The Celluloid Civil
Since 1903, when a silent version
of Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared on the screen, more than
six hundred silent movies and two hundred talkies have dealt
with the slavery and the Civil War, including such box office
sensations as The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the
Wind. With remarkably few exceptions, these films mythologized
the war as a tragedy in which a gallant but hopeless overmatched
white Southerners fought for their honor and their conception
of what was right. Not until the television mini-series Roots appeared in 1977 did a mainstream audience view the Civil
War through the eyes of enslaved African Americans and not until
the 1993 film Glory did African American soldiers, who
made up ten percent of the Union army, appear in combat.
As historian Bruce Chadwick
has shown in his recent book The Reel Civil War (2001),
a major objective of these films was to promote sectional reconciliation.
Many of these films (including The Birth of a Nation)
symbolize reunion through the marriage of a Northerner and a
white Southerner. Others portrayed brothers who fight on opposite
sides of the conflict but are reconciled when the ends.
Eager to promote sectional
reunion and to avoid alienating potential movie-goers, these
films promoted many pernicious myths. Hollywood presented a highly
romanticized portrait of the Old South as a land of "moonlight
and magnolias" peopled by gallant cavaliers, beautiful southern
belles, and contented slaves. Typically, these films blamed the
war on abolitionist fanatics and suggested that the South entered
the war reluctantly.
At the same time, popular films
relegated African Americans to the margins, typically portraying
them as obedient servants prior to the war, and as menacing figures
after the war had ended. In this way, these films gave thinly-veiled
support to the rise of segregation and disfranchisement in the
post-Civil War South.
The largest number of Civil
War films appeared around the fiftieth anniversary of the conflict,
between 1911 and 1915, but the conflict never disappeared from
the screen. During the 1940s and 1950s many Westerns featured
Union and Confederate veterans who were united in opposing the
Although the Confederacy lost
the war on the battlefield, it can be argued that it won the
ideological war that followed. During the early and middle decades
of the twentieth century, many white Northerners, including many
foreign immigrants, came to accept a mythic and highly inaccurate
portrait of the Civil War, a portrayal that has only recently
begun to be revised on the screen.
Back to Top