What If…Civil War “Epics” Hadn’t Been Filmed?

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.

  1. Gone With The Wind
  2. Glory
  3. Ken Burn’s The Civil War
  4. Gettysburg
  5. Lincoln

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 movie poster (IMDB)

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?

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?
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12 Responses to What If…Civil War “Epics” Hadn’t Been Filmed?

  1. Frank Schimberg says:

    My parents took me to Gettysburg in the summer of 1960, and I was hooked. The next five years were wonderful because the hundredth anniversary of every battle was given a little news. Magazine articles like the 1963 “If the South had won the civil war” were items well read by me. It was based on the South winning the battle of Gettysburg. Kind of what if. Gone With The Wind was the only film out there on your list when I was growing up and to me it was a very long and boring story about a spoiled child and love gone bad, not much history. Emerging Civil War is on my must read list daily. Thank you for all you do for ECW.

  2. waynegettysgrg says:

    Before Ken Burns’ The Civil War, I knew a little about Lee, Grant, Stonewall, Gettysburg and Appomattox. Very little. That series absolutely blew me away and was the spark for me, and despite some of its well-documented flaws, it set me on a decades-long path of discovery and re-discovery of all things Civil War. Like most of you, I now have a ridiculous number of CW books on my shelves, have travelled to many battlefields and historical sites, and am a solid supporter of battlefield preservation. None of this would have happened without that mesmerizing PBS series 32 autumns ago. Thanks, Ken!

  3. BillF says:

    I got interested in the Civil War before I was 10 years old, growing out of an interest in history in general. (Don’t know what inspired the history interest). The CW interest lagged in my teen years (after I discovered girls) and then through the years of raising a family and working. But Ken Burns’ series reignited that and since then I have been involved in preservation, battlefield touring and my local CW Round Table. And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. So, I thank you Ken Burns (and Ed Bearss and Shelby Foote) for what you have given to me.

  4. Ralph Siegel says:

    I have come to find the Lost Cause a fascinating element of American history, how the North won the war but surrendered the struggle for how it would be remembered. Gone With the Wind is a fascinating artifact of that history. But we must wonder how much this Lost Cause propaganda strengthened the campaign to protect segregation and suppression of Black rights

  5. Douglas Pauly says:

    When I was a kid all those hundreds of years ago (it seems!), there were a plethora of Western-themed TV shows that played on all three major networks. “Gunsmoke”, Bonanza”, “Wyatt Earp”, the list was quite long. Virtually ALL of them had an episode or episodes that were centered on the Civil War to some degree. For those in my peer group age-wise, it would have been hard to avoid such references if they were regular TV watchers. So while musing about a ‘what if’ based on “epic” movies and TV programs, there was plenty of fodder available to us in ordinary TV programming to spark interest in the War. Because of those shows I gravitated to our 1961 edition of World Book Encyclopedia to start my first in-depth investigation of the War. That was in second or third grade.

  6. Ben Arndt says:

    Great list, though I could name others worth the mention. Most notably ‘Birth of a Nation’ coming when it did it helped revive the moribund Klan into a real force in the 1920’s.

  7. Benjamin Allen says:

    Probably the answers to your questions are easier than you think.

    _Gone_ _With_ _the_ _Wind_ came out when the Lost Cause had already been solidly established in society. It might have helped to perpetuate it, but even without the book and film the influence of the Lost Cause would probably still have been significant.

    Without _Glory_, the public would have been less aware of the contributions African Americans made in the Civil War, especially the deeds of the 54th Massachusetts.

    Without Ken Burns’ _The_ _Civil_ _War_, familiarity of and interest in the conflict would probably not have been as high among the public.

    Without _Gettysburg_, there wouldn’t have been this cult of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and a more sympathetic understanding of Longstreet’s role in the battle would not have been as popularized.

    Without _Lincoln_, people would have been less familiar with the role Lincoln might have played in the passage of the 13th Amendment. It seems that prior to the movie, there were people who pointed out that he never freed the slaves, only those slaves in areas still in rebellion on January 1, 1863. While technically true, this point misleadingly suggests that Lincoln was not extremely influential in getting the 13th through Congress. The movie qualified this statement for the general public.

    For me, I would probably still be reading this blog post without these portrayals of the war. I was already deeply interested in the Civil War before I saw parts of Ken Burns’ documentary, let alone the other movies listed.

  8. fernandobastidastamayo says:

    For people in other countries, to see those movies has been the main key to start getting interest in the American Civil War, a Civil War fought in a different country when they rather avoid to talk about their own Civil Wars . For Spaniards, for example, those Spaghetti Western movies with some connection with the Civil War, filmed in Spain, such as “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”, was so important that toys & albums started to be sold in those years in that country. In Almería, there are some Western Theme Parks, where you can see confederate flags and people dressing confederate uniforms. In Europe, there are reenactment events in several countries such as UK, Sweden, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Italy, Netherlands and Spain.

  9. mark harnitchek says:

    The sons and daughters of the UCV must have busted their buttons when Hollywood dropped $4M to make Gone with the Wind and rolled out tinsel town’s royalty to star in it … screenwriter Sidney Howard even got an Oscar for faithfully recreating Mitchell’s novel, less the nasty plantation parts and KKK … he managed to get every canon of the Lost Cause in film — selfless southerners fighting, not for slavery, but for principles of the Founders, contented and happy slaves like Big Sam and Mammy, virtuous Confederate soldiers, saintly southern women, rapacious Yankee soldiers and slimy scalawags … almost 4 generations of free Lost Cause propaganda which many Americans (me included) bought hook, line and sinker.

  10. nygiant1952 says:

    “The Birth of a Nation” which is nothing but a racist film that continued the myth of the Lost Cause.

  11. Brian Swartz says:

    Insightful post, Sarah. If “Gone With the Wind” restored the Civil War to America’s collective memory as the last veterans died, then “Glory,” Ken Burns’ magnificent series, and “Gettysburg” restored the war to that same memory post-Vietnam. Those films recall a “good war” fought on our soil, not in Southeast Asia.

  12. Ralph J Siegel says:

    Final add: Perhaps not an epic, however that might be defined, but in one humble opinion the best Civil War film of them all is “Cold Mountain,” because it is real and on important issues it is correct. (Plus Jack White!).

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