Mick LaSalle / San Francisco Chronicle – 2015-07-25 12:27:53
Last Call for a Lost Cause
Romanticizing Confederate cause has no place onscreen
Mick LaSalle / San Francisco Chronicle
(July 24, 2015) — They say that history is written by the victors, but the Civil War has been the rare exception. Perhaps the need for the country to stay together made it necessary for the North to sit silently and accept the South’s conception of the conflict. In any case, for most of the past 150 years, the South’s version of the war and Reconstruction has held sway in our schools, our literature and, since the dawn of feature films, our movies.
In his memoirs, 20 years after the events they describe, Gen. Ulysses Grant wrote that upon accepting the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, he felt no joy “at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly . . . for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
Grant’s assessment was fair. Individual Southern soldiers may have been valiant, but as a cause, the Confederacy was morally indefensible. They were fighting, not only to perpetuate slavery, but also to advance it — first into the West, then into the Caribbean and Central America, and then, if all went as planned, into South America. The slave-holding class would have ruined the United States in pursuit of an evil vision, which would have brought tyranny and misery to millions.
Such a flat assertion of the historical record should not be a matter for controversy. But as early as the 1890s, a revisionist version had overtaken the narrative. In this new rendering, the Civil War had not been an effort to destroy the United States over the issue of slavery. Rather, it had been a mighty quarrel between two equally worthy points of view, and the Confederacy was a noble lost cause.
According to these pro-Confederate historians, the war was caused by a dispute over “states’ rights.” (Really? Then why did the South become inflamed when Northern states wouldn’t enforce the Fugitive Slave law?) And by the way, the slaves didn’t have it that bad, according to this myth. Aside from a few bad apples, the slaveholders were OK guys, and the slaves liked them a lot, even loved them.
This kind of pernicious nonsense persisted for three generations. At least until the late 1960s and mid-1970s, when I was in elementary and junior high school, you could always count on impressing your teachers by saying, “Actually, the Civil War was not fought about slavery, but economics.” It sure was — the economics of slavery.
Movies were part of this mythmaking and mostly served the Southern cause until the turn of the millennium. The American cinema’s first blockbuster, 1915’s “The Birth of a Nation” (original title: “The Clansman”), was a glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, and led to the group’s rebirth in the 1920s. And when Buster Keaton wanted to tell a Civil War story, “The General” (1927), he chose to make his hero work for the Confederate side.
The biggest box office success of all time (adjusted for inflation), “Gone With the Wind,” romanticizes plantation life and depicts the slave, Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), as devoted to her mistress, Scarlett O’Hara, even after the end of the war.
McDaniel won the supporting actress Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy, and in 1948, James Baskett won a special Oscar for his portrayal of the former slave Uncle Remus in “Song of the South.” The fantasy of the happy slave seemed to please North as well as South.
The height of Southern mythmaking came with “Tennessee Johnson” (1942), starring Van Heflin in a biopic about Andrew Johnson, the 17th president. The movie took the Southern view of Reconstruction, presenting Johnson, one of our worst presidents — a boorish racist and a disaster for civil rights — as a worthy successor to Abraham Lincoln. I
t also made Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican who made civil rights his life’s work, into a mean-spirited villain. Stevens was portrayed by Lionel Barrymore in a workout for his performance as Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
In the years since, the movies have either gone out of their way to avoid passing judgment — like Ken Burns’ epic television documentary, “The Civil War” — or been pro-Confederate.
The 271-minute film “Gettysburg” took a neutral view, while the follow-up film “Gods and Generals” (2003) made heroes out of Confederate Gens. Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, who came closer to destroying the United States than anyone before or since.
Over the past couple of decades, scholars such as Eric Foner and Bruce Levine have overturned most of the myths surrounding the Civil War and Reconstruction, but it took the British director Steve McQueen to put the truth about the horrific plantation era onto the screen and before the public, in “12 Years a Slave.” Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” the year before, was a big step in the right direction.
Recently, the mass killing in South Carolina and the subsequent outcry over the Confederate flag flying over statehouses brought the Civil War back into the national conversation, and for once public figures found the courage to say what that flag really means, and to repudiate it and its history.
It may be that in these past few weeks, we have finally turned a page, and the Confederacy will not rise again. If this is so, the truth will benefit the entire country, but especially the South.
This is a region with a disproportionate number of our greatest writers, and most of our best soldiers. It has delicious cuisine, gracious women and a tradition of hospitality that is real and sincere. The musical traditions of the South, both white and black, are among the nation’s cultural glories. And America’s best raconteurs are from the South.
The South no longer needs — and never did need — the Confederacy as the organizing principle of its pride. It has many things to be proud of, and despite what the movies have tried to tell you, the Confederacy was never one of them.
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle’s movie critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @MickLaSalle
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.