The Celluloid Civil War

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 Plains Indians.

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.

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Copyright Digital History 2013