Tag Archives: Civil War films

American Civil War Web-Course

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 8.04.38 PMGreetings all! I have been posting updates on Twitter of late chronicling the progress of my next web-course: The American Civil War. I am very pleased to announce that the launch date is May 14, 2016. The course includes nearly forty video lectures and other projects covering military, social, political, and economic aspects of the conflict.

I am most excited to offer this course to my founding web-students for a 50% discount off the already reasonable price. You won’t find this deal anywhere but through this site – and the offer goes away on launch day. So you had better get on the stick. Here’s what you need to do:

ONE – be a current student or enroll now in either my Gettysburg or Reconstruction Era web-course for the regular discounted price available only from Keith Harris History.

TWO – sign up to be part of the Keith Harris History CREW so I can be sure to get you the info you need.

Get that all squared away and on launch day you will receive your discount code via email. And that’s it. Easy right?

With compliments,

Keith

 

The NAACP and The Birth of a Nation

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 8.56.46 AMThere’s an old adage in Hollywood that claims there is no such thing as bad press. Case in point: according to historian Melvyn Stokes, evidence suggests that the protest campaign launched by the National Association of Colored People against D. W. Griffith’s controversial film The Birth of a Nation did more to stimulate interest in the picture than it did to dissuade audiences from attending. The NAACP worked vehemently against this film beginning at its debut in 1915 at the Clune auditorium in Los Angeles. They protested screenings (pictured left in 1947) and demanded that the more racist depictions of African American be cut from the film.

In the end they were largely unsuccessful. Even white liberals who supported civil rights balked at the notion of censorship…and so the film went on screening across the land. The silver lining? The protests also garnered a great deal of attention for the NAACP, and as a result, their ranks swelled during the first half of the twentieth century. So not all was lost. Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 8.57.35 AM

With compliments,

Keith

Lilian Gish et al

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 3.52.21 PMThanks to the help of a Twitter connection after a inquiry Tweet relating to the papers of the cast of The Birth of a Nation, I am now aware of the whereabouts of the papers of Ms. Lilian Gish: at the New York Public Library. This once again confirms (as if I needed any confirmation) that social media are wonderful tools for researchers. Ask a question, broadcast it to the world, get an immediate answer. I love it.

So my Internet friends, should you know the locations of any other collections pertaining to the cast and crew of this most controversial silent film I would love the tip off.

Many thanks,

Keith

The Worst Film about the Civil War Era. Ever.

Screen shot 2014-01-25 at 10.37.43 AMNot long ago, I discovered that The Conspirator was available on Amazon Instant Video. Huzzah, I thought. I had the house to myself and I figured it was the perfect time to enjoy a Civil War era film.

I made it through twenty minutes and turned it off.

Keep in mind, I have never walked out on or turned off any Civil War film. Ever. And I have sat through Gods and Generals TWICE. Clearly I am committed to Hollywood’s take on this epic historical event. But I just could not stomach this wretched piece of rubbish.

If the first twenty minutes were any indication of things to come in the rest of the film, then I suppose I would have been treated to more over-wrought testaments to “American” jurisprudence – the right to a trial by one’s peers and the notion of innocence before guilt can be established without any element of doubt. Thanks for the elementary lesson in  law.

But wait, there are more lessons to be learned here. Yes – Mary Surratt was indeed a woman. Her implication in the murder of Abraham Lincoln and her subsequent execution were shocking to be sure. Thanks for the elementary lesson in nineteenth-century gender assumptions.

The problem, at least in the first few scenes that I could watch, is that both of these issues are of great significance – then and now – but they were glossed over in a tisk-tisk fashion only after dripping a taste of sickening “look-at-how-we’ve-progressed-but-there’s-still-work-to-be-done” syrup on for good measure. And even this was done so in a mumbly dead-pan stumble fest. Such nonsense can only refelct some of the worst writing, the worst acting, the worst directing, or a combination of the three. I would have been more riveted watching a plate of white toast get stale as time slowly, painfully passed.

Not that the film was completely lacking in merits. I got a bit of a chuckle at the actor who played John Wilkes Booth. With all the southern-Gothic charm of a junior high production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, his brutish pronunciation of the Virginia state motto in the Ford’s Theatre scene – sic semper tyrannis – was delightful. I suppose this was merely an effort to “southernize” or if you like, “Rebelize” the president’s assassin (who was not a redneck but a classically trained actor), by giving him a slightly raspier Jethro Bodine-esque accent. Such clumsy and obvious efforts make me laugh.

But who knows? Maybe the utter brilliance of rest of the film made up for the first twenty minutes. I will never know. Perhaps it got slightly less patronizingly preachy. Maybe there was a musical number. Maybe robots. If anyone has seen the whole thing, chime in.

With compliments,

Keith

Bayyyyyyoooooooneeeeeeetttts….CHARGE! The 20th Maine in the film, Gettysburg

Screen shot 2014-01-05 at 1.31.46 PMYessiree – films have a powerful affect on us all. I am going to wager that pretty much everyone with an interest in Civil War history has had a look at Ron Maxwell’s 1993 film, Gettysburg. I will also wager that pretty much everyone has something to say about it – good…bad…or somewhere in between.

