During Garry Adelman’s keynote presentation at the ECW Symposium last weekend, he briefly mentioned a “what if” point that I had been thinking about for a few weeks. It’s kind of fun when that happens because it’s like confirmation that a few historians/researchers are thinking along the same lines and it might actually be a viable idea to explore.
So…what if the great Civil War epics of film and television history had not been created?
I suppose the debate could be long about what should qualify for the list, but here are the ones that I’m working with for the sake of this “what if” scenario.
- Gone With The Wind
- Ken Burn’s The Civil War
Gone With The Wind’s cinematic drama burst on the big screens in 1939, roughly based on the 1936 best-selling novel. In both the on-screen and off-screen “celebrations” of the Civil War, this film brought to life the story of a “lost civilization.” The more I’ve been looking at late 19th and early 20th Century Confederate memory, the more I’m convinced that Gone With The Wind capstoned a lot of the popular views of that movement, a grand celebration of the ideals connected to the Lost Cause. In this way, Gone With The Movie (the movie) had several effects. First, it helped to cement a particular memory of the Civil War into mainstream and even global thinking. Second, the movie’s long-range popularity helped to keep the American Civil War in pop-culture, ultimately paving paths for greater interest thirty-ish years later for the centennial anniversary. Without Gone With The Wind, would Lost Cause ideals have been as entrenched or would there have been a strong pop-culture influence around the centennial?
Glory released on the movie screens in 1989. Interest in the American Civil War was building and growing at that time, and Glory helped to shine a spotlight on Black History and the sacrifices of African American soldiers. It started introducing audiences to other stories of the Civil War and perspectives far different than fifty-year-old Gone With The Wind. Glory brought some of the shifting interests of academia Civil War studies to the public in an effective and dramatic film. What if Glory wasn’t made? Would it have been even more difficult to teach and highlight African American accounts from the Civil War?
Ken Burn’s The Civil War is frequently pointed to as the starting interest point for many enthusiasts and historians of this era. First aired in 1990, the long documentary series came at a crucial moment in the battlefield preservation movement, the height of Civil War reenacting, a strong point for Civil War Round Tables, and the academic search for lesser-known accounts and different perspectives on the 1860’s. While still highlighting major battles and campaigns, the series tried to add more voices to the Civil War saga, including politicians, civilians, and African Americans. What if the documentary had not been made? Would we see the renewed interested in the Civil War of the 1990’s? Would we have preserved as many battlefields?
Gettysburg released in 1993. Don’t underestimate its power on pop-culture! Many people I’ve talked to at Round Tables, on battlefields, and in other public history settings credit this movie with starting their interest in the Civil War. I had a teenager emphatically tell me just this week that Gettysburg is “the best war movie ever made.” (I have questions.) Gettysburg battlefield tourism jumped, sales of anything and everything related to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain skyrocketed, and Longstreet’s memory got reexamined. Gettysburg has influenced the “emerging” generation of history enthusiasts, captured the imagination, and started many on their battlefield quests or sent them into libraries to find books and learn more about what really happened in July 1863. What if the movie hadn’t been made? Would the long-range effects on interest in Civil War history plummeted more quickly?
Lincoln (2012) came to theaters during the 150th anniversary. It could be argued that it doesn’t belong in this list, but I think it’s possible we may look back and see the movie’s importance as a reflection of changing views of the Civil War. The movie is not battlefield centric. Instead, it focuses on politics and to some extent 1860’s society. I remember when I saw it in the theaters, I thought it reflected the themes in many newly released book titles: a trend into the political and social movements and away from the long-standing military traditions connected with the Civil War. It brought abolition and Union to the big screen in a new way and in a way that reflected academic trends. It allowed some of those more academic discussions to come into the pop-culture, even for just a short time. What if we hadn’t had that opportunity? What if we didn’t have the movie to point to for examples?
So…what if these movies and TV series hadn’t been made? How would this have further impacted popular views of the Civil War? Would there have been less interest in learning about what happened? Would there have been less enthusiasm for saving battlefields?
Would you even be reading this blog post if it hadn’t been for one of these films?