Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book Review: THE REEL CIVIL WAR--Mythmaking In American Film

One of my latest purchases from Edward R. Hamilton Booksellers is THE REEL CIVIL WAR by historian Bruce Chadwick. There's really not a lot of books out there that discuss Hollywood's treatment of the Civil War, so this one piqued my interest.

Chadwick's main thesis is that the aftermath of the Civil War demanded a reconciliation between North and South. As part of that reconciliation, various aspects about the war (including its cause) were changed, or dismissed, by chroniclers and historians. Both sides were made out to be noble and brave, and any untoward incidents or factors of the conflict (especially slavery) were barely reported.

Chadwick contends that the first Civil War films, made in the silent era, showed a war where the South was without fault, and slavery was almost a non-issue. Chadwick maintains that throughout the 20th Century, this view of the Civil War still dominated Hollywood, and made its way into the consciousness of most Americans.

The best parts of the book are where Chadwick discusses the Civil War movies of the silent era (I did not know that there were so many silent films made about the war--it was a hugely popular subject for producers until America entered the first World War). Of course Chadwick delves into the making and reception of D. W. Griffith's THE BIRTH OF A NATION.

There is also a chapter on how Hollywood has portrayed Abraham Lincoln (I would love to know what Chadwick thinks of Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln--this book was published in 2001). It's no surprise that GONE WITH THE WIND is covered (Chadwick doesn't seem too fond of it), and there are chapters on how the Civil War was integrated into the American Western, and the impact of the TV miniseries ROOTS.

This is a good book, and it will interest film buffs, but there are a lot of movies that the author does not discuss (the chapter on the Civil War Westerns could have been longer....heck, that could have been a whole book by itself). Chadwick's viewpoint that most movies touching on the Civil War try not to offend anybody (well, try not to offend white viewers) is a valid one. Even a recent film like GODS AND GENERALS seems to bend over backward to make sure that North and South are both seen as "noble".

I purchased this book for $5--I don't know if I would have payed full price for it. Most film buffs are history buffs, so a book like this has a wide potential audience. I do have to say that I don't think it is the definitive book on Civil War cinema. One more thing--if you happen to be a Southerner, or if your family has lived there for generations, you are probably not going to like some of the opinions of the author.

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