Civil War & the Big Screen: An Open Letter to Hollywood

Dear Big-Time Hollywood Financiers,

From this year, straight on through to 2015, the United States of America is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the country’s most important event, the Civil War. During those four years, from 1861-1865, nearly 600,000 men gave their lives for various causes, whether it was fighting to keep America united up north, or fighting for states’ rights down south. Never in our history was there more passion exerted over such a small length of time—the stories are endless, not just of the violent and bloody battles, but the individual soldiers that fought in them, and their loved ones at home, anxiously awaiting to hear from them. Though tactics and technology change, the overall scourge of war remains exactly the same. The phrase that we historians and enthusiasts use, “History Repeats Itself”, to which many roll their eyes, has become cliche, but it is true. It is for this reason that we strive to remember the past, however inconvenient or displeasing that may be.

The question I have to ask here, speaking for the thousands of Civil War buffs from around the country is, why are there not more films made about such an important event? Truth be told, there are enough stories about this war to fill more than a decade’s worth of films, yet no one dares to tackle it. What is the reason? Are the politics of the war still too controversial to portray? Could it be because of the type of audience that has developed in this country, one that does not want to sit through a historical drama, and only wants to see gory special effects and violence? Or is it because there does not seem to be enough money to be made via a Civil War film? This country has become obsessed with the almighty dollar; what other reasons could there be for such miserable excuses of television docudramas such as Fields of Valor and the History Channel’s Gettysburg, which we have to “settle” for? What happened to the good old-fashioned epic, a film with a real story and real people, portraying both sides equally in a conflict? Has too much time passed for this genre to be relevant?

There is no major part of history more shunned than the Civil War, unless you count the American Revolution, both events dictating the nation we have become today. Studios always seem reluctant to commit to a historical production, and it seems that every film made about this subject has almost more trials and tribulations than the actual war it seeks to portray. It took Ron Maxwell fifteen years to get Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels to the big-screen as Gettysburg, and an additional ten for the prequel, Gods and Generals. The final film in the trilogy, The Last Full Measure, currently sits on the shelf, just waiting to be made. While there still is a small amount of hope, unfortunately, the light is growing ever dimmer. The time to get the wheels of production rolling is now, and there is neither the want, studio, or mega-million dollar budget available to get the job done. This should not be the case. With the marketability present to producers, to capitalize on an anniversary, one would think they would be chomping at the bit. Instead, the chances of this amazing novel coming to life on the silver screen become even slimmer and more depressing as each day goes by.

What is even more disappointing about this situation is that, usually, historical pieces come as a one-or-the-other production. What I mean by this is, authenticity is usually sacrificed for star power. Why? There really is no answer to that question, but look to films like Cold Mountain and The Patriot, the first which had the promise of a fantastic plot, only to be ruined by a melodramatic love story, and the latter marred by blatant and stunning inaccuracies that almost went to insult the intelligence of a well-informed viewer. However, with this new series, it comes as a package deal, because it will be historically accurate down to the lapels on the jackets, as well as come with a star studded cast. Why is there only little interest? Where is the urgency?

To be honest, there have only been two truly successful Hollywood films made about the Civil War: Gone with the Wind and Glory. While the former now seems silly because of its ridiculously sympathetic approach to the Confederacy and slavery, it was made at a time that was less than 80 years removed from the war, which is like the relationship we have today with WWII. Who knows; in 20 or 30 years, there may not be any films made about that conflict either. Glory, on the other hand, was one of those rare package deals that included both star-power and accuracy, though sometimes I wonder if it was more palatable for American viewership because of its politically correct anti-Confederate stance instead of the intended inspirational and uplifting story of the first fighting black soldiers. I do not include Gettysburg in this because it truly became a success and remembered for its television premiere on TNT. Also, again being more recent, the only reason why Lincoln is getting so much hype is because of two names: Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis. Had they not been involved, how many people other than history buffs would really care and be gushing over such a project? Not many, I assure you.

So, in the next three years are we going to see any changes? With 2011 almost done, the next few years will come and go before we even know it. Will someone step forward to help make a film such as The Last Full Measure possible? Will someone finally give the Stephen Crane classic, Red Badge of Courage, a real look, as the first one directed by the great John Huston was nearly sabotaged into oblivion by the studio? If you are out there, please make yourself known; not to me, of course, but to a director or an author with a project waiting in the wings. We need your help, just like this country needs to better remember a subject that is devoted only a few biased paragraphs by the history books the children in this country read. The stories are out there—the drama, action, romance, and horror of war are like a cache of oil hidden below the surface just waiting to be found. The ultimate question is, though, is there anyone willing to drill for it?


Greg Caggiano

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Kurt Epps says:

    I think it’s the PC aspect of dealing with the states’ rights vs. slavery issue that has kept an honest accounting in film at bay. We’re only allowed to see an “approved” offical villain these days–Nazis prominent among them–and that list includes slave holders, regardless of when the slaves were held. There is an entire generation–maybe two–which fully believes slavery originated in America and blacks were its only victims. I don’t think any major company wants to go down that road and risk the opprobrium of the race hustlers.
    “Glory” was a great film precisely because it treated the issues of racism and hatred on both sides of the same “team.”
    “The Patriot” on the other hand, took great pains to show that although Ben Martin and his sister-in-law owned slaves, they treated them like family. That they were still possessions was glossed over. And, of course, the white militia man who undergoes a conversion with his black comrade-in-arms was pretty much the face of the South, or what the filmmakers wanted to hope would eventually be the face of the South.
    Still, The Patriot was not about slavery per se, so it could gloss over those issues to tell its own compelling story. Any film about the Civil War cannot–and will not– be afforded that latitude.

  2. Wow! Nice open letter to Tinseltown, man! 🙂

    Only one minor disagreement from my end: “Glory” got wrecked for me by how they (spoiler alert, people) killed off all the characters. Sure Colonel Shaw died, but couldn’t we have seen at least a couple of the characters from the 54th Massachusetts straggling back down the beach among a clump of surviving troops at the end of the doomed attack? I got so confused by the ending, years later I finally got to ask a reenactor named Lee Bishop, who was on the crew of one of the two cannons that wipe out Carey Elwes, Morgan Freeman, et al at the end just what happened.

    On the other hand, I totally agree about “The Red Badge Of Courage.” Apart from its starring both Audie Murphy and Bill Mauldin (two notables from WWII), the studio really went to town on it and John Huston just … let them because he was gearing up for “The African Queen.”

    And c’mon “The Last Full Measure” c’mon. Maybe Ron Maxwell could get backing from Stephen Speilburg?

  3. Crystal says:

    Great open letter, I sure hope there are more Civil War movies made in the future but I doubt it. I would love to see a movie about Shiloh or Chickamauga or a biography film about Robert E. Lee. And I think a film about a common soldier would make a great film, something like my Great Great Grandfather’s story. He had just turned 21 when the war broke out in 1861, he was a poor farmer, his wife was just 16 and they had a 3 month old son, and in August of 1861 he left her and the baby and enlisted in the Confederate army. Was wounded at Stone’s River which left him unable to return to the field so he spent the last two years of the war working in a hospital.

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