Civil War & Pop Culture: “Like I said, the war was rough through here.” Thoughts on the film Pharaoh’s Army

Before 2012’s Lincoln, I used to say the big three Civil War movies were Gone with the Wind (1939), Glory (1989), and Gettysburg (1993), or the three Gs (Birth of a Nation is important for history and the evolution of filmmaking but very few watch it for entertainment). It is in some ways a curious statement. Gettysburg was a critical hit, but not a big money maker, at least in theaters. To be fair, it was also meant for television more than the silver screen. Glory’s dirty little secret is that it was a financial flop. It hardly made back its budget, but it did find its audience on cable. Gone with the Wind is one of the biggest hits of all time and a cultural and technical milestone. The other films lie in its shadow.

What interests me is how each mirrors the three dominant narratives of the Civil War. Glory and Lincoln are firmly in the Just Cause tradition of a righteous North liberating slaves and crushing a treasonous rebellion. Gone with the Wind is an avatar of the Lost Cause, while Gettysburg is about reunification through mutual bravery. None of them is a perfect distillation of those narratives. Glory and Lincoln were accused then and now of focusing too much on the actions of noble whites. Each does not shy away from showing Northern racism. Gone with the Wind laments the loss of the Old South but through Rhett Butler also condemns it as an out-dated and arrogant society doomed to lose a war they had no business fighting. That said, I do think Gettysburg is pretty spot on as a distillation of the reunification narrative, and maybe that is why it was my favorite Civil War movie for many years. It was the narrative I held to until recently.

As a child I grew up with the Lost Cause and in college I adhered to the Just Cause for a time. Yet, my loyalties had limits even than. Mostly, it is that each is a simplification, and one that tries to explain away the sins of its side. The South fought in large part to keep their slaves, while the North fought a war of conquest that devastated half of the country. I am not going to judge which was worse, because that is what the Just and Lost Cause are predicated on: hatred or at least contempt for “the other side.” That hatred can be seen in an imperfect and personal war 1995 movie named Pharaoh’s Army. It is really the Civil War about my people; the characters of Lincoln, Gone with the Wind, Glory, and Gettysburg are not the plain farmers of Kentucky and Tennessee. The story takes place only a few counties away from where the Dossetts, my ancestors, lived and were in turn divided by the war.

The 1990s saw America at the height of Civil War book purchases in the wake of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, which balanced out its Just Cause sensibilities with sympathy for a South ravaged by war and death. Pharaoh’s Army was influenced by Burns and Shelby Foote. It was written, produced, and directed by Robby Henson, a Kentucky native (with ancestors on both sides of the war) who grew up in a theater family. His father, Eben C. Henson, founded The Pioneer Playhouse in 1950, an out-door theater in Danville, Kentucky. While Robby still directs plays there, he tried his hand at movies and Pharaoh’s Army was his first feature length film. It was only possible through funding from PBS.

The plot is as simple and feels very much like a western. Sarah Anders (Patricia Clarkson) and her son (Will Lucas) must tend the farm while her husband fights in the Confederate army. Her only reliable friend is Preacher (Kris Kristofferson) because Meshack Creek (near Tompkinsville) is divided. When Sarah’s daughter is buried, local Union men unearth the corpse. The day the daughter is reburied on the farm, five Union cavalrymen arrive to procure supplies since the Anders family are disloyal. They are lead by Captain John Hull Abston (Chris Cooper) and forced to stay when one of them has an accident and is maimed. During the stay, Abston is kind to Sarah, but she hates Yankees. Meanwhile, Abston takes flak from Rodie (Richard Tyson), a soldier eager to fight and angry at Abston’s treatment of Sarah. Without giving it away, the film ends in death and recrimination, its moments of reconciliation tempered with bitterness and a rage that fills the faces of Clarkson and Cooper at key moments.

