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THE REEL CIVIL WAR by Bruce Chadwick

THE REEL CIVIL WAR

Mythmaking in American Film

By Bruce Chadwick

Pub Date: Sept. 26th, 2001
ISBN: 0-375-40918-1
Publisher: Knopf

The ripe topic of how filmmakers mythologized the Civil War is manhandled into pedantic submission in this well-organized but dreary film history.

Chadwick (Film & Journalism/Rutgers Univ., Jersey City) has written widely on the Civil War (The Two American Presidents, 1998, etc.) and brings to this effort a comfortable knowledge of American history and extensive research on the many hundreds of Civil War films and their creation. Smartly, he divides the topic into sections on Civil War history, components of the Civil War film, and war-related genres. He also rightly devotes chapters to The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, and detailed recountings of the films’ receptions are useful. But his film analyses are often wanting, rehashing accepted assessments (for example, that GWTW succeeded because it was a women’s film; that 1930s films were escapist fare), or positing limited viewpoints, such as his take on how Hollywood presented Abraham Lincoln and the author’s statement that Birth of a Nation was “a film that would, indeed, live forever—in ignominy.” Even interesting observations (such as those on the mythologizing within the miniseries Roots) are deadened by seemingly hasty composition. Lines such as “Victorian women also used held-in sexuality,” “she [Margaret Mitchell] reinforced the shackles that already gripped African Americans so tightly,” and “It [the Civil War] was the most family-wrenching war in American history” scream for a line editor and compel readers to scan ahead for a citation from a more graceful writer. Finally, after all this discussion of films, a filmography of Civil War films would have been more than welcome.

What could have been an insightful examination of the nature of a popular art and the duration of a classic is instead a massively researched but ultimately pedestrian history paper. (42 photos, not seen)