Tag Archives: Civil War film

Mercy Street – A Promising Beginning

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.47.27 PMSo I have watched the premiere episode of the PBS Civil War drama, Mercy Street, which is  the story of two volunteer nurses and a hospital staff in 1862 Alexandria. I will refrain from any attempt at a  comprehensive review until I have watched the series in its entirety – but for now I am optimistic.

I was pleased to learn that the writers thought to infuse actual issues into the narrative. The show deftly engages gender, abolition as both a political and moral cause, and nationalism (on both sides). With luck, the show will continue on this path and give the audience something to ponder other than what could very easily wind up as an over-wrought Lifetime historical romance  – much like what has become of Downton Abbey of late.

Of course, optimism notwithstanding – there were a few things that, well…just didn’t sit right. For starters, the characters seem a little cut-and-paste: one for every category, as it were. There is the fiery abolitionist, the obstinate belle, the Unionist who doesn’t care about slavery,  the free black man who is too smart for his own good, the list goes on. And I won’t spoil it for you – but there were a few scenes that were so melodramatic and/or cliche that I had to smirk.

But I won’t come down too hard on the first episode. I will give the show time for some character development, some added complexity, and the ironing out of a few wrinkles. All in all – The first Mercy Street episode caught me attention – in a positive way. And so I look forward to next week.

With compliments,

Keith

Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar Acceptance Speech

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 7.16.48 AMGreetings all,

As I spend the weekend putting the finishing touches on a web course on the Reconstruction Era, I am reminded of this moving speech by film star Hattie McDaniel, the first black person ever to be awarded the Academy Award. In the course, the final segment engages history and popular culture – in particular the film, Gone With the Wind. I focus on McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy as well as a few notes on the actress herself. She was a fascinating woman off screen – a outspoken supporter of civil rights, she once lobbied the city of Los Angeles to purchase a home in an exclusive all-white neighborhood. Please take a moment to watch this clip – what does it suggest to you about race, historical memory, and Hollywood in 1940?

With compliments,

Keith

PS – the course will be live the week of January 18, 2016

Glory in the Classroom

Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 2.11.10 PMAs far as Civil War films go, this one is about as good as it gets. Why? For starters, the film addresses something that had gone more or less unnoticed in cinema until 1989 – but mainly because it gets the important stuff right. I have been using this film as a teaching tool since, well…I have been teaching.

The film has come under fire – primarily because it tells the story of Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 2.10.17 PMthe 54th Massachusetts Infantry, an all black regiment, from the perspective of a white protagonist – the unit’s commander, Robert Gould Shaw, portrayed by Matthew Broderick. I was concerned less with that than its treatment of Shaw, who comes across as more of a crusader than a whiny privileged twit , which is probably more of an accurate assessment (read his letters…you’ll know what I mean). But I will let that one go – I mean, Ferris Bueller did look like Shaw and after all, the other stuff is so much more important.

The “other stuff” to which I refer is the unequal treatment of black soldiers who were fighting for the Union cause – how they suffered the indignities of racist United States policy, received less pay, were assigned mainly manual tasks, how they risked execution if captured by the Confederates, and how despite all of this, they fought and died for the Union cause (to be fair to Shaw…he risked much as well and was killed leading his troops in combat).

In the end, we challenge how the United States could ever limit the rights of individuals (as it clearly did…) of those who put on the federal uniform, took up arms, and risked their lives to preserve the Union. The film never fails to leave my students asking this very question. As such – this motion picture did its job in splendid fashion…and continues to do so twenty-six years after it first premiered.

With compliments,

Keith

Ken Burns’s The Civil War Twenty-Five Years Later

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 11.48.40 AMAll is a-buzz on the Interwebs this week as PBS re-airs Ken Burns’s epic documentary The Civil War in celebration of its 25th anniversary. Many people are discussing what this program meant to them the first time around – how it inspired them individually and how Burns’s riveting narrative reached people in unprecedented ways. I do not think I need to go out on a limb here by saying that Burns sparked the interest of millions and helped make the past seem…well…interesting to those who might have slept through their high school history classes. Let me just go on record by saying that this is among the most important things ever to be on television.

For those of you re-watching this week or perhaps checking it out for the first time, here are a couple of thoughts to ponder…

Shelby Foote is at once the program’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. Foote, the master novelist, brings more charm to this show than one might believe possible. His soothing drawl and folksy wisdom only add to his unsurpassed storytelling expertise. You really want to like this man…and believe him. But his analysis is often questionable. For example, he notes:

1. The Confederacy never had a chance to win the war (yes, it did).

2. The Union fought the war with one hand tied behind its back (no, it didn’t).

3. Nathan Bedford Forrest was – with Lincoln – one of the war’s two original geniuses (no, he wasn’t).

Apart from these quibbles with Foote I found the final episode overwhelmingly reconciliationist in its sensibilities. While this analytical bent is right in step with the scholarship of the 1990s, it is pretty clear now (as it really was then if you thought about it long enough and actually looked at the historical record…) that veterans of that war were not so keen on letting bygones be bygones and reaching Across the Bloody Chasm in friendship (see what I did there?). I will be happy to elaborate on any nits that I picked in the comments below (note: I have been ripped a new one for critiquing Shelby Foote before, so have at it).

So do I think that you should take a pass on The Civil War? Of course not – and here’s why. The documentary still – 25 years later – inspires conversation and debate, which is what a great documentary is supposed to do. And now an entirely new generation can get acquainted with their past. Watch it with them…and get them talking. Furthermore, a TON of Civil War scholarship has hit the shelves since the show’s first airing. It would certainly be interesting to see how the history in The Civil War stands the test of time. And one more thing…congratulations to Ken Burns for 25 years of keeping Civil War history on people’s minds.

With compliments,

Keith

Petersburg in The Birth of a Nation

IMG_3607If you are watching The Birth of a Nation and you are wondering why the battlefield near Petersburg does not look much like Virginia it’s because 1) you have a keen eye and 2) it’s Burbank, California.

I was hiking in the Hollywood Hills the other day and came up on a good vista of the area – now Forest Lawn Cemetery. Much of the scene pictured in the immediate foreground was the Petersburg “set,” which stretched for several miles. Griffith oversaw the scenes from a tower and shouted direction – big megaphone in hand: just as you might imagine a silent film director would look, sans the jodhpurs.

So we have Virginia with chaparral – odd to be sure. Sometimes you have to work with what you’ve got!

The_Birth_of_a_Nation_war_sceneWith compliments,

Keith