At the heart of any great story is a simple concept: conflict. And what is the epitome of conflict? War. While wars against obvious enemies (Nazis, Communists, Aliens, etc.) make good movies, the battles with the most depth are the ones between ourselves. After all, we should all be on the same side, so what would drive us to fight each other? The reasons that anyone would arrive at a Civil War are varied indeed, but the drama is still intense no matter how the schism started. With the understanding that there are (and have been) many Civil Wars in many different countries, those of us in the United States tend to think of the Civil War between the Union and Confederacy as one of the darkest, but most poignant, points in our national history. This week’s two films highlight the American Civil War as their setting and source of conflict.
Length: 122 minutes / 2.03 hours
While it is said that history is written by the winners, the truth of the matter is that in a Civil War, nobody wins. When citizens fight against each other, the ensuing losses are shared by the whole. Of course, considering that one of the reasons the Civil War was fought in the first place was so that the slaves could be treated as citizens, there’s no doubt that many people had the drive and desire to win . . . on both sides. The interesting thing about movies is that we’ve come to expect a happy ending. After all, if we want to escape reality and absorb ourselves in a world where everything comes out OK, movies are just the ticket. However, Glory (1989) is one of those movies that has a sobering conclusion but with a small glimmer of hope tied to it.
Imagine for a moment that you are a slave around the time of the Civil War. You’ve overheard your masters talking about why the war is being fought, so you know it’s partly because the Union wants to give you your freedom. Now, I know that I would do whatever I could to make sure I could fight with the Union. And that’s just what happened. Colonel Robert Shaw (Matthew Broderick) was given command of the first company of black soldiers, which came with the challenge of getting these men into fighting condition. As he puts up with the inherited prejudice, he finally gets the chance to lead his men into battle. Unfortunately, it’s against an impenetrable fortress in the Charleston Bay. Can his company win against the odds, and (more importantly) can his company win against prejudice?
Length: 271 minutes / 4.52 hours
When most people think of a detailed look at the Civil War, they think of the Ken Burns documentary. And yet, Gettysburg (1993) does a great job of representing this key battle without as much violin music and grainy pictures. The only unfortunate thing I can say about this film is that its 2003 prequel, Gods and Generals was a horrible movie that just ended up being a long, drawn-out mess. Then again, I guess you could say the same thing about the Civil War itself, but who am I to judge? At any rate, Gettysburg is a good film to get a somewhat accurate glimpse at the drama and energy that was tied to this tide-turning battle.
Even though this film is perhaps one of the longest most people have ever seen (Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is only about 3.6 hours long), it covers in great detail the fighting that took place over the titular three-day battle. Not only did they film this movie in the same locations as the actual skirmish, but they also tied in many of the letters and speeches of the generals and commanding officers to make the experience more realistic. Being able to see Pickett’s charge or the defense of Little Big Top makes history come alive in this film. One can read about such battles until the cows come home, but seeing the brutality of war through such a struggle as this makes one really think about the reality of the speech Abraham Lincoln gave in recognition of the battle of Gettysburg.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Civil War battles