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Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Blue and Gray (originally published 2/03)

Like many of you, back in 1990 I sat entranced through Ken Burns's PBS documentary on the Civil War. The recent re-airing of a remastered version of the epic work demonstrated that it has lost none of its power and fascination. It's a great piece of filmmaking, drawing on one of the most compelling subjects ever.

Surely no other wound has cut quite so deeply into the American psyche as that horrendous fraternal bloodletting. It cuts to the core of our national identity, forcing us to acknowledge the terrifying fragility of the American experiment. Indeed, it compelled even the leader of our nation to admit publicly that it was far from a settled issue whether this nation, or any nation of its kind, could long endure.

Photography was born just in time to capture images of the war itself. Motion pictures, born just a bit too late, have been playing catch-up ever since. Civil War movies have never lacked for an audience, and I suspect that the recent release of "Gods and Generals" will be no exception.

I thought I would mention just a few favorite Civil War titles, but there are two I will pass over in semi-silence: "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), because its unfortunate choice of the Ku Klux Klan as the heroes of its second half makes for unsavory viewing, and "Gone With the Wind" (1939), because it's just too obvious.

"The Red Badge of Courage" (1951). Of all the directors Hollywood ever produced, none was more adept than John Huston at tackling "unfilmable" literary classics and wrestling them to a draw - or better. His adaptation of Stephen Crane's immortal examination of cowardice and courage holds up extremely well in spite of the savage editing it received at the studio's hands. A couple of preview audiences apparently reacted negatively to the original cut. Studio executives, much like the boy in Crane's story, tucked tail and ran for cover, chopping the film down to about 70 minutes. We can only hope that the deleted footage still exists somewhere and will one day be restored.

"Raintree County" (1957). It was inevitable, I suppose, the MGM would eventually yield to the temptation to go back to the well and try to outdo "Gone With the Wind." This was the film in which they tried it. (Probably there was vanity at work as well. After all, "Gone With the Wind" had really been a Selznick picture, not an MGM picture. They only released it.) Here, as in the earlier film, the war serves as a backdrop for a story of unhappy marriage. Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor play the star-crossed couple. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is a behind the scenes promotional short on the making of the film.

"The Horse Soldiers" (1959). Director John Ford's only significant film touching on the Civil War was this dramatization of a Union raid during the Vicksburg campaign. John Wayne, Ford's favorite star, plays the Union colonel who leads a cavalry unit deep into Confederate territory to interfere with supply lines by sabotaging the railroads. As one would expect from Ford, the film presents a highly romanticized view of the war. Acts of gallantry and valor on both sides of the conflict are emphasized throughout.

"Shenandoah" (1965). James Stewart has a field day in the role of a Virginia widower trying to run his farm and raise a family with the war raging all around him. He wants no part of the war - he doesn't hold with slavery - but eventually it comes to his doorstep. When his youngest son is kidnapped by Yankees, the conflict at last becomes personal. If you're bothered by schmaltz, be warned that this is a very sentimental picture. Still, it was made by people who knew how to do sentiment well.

"The General" (1927). Buster Keaton's classic Civil War comedy is as fresh and entertaining today as it was three quarters of a century ago. It retells the true story of Union soldiers who stole the locomotive named the "General" and the Confederate engineer who gave chase in a locomotive called the "Texas." Keaton aimed for authenticity, excitement, and laughs, and scored a solid bull's eye on all counts.

"The General" may actually be the one you'll want to pick up on the way home from seeing "Gods and Generals." After wallowing in the brutality of Bull Run and Chancellorsville, you'll need Keaton's healing humor to weave laughter for you out of the blood-stained tatters of blue and gray.

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