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The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film

by Chadwick, Bruce A

  • ISBN: 9780375409189
  • ISBN10: 0375409181

The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film

by Chadwick, Bruce A

  • List Price: $27.50
  • Binding: Hardcover
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
  • Publish date: 09/01/2001
  • ISBN: 9780375409189
  • ISBN10: 0375409181
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Description: More movies have been produced about the Civil War than about any other event in American history. From "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in 1903 to "Glory" in 1989, film studios have released over 800 silent and sound movies about our nation's most disastrous war.

In the latter part of the 19th century, in an effort to reunite a still divided country, historians, novelists and playwrights wrote conciliatory works romanticizing the bloody struggle that ruined the South and nearly brought the North to its knees. The early film companies used many of these stories to create a further mythology that would influence Americans' view of history for generations to come.

In the body of the work that Chadwick describes, both armies marched off to a war that, on film, no one actually started (unless they were radical abolitionists) and no one really lost. The South was portrayed as a lovely, graceful land populated with gallant cavaliers, beautiful women, grand balls and slaves, who were seen as obedient servants pouring mint juleps or happily toiling long hours in the field for benevolent masters. Slave women like Scarlett's Mammy were close friends and confidants; otherwise slaves were simply ignored or portrayed in dozens of films as mere background pieces, like furniture or bales of hay. Portrayals of a hallowed Abraham Lincoln and the quintessential Southern gentleman Robert E. Lee were usually saintly, but they ignored much actual history, and in the stories' depiction of blacks, the powerful imagery of film helped to reinforce racism and the entrenchment of segregation.

Chadwick describes D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation, " which glorified the Klu Klux Klan and denigrated African Americans, "Gonewith the Wind, " with its mythological description of the South and its people, and many other films of the '20s and '30s. He discusses "Roots, " the story of an African family, which was largely untrue. Even many of Hollywood's Westerns had mythic Civil War themes, with Confederate and Union veterans, making a new life in the territories, now united to fight another (and usually inaccurately portrayed) minority group, the Indians. Chadwick concludes with Civil War films made after the Civil Rights movement and in particular, "Glory, " a film with a modicum of truth.

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