Overview for films in Pre-Civil War Era
(Digital History ID 2952)

Apart from westward expansion, the major topics of the pre-Civil War era have been largely ignored by Hollywood. Indian removal, the Bank War, nullification, the women’s rights movement, utopian communities—none has been the subject of a serious film.

The film Little Women, though set during the Civil War, does provide a glimpse into such topics as family relations, schooling, and gender roles in the pre-war period. Two hagiographic films about Abraham Lincoln—Abe Lincoln in Illinois and Young Mr. Lincoln—offer highly romanticized glimpses into the future president’s character.

Steven Spielberg’s Amistad provides a seriously flawed look at the abolitionist movement. It portrays the abolitionists as impractical religious fanatics; treats Josiah Gibbs, the Yale College professor who learned Mende and translated the captives words as a joke; and invents a fictitious African American abolitionist Theodore Joadson (when it could have depicted real-life figure, the Reverend J.C. Pennington. The film also ignores the racial prejudice in New Haven, where plans for a vocational college for African American students had been quashed a few years earlier; and misrepresents the abolitionists' role in supporting the trial. Above all, the film fails to focus sufficiently on the captives themselves.

The most poorly served subject is the escalating sectional crisis. The one feature film to systematically explore the coming of the Civil War--the historically-fanciful and wildly inaccurate Santa Fe Trail--depicts John Brown as a psychopathic madman, and suggests that white Southerners were reforming the institution of slavery. It does demonstrate the degree to which Hollywood had embraced the mythology that the Civil War was a needless conflict that could have been averted were it not for the agitation of fanatics.

Recommended Film:

Young Mr. Lincoln

John Ford’s fictionalized account of ten years of Abraham Lincoln’s life traces the future president’s evolution from “jackleg lawyer” to master attorney and lays bare Lincoln’s essential character: his humor, ingenuity, and decency.

Copyright Digital History 2021