are the usual suspects,such as John Wayne in The Horse Soldiers,but how about World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin? Yes, he had a cameo role in the 1951 production of The Red Badge of Courage.

Appendix C lists “Actors Who Wore the Gray.”Among them is Clark Gable playing Rhett Butler,as well as Max Baer Jr.playing the homicidal Sergeant Luther Liskell in A Time for Killing. Baer was better known as Jethro Bodine of Beverly Hillbillies fame.

Appendix D is titled “The Best and Worst of Civil War Cinema.”While Glory and The Red Badge of Courage deservedly make the “Best” List, Gone With the Wind makes neither list.Birth of a Nation makes the “Best” for its cinematography and “powerful, if significantly flawed, story line.” Conversely it makes the top of the “Worst” for its racism.Others on the “Worst”list include the Joe Namath film The Last Rebel and of course everyone’s favorite bad Civil War-era flick, Santa Fe Trail.

Brian S.Wills is a fine scholar and writer. His previous works include a definitive biography of Confederate cavalry commander General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Film and Civil War buffs will enjoy this book as will baby boomers.The latter group will find it a nostalgic yet insightful journey down memory lane as we reflect on how the Duke,Clint and yes,even Elvis and Roy Orbison fought the Civil War in their own unique way on the silver screen.


Originally published in the July 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here