cover image THE REEL CIVIL WAR: Mythmaking in American Film

THE REEL CIVIL WAR: Mythmaking in American Film

Bruce Chadwick, . . Knopf, $27.50 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40918-9

From the first of the silent movies, Chadwick (The Two American Presidents) asserts, the Civil War has been presented as a national tragedy, redeemed only by the gallantry of the combatants. Its origins have been obscured, with the slavery question in particular being virtually eliminated from the story. Blacks have been marginalized, presented at best as passive recipients of a freedom won for them by white Northerners. The "old South" emerges as an epitome of civilized grace, destroyed by a war few Southerners really wanted. For Chadwick, D.W. Griffith's virulent Birth of a Nation did not establish these clichés—it only institutionalized them. Even Ted Turner's Gettysburg (1993), produced in an age of ethnic sensitivity and political correctness, is built around a story of Americans with two different visions of the right, fighting to sustain those visions. It is a white man's movie; blacks and women have no direct impact. Chadwick argues (and shows in 42 b&w stills) that while this restructuring of history may not be fair or honest, it has been necessary to reintegrate societies torn apart by civil war, and that we are only now approaching a time when the truth can be told cinematically. Others will certainly disagree, on both counts. (Sept. 26)

Forecast:While Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University, few scholars are likely to take his pragmatic approach to heart (or syllabus). But with the racial politics of the Civil War still awaiting full cinematic treatment, this book, by dint of Knopf's distribution if nothing else, could serve as a wake-up call.