For starters, I have to say that I enjoyed the film (I can’t say the same about Maxwell’s follow up prequel, Gods and Generals – but that is a story for another day). I saw Gettysburg as a student, and I have shown it to my own students as part of an on-going effort to get at how Americans understand the history of their greatest national conflict.

I am particularly interested in how this film has helped catapult Joshua “don’t call me Lawrence” Chamberlain to the upper echelon of Union heroes. As we all know, Chamberlain’s unit, the 20th Maine, was positioned on the extreme left of the Union line at Gettysburg on July 2nd, 1863: Little Round Top. Their orders: hold the position at all costs.

Admittedly – this was a precarious situation. While they held the high ground (and thus a tactical advantage) the 20th was up against an Alabama regiment of Confederate General Longstreet’s Second Corps (some ass-kicking Rebels) and their left flank was exposed…hanging out in the breeze, really. Failure to hold this position could have essentially threatened the entire Union line – and everybody knew it. Anyone who has been to Little Round Top can plainly see that properly deployed Confederate guns would have been in a perfect position to roll up the Union left flank. The film suggests that this was the pivotal moment in the battle and the war. “If we lose this fight,” declares Chamberlain in the film, “we lose the war.”

Bummer. So the whole enchilada hinged on the commanding prowess of one man – and a college professor to boot. No worries – Chamberlain and the 20th won the day. A bayonet charge just when all seemed lost pushed the final Rebel advance off the hill and voila – the UNION WAS SAVED!!!

Not so fast. Now I am not trying to retrospectively kick Chamberlain in the nuts here, but let’s have a look at the bigger picture. I think, and most would agree, that Chamberlain and the 20th did a splendid job at Gettysburg (and Jeff Daniels did some bang-up work in the film, too). But did one man save the Union? I think not.

So why does this one soldier have such a hold on the American imagination? Well, it works a little like this. No one had heard much about Chamberlain until 1974, when Michael Shaara published The Killer Angels, a novel about the Battle of Gettysburg on which the film Gettysburg is based. Apparently Shaara was taken with Chamberlain’s story. A thoughtful college professor of rhetoric with a keen sense of right and wrong and an uncanny ability to master the art of warfare seemingly made for an excellent central character and a wonderful narrator of the Union cause. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and elevated Chamberlain in the eyes of Civil War enthusiasts.

But things really took off in 1990. Ken Burns, the self-proclaimed future of documentary film making, brought the Civil War into the living rooms of millions of Americans with his epic multi-part film, The Civil War. According to Burns, The Killer Angels was a “remarkable book that changed my life.” So it stands to reason, then, that Chamberlain and the 20th Maine would hold such a prominent position in the documentary. And if Burns’s film didn’t prove once and for all that Chamberlain essentially saved the Union, Gettysburg sealed the deal. Historians virtually ignored Chamberlain for the longest time, it took popular culture to shed light on this intrepid savior.

Okay Chamberlain fans…you can just relax. I love me some 20th, and Chamberlain was the real deal. Hell, he won the medal of honor for his gallantry on Little Round Top – and deservedly so. Let’s just be clear on a few things. He did not win the Battle of Gettysburg and save the Union all by himself.

For one, the 20th held only one end of the line. On the Union far right – Culp’s Hill – Colonel David Ireland commanded the 137th New York and held his position against an entire Confederate division. A loss here could have been equally catastrophic for the Union cause. But he is not mentioned in Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Burns’s The Civil War, or Maxwell’s Gettysburg. Too bad for Ireland. His cultural resonance is merely a blip against the Chamberlain juggernaut – even though his work was equally daunting, equally crucial, and was executed with equal fortitude and gallantry as Chamberlain’s.

But my quibbling with Chamberlain’s role in Gettysburg really leads me to my bigger point. The film has helped instill the idea in the greater American narrative that the war all came down to one battle. It did not. The Gettysburg as “high tide” of the Confederacy story really did not take hold until after the war, when analysts and historians looked retrospectively for the moment when the Confederacy had its greatest chance to secure independence. From this perspective, things went steadily downhill for the Rebels from July, 1863 to Appomattox. This is a powerful idea in many ways – but believe me, very few (if any) people in 1863 saw Gettysburg as deciding things one way or the other. Citizens of the Union were thrilled by the news of victory, citizens of the Confederacy were devastated by defeat. But the war went on for nearly two more years – and the people from both republics looked to the armies in the field for news of victory that would bring them closer to securing their respective causes.

The film suggests otherwise – and no one understands this better than our hero, the sagacious Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Gettysburg leaves the viewer with the knowledge that Gettysburg would have been the decisive battle for Confederate victory and, thanks to Chamberlain, this victory would not take place. Thank goodness that one colonel had the cajones to make the crucial decision to order a last ditch bayonet charge at the most critical moment in the battle. The film thus falls in line with one of the greatest misconceptions regarding the war: that Gettysburg was the war’s turning point. And this is ultimately what the Chamberlain story tells us. But misconception or not – Chamberlain is today among the top ten Civil War cultural icons…right up there with Lee and Lincoln. After all, you can’t find a David Ireland t-shirt for sale at any Gettysburg gift shop. This may be the most devastating fact of all.

Of course, that’s just my opinion – judge for yourself…

The Killer Angels
The Civil War
Gettysburg

With compliments,

Keith