Sunday, November 25, 2012

"Lincoln" and the Hollywood depiction of the Civil War

I saw the Lincoln movie the other day. Regarding the earlier sort-of-prediction, you sure got the point, but not the counterpoint.

I felt conflicted about this movie. When you go into a movie called 'Lincoln', you probably shouldn't expect a balanced portrayal of the different sides of the Civil War. The movie itself focuses on the politicking involved in passing the 13th amendment banning slavery, in the wake of Lincoln's re-election. In the context of  the slaughter of 30% of Southern males between ages 18 and 40 (along with 10% of Northern males between ages 20 and 45), making a whole movie about legislative maneuvering seems almost trite. Then again, perhaps the Civil War is almost too large a subject to treat in its entirety, so you have to pick some small part to focus on, like Gettysburg, as a microcosm of the whole.

Given the choice of subject matter, they did do a good job of portraying the various characters involved, and the ideas being debated. The main focus of the debates back and forth was less about whether outlawing slavery was actually bad, and more about whether one should push ahead with bold civil rights initiatives that might have negative short-term consequences. There were scenes where the characters debated about whether blacks were actually the equal of whites, but these came across more like pantomime interludes so you could know whom to boo for. Then again, maybe with modern sensibilities being what they are, an accurate portrayal of the avowedly anti-black cause would necessarily come across that way.

The most interesting arguments in the movie are between conservative Republicans (who care more about ending the war than about ending slavery), and the radical Republicans who want abolition immediately. In the end, the former are portrayed as ultimately lacking the conviction to do the right thing, and favouring expediency. Then again, if a larger fraction of the 750,000-odd deaths had been depicted on screen, perhaps the 'end the war now' position might have been a little more understandable.

That's all fine, as far as it goes. Ending slavery was undoubtedly the right thing to do, and to the extent that the South was fighting to enslave other human beings, it's hard to disagree with Ulysses Grant's assessment that this cause was amongst the worst for which men ever fought.

So it's entirely fair to portray this as a victory of the righteousness of ending slavery. The bit I found hard to take was the portrayal of the passage of the 13th Amendment (and the Northern cause generally) as being a victory for democracy. Come on! You'd think that the movie might eventually get around to noting that the representatives of the southern states weren't in the @#$%ing room at the time, because they were busy fighting a war against the august democratic chamber that continued to claim to represent them. Kind of an important oversight, don't you think? You can call the passage of the 13th Amendment a lot of things, but it's surely not a victory for democracy. It's a God damn travesty of democracy.

The Southern position in the movie is almost an afterthought, getting perhaps 30 seconds of dialogue. They did at least give them the courtesy of making their 15 seconds where they were speaking somewhat sympathetic, when the Southern representative observes that the North isn't winning the argument with ballots, but with cannons. Seems like a jolly reasonable point to me. At least they didn't choose to make him throw in random racial epithets, which I was half expecting.

Just once, just once, I would like to see a presentation of the South on their own terms. By which I mean, present the case for the South as the men of the South would have presented it themselves. This is definitively not the presentation that Hollywood ever does. From beginning to end, the South was fighting to preserve slavery. End of story. Nowhere does it ever seem to occur to anybody that this is the Northern view of the Southern cause, not the Southern view of the Southern cause. The latter sounds so alien that you're apt to wonder why you almost never hear it. Let's roll the tape again:
"I tried all in my power to avert this war. I saw it coming, and for twelve years I worked night and day to prevent it, but I could not. The North was mad and blind: It would not let us govern ourselves, and so the war came, and now it must go on till the last man of this government falls in his tracks, and his children seize the musket and fight our battle, unless you acknowledge our right to self government. We are not fighting for slavery. We are fighting for independence, and that, or extermination we will have."
- Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy - 1864
Or if that's too hard, how about even a more nuanced perspective on the war from the Northern point of view? Let's take a hyper-partisan figure in the war - Ulysses S. Grant. It turns out even he was far less of a cheerleader for the whole thing than Steven Spielberg. Of all the people who know of the Grant quote mentioned earlier, how many do you think know the full context of Grant's observations about the scene at the Appomattox courthouse?:
What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us...
If you're looking for thematic inspiration for your Civil War movie and insist on entirely taking the Northern side, you might consider starting there.

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