The film was not a major release, seeing its life mostly on television, particularly PBS and TBS. However, it was a critical success and important in advancing the careers of Cooper and Clarkson. At the time, Kristofferson was the only actor of note, and he was brought on by his daughter Tracy, who was enamored with the project. His role is crucial for the plot and heavy with symbolism, but Kristofferson is barely on screen. This is a film that lives and dies by its actors, and Cooper and Clarkson had to know this. Cooper got a starring role in Lone Star (1996) based on his work in Pharaoh’s Army. Clarkson, until then a supporting actress, received more and more roles. Here they, proved their chops, and while neither actor has ever disappointed me, even in their bad movies, this is their best work. Another actor of note is Tyson, who did not break out but has never been at a loss for work. I am glad, because his performance might be the most impressive, since he turned a difficult character into a man who we at least understand.

Henson had no such luck. After Pharaoh’s Army, he went on to make a series of thrillers and horror films. None of them was a hit financially or critically, with Three (2006) being considered one of the worst films of that decade. He has not made a film since House (2008), which received not a single positive review. One might say the evidence of a middling career was evident in Pharaoh’s Army. It is not poorly shot or edited, but nor is it strong in either regard. The music works sometimes and at other times fails. It is held up by a well written script supported by an excellent cast.

For the contemporary viewer, Pharaoh’s Army has two controversial aspects. First, Preacher’s slave, Israel (Mc Miles), could be construed as a “black Confederate.” I believe this is possible only if one ignores plot details and the fact that on the individual level, history is messy. For example, when Homer Plessy was brought before Judge John Ferguson he was represented by James C. Walker, a Confederate veteran. Ferguson was from Martha’s Vinyard and came to New Orleans when it was ruled by Benjamin Butler. More could have been done with Israel as a character, but both Miles and Kristofferson do a lot with mere glances.

The other point of contention is the way the film undermines the Just Cause interpretation. In one scene, Abston speaks with Chicago (Robert Joy), a German soldier, about why they joined. Chicago says “I think I get to see new places. I get tired of chopping sausage” and Abston counters with “Minister. Brought a run-away slave into our church and ripped off his shirt and showed off the ugliest damn strap scars. Then right there from the pulpit the minister asked for volunteers, and I stood up, and here I am, stealing chickens.” No doubt James McPherson and Chandra Manning would dispute this with letters of soldiers committed to the cause. And while both are good scholars, I have to wonder after reading so many letters where war weariness and disillusionment is obvious. Abston came on a simple morale crusade. He instead finds himself stealing and as things get worse, turning from soft to hard war, from enforcers to liberators, and from those who paid for provisions to those who stole them.

The Just Cause, being the dominant force today, means its perch of self-righteousness is much louder. This persuasion has generally come to see the war as inevitable and necessary, leading to a new birth of freedom. Indicative of this genre is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War,” where he contends that “The Civil War marks the first great defense of democracy and the modern West” and scoffs at “alleged sins perpetrated upon Confederates.” The Just Cause rests on the idea that the violence was meaningful. Pharaoh’s Army asks you consider the price we paid.

The actions of Sarah Anders scuttle any Lost Cause pretensions the film could have had. She is bitter, almost remorseless in her hatred. Her reasons are clear enough. Se has not heard from her husband. He likely died at Shiloh and the narrator (her son as an old man) aptly says “That war was a widow maker.” She fears she cannot feed herself or her boy and laments over her lost daughter. Abston does everything to help, refuses to take her mule, and ultimately spares her in what is possibly the most moving and frightening scene I have seen in any Civil War movie. Yet, even then her hatred is only slightly diminished. If in Abston we have the avatar of the Union’s shift from soft to hard war, in Sarah Anders we have the South of Reconstruction, defiant, bitter, and vengeful. One can picture her sheltering the Ku Klux Klan if only to see them kill her neighbors who supported the Union. She approves when her unionist neighbors are killed and their farm burned by Rebel guerillas.

This is a film that sees reconciliation as at best limited. Murder, grave desecration, and theft will hardly make for good relations. The ultimate symbol is the separation of the dead. The Unionists dug up Sarah’s dead daughter, but she turns around and digs up Rodie, who was buried next to her daughter. This is a scar that can still be seen today. At Shiloh most of the Union dead are buried in the national cemetery, while the Confederates lie in mass graves. The only two Confederate generals buried in Arlington are Marcus Wright and Joseph Wheeler, and that is because each served the American army in some capacity after the war. Even today, we can hardly stand to have our dead side by side as cemetery monuments to dead Confederate prisoners are removed from Northern cemeteries. Pharaoh’s Army suggests that this is the darker truth of the war. It is not just a crusade to end slavery, a war that reforged a nation, or the tale of Southernors defending their home. It is also another chapter in our long human history of war and fostering the bitterness that is passed on for generations and called up whenever we need a justification for a fresh set of horrors to inflict on our enemies. It is a hard reality that we usually look away from in order to give the bloody conflicts of history some higher purpose.

