The North may have won the Civil War, but in Hollywood, the South reigns triumphant.
That was certainly true in 1915, when D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation portrayed the conflict as a war of Northern aggression where order was restored only by the arrival of the Ku Klux Klan. It was true in 1939, when Gone With the Wind looked back on the antebellum South as an unrivalled period of grace and beauty never to be seen again. It was true when Clint Eastwood played The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), a Confederate war veteran who has run afoul of Northern "justice."
And it's true now; Gods and Generals, opening in theaters Friday, tells the story of the first years of the Civil War, when an outnumbered Confederate Army ran circles around the North. Save for a few obligatory scenes establishing the Northern point of view, the movie is set in a South where everything would have been fine if only Northerners had stayed on their side of the Mason-Dixon Line.
"The South won the war, in the sense that the legend of the lost cause emerged right after the war," says Thomas Cripps, professor emeritus of history at Morgan State University and the author of several books on African-Americans in film. "Imagine a Southerner saying, 'You all won the war, but we're going to win the peace.' And the way you do that is, you make everything into a legend."
Of course, there have been movies suggesting an ignoble side to the Southern cause - most produced within the past 30 years. Notable among those are Roots, the 1977 TV mini-series on slavery, and 1989's Glory, the story of a regiment of black soldiers that broke the color barrier and laid down their lives for the Union. But in the popular mind, the Southern side is where all the romance of the Civil War lies.
"It's not that the South won," says Bruce Chadwick, author of The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film. "That America could have a Civil War that tore it apart - it's almost impossible to think that could happen. So they came up with the notion that both sides were gallant."
The mythologizing of the South in popular culture, which started soon after the war ended, is perhaps curious, but has served a purpose: "It was an attempt to wash away the notion that one half of the country defeated the other," says Chadwick, a professor at New Jersey City University. "Or that one-half of the country rebelled against the United States. And it was done for a good reason: So that the United States could get back together after the conflict, which was necessary. ... People didn't want those Southerners to go on through history as losers."
Putting that sort of slant on history comes at a price, however. To engender sympathy for the South, it's been necessary to downplay the issue of slavery. Historians have been debating for decades whether the South and North came to blows more because of slavery or state's rights. Among historians, the issue has led to a healthy debate. But in popular culture, slavery's role in the war has frequently been relegated to the background.
"Who loses in all this are the African-Americans, the idea that slavery was the cause of the Civil War," says Chadwick. "The movies get around that rather neatly."
'In their full humanity'
Movies tend to portray a sort-of civilized version of slavery, in which blacks got along with their benevolent masters and saw little need to be liberated. That was famously done in Gone With the Wind, with Everett Brown and Hattie McDaniel ever loyal to Miss Scarlett and Tara. The two black characters given substantial speaking roles in Gods and Generals both portray slaves who, while they support the idea of setting their people free, love their masters.
"Many slaves [did go] with their masters into the war," says Chadwick. "But on the other side, when the Union Army would get anywhere near plantations in the Southern states, the slaves ... would take off."
Ron Maxwell, director of Gods and Generals as well as 1993's Gettysburg, stresses that myths have arisen about both sides of the conflict. Just as the South had its baser motivations, including the defense of slavery, the North didn't fight solely to set the black man free. In fact, whites rioted in the streets of New York (as in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York), partially because they had no desire to die trying to free another race.
"I'm not trying to perpetuate either myth," Maxwell insists. "One of the hallmarks of both my films is that there are no judgments, no good guys or bad guys. It was my intention to portray [all the characters] in what I refer to as their full humanity."
Maxwell admits that Gods and Generals clearly adopts a more Southern point of view than Gettysburg did, but insists that's only an effort to balance the scale. He says by the time his third film in a planned trilogy is completed, both sides will have been equally presented.
"In the totality of the three films, all the arguments are expressed, I hope, formidably," he says.
Still, the popularity of Ken Burns' landmark documentary, The Civil War, proves that audiences can accept a portrayal that finds heroism on both sides, yet doesn't shy away from a harsh depiction of slavery.
Perhaps the real lesson here is that those who depend on popular fiction to teach them history need to re-think their strategy. "Everything about American history, any kind of history, is complicated," says Chadwick. "But people want it to be simple. And movies try to make it simple. The Civil War was a very complicated affair. It's hard to make it simple."