Grand Illusion

In 2001 historian David Brion Davis wrote in The New York Times, "The United States is only now beginning to recover from the Confederacy's ideological victory following the Civil War." In fact, reports of our recovery may be exaggerated; many white Americans are still holding out in the jungle like Japanese soldiers after World War II. Consider the recent fall of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a victim not of racial nostalgia but of excessive frankness. Consider also the recent Republican takeover of state and federal offices in Georgia, largely on the issue of the Confederate battle flag. And consider that a proposal to put build a small statue of Abraham Lincoln in my old hometown of Richmond, Va., has been greeted by many whites as if the proposed honoree were Saddam Hussein. One Virginia representative even demanded a federal investigation of the scum who would propose honoring America's greatest president.

Sometimes it seems as if there is a Confederate Office of War Information somewhere that hasn't yet heard about Appomattox. If so, it surely had a hand in Gods and Generals, a huge, spongy mess of a film that sprawled interminably across screens nationwide last Friday. Nearly 4 hours long, the film employs a cast of thousands and the latest in computer graphics to tell a story largely unchanged since Birth of a Nation.

In fact, retailing the story of the noble South is a vital contemporary industry, and Gods director Ron Maxwell is a major force in it. Another important source is the Shaara family. Michael Shaara's novel The Killer Angels was the source for Maxwell's 1993 epic, Gettysburg. Michael Shaara's son Jeff, a prolific historical novelist, wrote the book Gods and Generals as a prequel to The Killer Angels. Alas, Jeff Shaara's book is the source of some of the current film's woes. The film Gettysburg, like Gods and Generals, was also interminable. But it told a tighter and more important story, recounting the three days in Pennsylvania when the state of the war changed from southern invincibility to northern inevitability. The characters were more intriguing and the narrative was better balanced between the beleaguered gray army and the rising one in blue.

Gods and Generals (book and film) covers much more time and space -- from Gen. Robert E. Lee's interview with Francis P. Blair in 1861, when the general turned down command of the Union army, until the death of Gen. Stonewall Jackson after the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. The vast story can only be sketchily told, even in 4 hours, and the characters it follows -- Lee (memorably played by Robert Duvall) and Jackson (Stephen Lang) for the South, Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) and Winfield Scott Hancock (Brian Mallon) for the Union -- are less well balanced.

In addition, Maxwell's screenplay takes difficult material and makes it worse. The film focuses on Jackson, a hard figure to dramatize. He was undoubtedly a great general but he was also psychologically opaque, insufferably pious and, as we used to say in the South, a couple of hush puppies short of a barbecue platter. He spends most of his onscreen time invoking the Lord of Hosts, and as cinema that gets old pretty darned quick. Gettysburg had as many eye-glazing speeches as a Democratic convention; Gods and Generals has more long-winded prayers than a Department of Justice breakfast.

Both films portray the Civil War as an all-white affair, a story of noble men fighting for opposing causes with gallantry and honor. In Gods and Generals, not one of the white southern characters ever mentions slavery; the cause of the war, as Jackson explains, is "northern aggression," and that alone. Only two black actors have speaking parts, and they turn out to be pro-Confederate (though both politely suggest that, when the white folks finish fighting, they'd appreciate being freed). These particular characters may or may not be historically accurate, but they are the only black faces on the screen for 4 hours, which turns them into symbols for just how skewed this narrative is.

I can hear the film's defenders complaining: Maxwell only wants to tell a story of some historical figures, and now the forces of political correctness are demanding that he tell a different story. But the problem with Gods and Generals is not that it is racist. It is, simply, that it is not true. The story didn't happen that way.

Black Americans, free and enslaved, were central players in the Civil War story from the beginning. (At the demographic level, one southerner in three was black, making the film's repeated shots of all-white Southern crowds ridiculous.) Slaves helped prompt the war by running away from the South and forcing northern society to face its complicity in returning them to bondage. Emancipation (grudgingly mentioned here by Daniels' Chamberlain) was a turning point in the war, and it occurred because of the massive flight of escaped slaves into the Union lines -- where, confiscated as "contraband" of war, they made themselves indispensable to the Union effort, first by building roads and bridges for the Union armies and finally, after 1863, by fighting bravely in uniform. By the war's end, one active-duty Union soldier in four was black, and the Union might well have lost without blacks' help.

It is this history -- almost never mentioned in popular entertainment -- that historians refer to when they say the slaves "freed themselves." Lincoln deserves credit for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, but without the pressure of the escaped slaves, he might not have done it -- and might not have been able to make it stick.

For another thing, the military men, however noble they may have been (to be honest, Jackson seems to me more like a serial killer than a beau ideal), did not win or lose the war. Ignoble old politics played a more important role. Union victory proved that political success -- Lincoln's steadfastness and the North's creation of an industrial machine -- can compensate for repeated military failure; the collapse of the South elegantly demonstrates the reverse. The most important weapon the North had was Lincoln, who is referred to in Gods and Generals only in terms of ridicule.

The popular narrative of the Civil War is the last remnant of the Old South color line I grew up with. In recent years, black Americans have gotten their own "separate but equal" films -- Glory and Amistad, for example. But the master narrative remains white, and slavery is barely mentioned. (In fact, Hollywood has for years been retelling the civil-rights movement as a white story, in films such as Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi and The Long Walk Home.)

The sad thing is that the real story, the biracial story, is a better one -- perhaps the greatest American story ever. Generals' windy prayers cannot compete with runaway slaves, scheming politicians, master spies (male and female), assassins and ordinary people coping with upheaval -- the figures who really changed history between 1861 and 1865.

Garrett Epps is an associate professor of law at the University of Oregon. He writes regularly about popular culture for TAP Online.

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