Both Lincoln and Pharaoh’s Army contain a scene that mirrors each other. Towards the end of Lincoln, the 16th president talks about peace with his old friend Alexander Stephens, who retorts “How have you held your Union together? Through democracy? How many hundreds of thousands have died during your administration? Your union, sir, is bonded in cannon fire and death.” Lincoln, looking to a reconciled and united country (Lincoln was a nationalist first and foremost) replies “Say we’ve shown that a people can endure awful sacrifice and yet cohere? Mightn’t that save at least the idea of democracy, to aspire to?” Pharaoh’s Army has its own retort to Stephens. When the slave-holding Preacher calls Abston a murderer and condemns him to Hell, Abston says “Then I guess we’ll meet again.” Indeed, we will.

10 Responses to Civil War & Pop Culture: “Like I said, the war was rough through here.” Thoughts on the film Pharaoh’s Army

    1. It was made in the 1990s when what some call “wokeness” was purely academic phenomena. Which is one reason why campus attacks on free speech scare me. Ultimately these people will graduate and since they go to elite institutions, they will be our masters in government, business, and the arts.

      My only hope is what George Orwell wrote about the unexpected. At any given time a movement or force may appear invincible, but events can upend any plan and counter-trends are always there.

  1. Great Column. “Pharaoh’s Army”, although somewhat flawed, as you describe, is still in my top 5 of Civil War movies. Thank you.

  2. Thoughtful piece. “Pharaoh’s Army” is a gem though hard to watch at times. An overlooked Civil War movie. I have the DVD and watch it every couple of years. Cooper’s and Clarkson’s performances especially outstanding. Thank you for bringing it to everyone’s attention and for your commentary and interpretation.

  3. First off, I love your posts because you don’t hold back in your analysis of the Lost Cause and Just Cause distinction, which is awesome and refreshing.
    Second, I haven’t seen or heard of this movie, but now I’ve GOT to go find it and watch it. I find myself frustrated with historical inaccuracies in film, but this sounds pretty decent. Thanks for sharing your views on it.

    1. The inaccuracies are few since it is an intimate story, but one is Sarah saying her husband is in the Army Of Tennessee. At the time it was called The Army of the Mississippi, but she would have been more likely to name his regiment

  4. I’m a Yankee with a few grandfathers and tens of uncles who fought for the Union. I’ve heard of the “Lost Cause”, never the “Just Cause” phrase, but I fully understand what you mean. It’s sad, but I’ve seemed to notice a growing trend among Civil War scholars nowadays who are trying to downplay what the South was able to achieve. They brush it aside, and wave it off, claiming its all “Lost Cause” propaganda. I disagree. Sadly I think these folks and their opinions are more politically motivated than scholarly. This trend bleeds into films as well. I saw it in Lincoln and it immediately made me dislike the movie. Hollywood rarely belts out good period flicks any more. It seems like us history nerds have to wait forever for them. I wish they didn’t have to ruin the few we get by mixing modern politics into them. I could go on and on about this but I’ll stop here. The Revenant, thankfully didn’t do this and I just saw 1917 and for the most part they left it out of there as well so that was good.
    Oh and I’ll have to check out your movie too, never seen it.

    1. The concerns of the day rarely cannot be found in any histrical film. Even Tora! Tora! Tora! has shades of the Cold War and Vietnam in its depiction of leaders choosing a war they can avoid and likely cannot win, while offering a look at America before its military was 2nd to none. And to be fair, Tora! Tora! Tora! is less a product of its time than most other films.

      As to scholarship, its always been aggressively biased, but dressed up as “professional.” Perhaps that contradiction is why professional history’s influence on the public is often limited as compared to philosophy and art, which make no pretrence as dispassionate opinion.

      Those rare books that avoid partisanship though are real gems.

      I hope you like Pharaoh’s Army.

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