Welcome guests, and my co-host Pete from England, who has a genre passion for the U.S. Civil War. “I claim to have seen almost all of them during my 64 years such as Buster Keaton’s The General(1926), Gone With The Wind (1939), The Red Badge of Courage (1951), and The Horse Soldiers, with John Wayne leading the Union to victory, in the 1959 epic.” Those are some popular ones, but Pete’s knowledge about this genre is impressive. Ask him anything.
Pete and I talked about how we should approach the subject. What makes a great war movie? Is it the accurate reenactments like Gettysburg (1993)? Is it the band of brothers who provide an insight into the situation like Glory (1989)? Perhaps it’s the personal stories of those caught up in the crossfire? Maybe the most memorable Civil War stories include all of these elements.
Ang Lee might not be your first choice to direct a film about the American Civil War, but his wonderfully sensitive film Ride With the Devil (1999) emerged as one of my favourites of the genre. Instead of focusing on one major battle, or concentrating on the issues of racism, slavery, or state’s rights, it looked at a totally different part of the war, the bitter border conflict between Kansas and Missouri, neighbouring states on different sides of the conflict.
Tobey Maguire grew up to give a surprisingly good performance, as the young Confederate who soon becomes disillusioned with the pointless killings, and just wants to get away to a quiet life. British actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers delivers a memorable turn as the villain of the piece, all smouldering gaze, and hate in his eyes. This group of Confederate raiders, known as Bushwhackers, fight against the neighbouring Union sympathisers in Kansas, nicknamed Jayhawkers. They hide out during harsh winters, and use the support of friendly local people to give them shelter, and bring them food. Yet they constantly argue amongst themselves, diverse characters wanting to lead the group down different paths. The action sequences are few and far between, but all the more convincing for that.
When they decide to join the notorious Confederate officer William Quantrill, he leads them on his fateful raid into Kansas, to attack the Union town of Lawrence. Here Lee really gets to flex his directorial muscles, with panoramic shots of the epic battle in which 200 civilians and soldiers were massacred by the victorious Confederates, and intense scenes that follow in the aftermath.
This may not be the first Civil War film you think of, but it is undoubtedly one of the best.
I’m still jealous of author Charles Frazier whose debut novel about the Civil War was a literary sensation in 1997. Cold Mountain was successful because it had something in it for everyone. Civil War battle scenes; complexity in the plot with the allusions to Homer’s, The Odyssey; and the universal themes of survival, loneliness, and love. The novel contained a kaleidoscope of quirky characters. Then came the movie version in 2003. What a sensory treat!
The assembled cast was a dream team: Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, Donald Sutherland, Eileen Atkins, Brendan Gleeson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Ray Winstone, Kathy Baker, and Ethan Suplee. While everyone did their part well, I was most impressed by Renee Zellweger who won a Best Supporting Oscar for her performance as Ruby. Add the period details of the 1860s, the rolling hills of an Appalachian setting, the distinctive bluegrass sound intrinsic to the culture, and the changing seasons to film–what could be better than to film the black and white of winter on the mountain ledge with black crows and black coats approaching around the bend?–it sure aided the director, Anthony Minghella, to create a cinematic masterpiece.
Eccentric characters intersect the lives of two lovelorn protagonists Ada and Inman played by Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. Ada is a young Charleston socialite and companion to her dying father. Educated beyond the expected norm, her life is free to pursue reading, needlework, drawing, and the piano. When her father dies, she is left to fend for herself on the 300-acre farm. Enter Ruby, a forceful young wildcat the neighbor hires to aid Ada in the running of the farm. Ruby is the opposite of Ada. Uneducated, self-reliant, and assertive, she is a perfect foil to Ada. The two become a dynamic duo, a feminine force of efficiency.
Inman is a wounded deserter after surviving the Battle of Petersburg. He walks for hundreds of miles to return to Cold Mountain, NC, back to Ada. Along the way, he meets philosophers and oracles. A blind man imparts wisdom. An old hag surrounded by her herd of goats rescues Inman and nourishes him back to health. What makes the movie outstanding are the guest performances by powerful actors. Each vignette showcases an ethical dilemma. Take Natalie Portman’s character who appears as a single parent whose baby is dying. Alone in her cabin, she faces invasion and rape. She is completely convincing and her situation is heart-wrenching. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays one of his best roles as a decrepit preacher whose lustful passions get him into a lot of trouble. He’s the comic relief showing the absurdity of man. He’s hysterical.
What’s your favorite Civil War film? What’s an image or scene that has stayed with your over the years?