Sunday, September 30, 2012

What Abhorrent Nonsense Is This? Or, Gods and Generals: a Movie review

So last night, Dr. Skull took the kid out to buy new markers for her; they stopped at Best Buy after, and of course Dr. Skull hit the remaindered movie bin.

He brought home two movies, Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. Both in Blu-Ray.  He loves Blu-Ray.

And he talked me into watching the latter with him, which I did mostly because we're all in some serious need of cuddling.

And I tried to be polite, because I know Dr. Skull loves these Civil War movies.

But wow.

First, there are a few things to like about the film.  It does a nice job of explaining both battle strategy and how mistakes by Generals (and others) can lead to disaster in the field.  And the battle scenes themselves, though they have real problems, also go a long way toward showing how strategy and error worked in winning or losing this war.

And the scenery is often beautiful.

Other than this, the film wavers between dull, infuriating, and ridiculous.

I'll leave aside the dialogue, which falls into the category of ridiculous, because I think it's just a misstep on the part of the director (and maybe those who wrote the script).  Basically, we have characters standing around making lengthy speeches to one another -- I think the director was going for Shakespearean, but in the effect it's just bizarre.  (A) No one in real life makes long, heart-felt speeches, rife with rhetoric, to his friends or his fellow generals, and much less to his wife; and (B) if anyone did try that sort of thing, his friends, wife and (probably) fellow generals would interrupt him and mock him and argue with him every two sentences, not stand about watching him talk with expressions of intense awe.  And I'm not even getting into the writer's attempt at black dialect.

But that brings us to the biggest problem: this movie falls right in line with the Revisionist view of history still being taught (and believed) all over America.  It tells us, over and over, that the South did not start the Civil War; that the South did not even fight the Civil War over slavery -- that slaves had nothing to do with it; and that in fact slaves were loyal to their Southern masters, and as eager to fight off the Union "invaders" as their owners were.

Thus, every black character we see is a happy slave, or in one case a happy ex-slave, extolling the virtues of his or her owner; every slave-holder we see loves his or her slaves deeply, treating them like members of the family.

(Re the ex-slave: this is a trope I am seriously sick to death of.  Every time we see a Confederate in film or television, that Confederate, we are told, freed his slaves, because he recognized the immorality of slavery.  See for example the current show on AMC, Hell On Wheels, which has as its hero and main character a Confederate soldier who -- you guess it -- freed all his slaves well before the war.  He didn't fight for slavery, see?  He fought to Defend his Country!)

Even when the slaves speak up against slavery, as they do exactly twice in the movie, those speeches are undercut by the white (Southern) characters earnestly assuring the slaves that they too hate slavery, and want it to end.  The war isn't about slavery at all, see? It's about those Yankees invading our country, and our right to defend ourselves against their tyranny.

And this is crap.  When I hear people arguing that the South fought the war over States' Rights, I always point out that this is true -- the states' right to continue holding slaves.  The Southern Generals in Gods and Generals were in fact -- all of them -- adherents of white supremacy.  They may have believed in treating their slaves well, but they also believed firmly that the white race was superior to the black race, and that blacks were natural slaves.

(And yes, it is true that many fighting on the Union side also adhered to this notion of white superiority.  But none of them aligned themselves with a treasonous movement designed specifically to keep black people under the bonds of slavery.)

(And what about the Southern soldiers?  Frequently people bring that up.  Most of the Southern soldiers did not own slaves, and never would.  So why would they fight to preserve slavery?  This question, which is often presented as a triumphant refutation of the South starting the war over slavery, ignores the real facts on the ground.  (1) Even a soldier without slaves nonetheless benefited from the preservation of slavery, or thought he did, since in the caste system of the South, the poorest white guy was automatically superior to the best black man; and (2) Soldiers today are fighting to preserve the rights of our 1% to exploit them and to get fat off of the American system: these soldiers who will never be among the 1% themselves.  Why do they do it?)

The film also ignores -- erases, essentially -- everything done by the free blacks and those still held in slavery to fight against the Southern side.  Indeed, the only blacks we see are those who joyously support the Southern side.  The existence of black proponents of the Southern side is, of course, unlikely and not supported by actual historical records: is, IOW, a myth much beloved of historical revisionists favoring the Southern side of the war.

The black soldiers and the ex-slaves who participated in the war -- and there were many of them -- are, in fact, all fighting for the Union.  Among these were Fredrick Douglass's sons, and Harriet Tubman, who might be my favorite Civil War warrior of all time.

This movie ignores all of that -- no black soldiers appear, no mention is made of figured like Douglass and Tubman, who were highly instrumental in the direction the war ultimately took, no slaves or free blacks are shown upholding the Union cause.  No.  Just as the Civil War has nothing to do with slavery, according to this film, slaves and other blacks do not affect the war or participate in the war in any meaningful way.  Not only are white men at the center of this film, white men are (really) the only characters in it.

(A few white women characters exist, but their role is only to give the white men someone to talk at, or -- as with the little five year old Stonewall Jackson takes a liking to -- to die and give the white men a way to exercise their emotion. The erasing of important women, btw, is nearly as immense as the erasing of blacks. )

In the end, this film is not just historically repellent, it is dangerously so.  As has become clear over the years, many Americans get their understanding of history not from the study of history or the reading of history books, but from historical novels and films.

This film reinforces a mythic view of history which too many (white) Americans are already happy to believe.  Having watched the horrible movie, they can now happily believe that the version of history that presents Southern rebels as saints and good Christian men, only out to defend their country and their independence.  Given a chance to believe it, as I can attest, most of them will believe this lie.

Luckily (I guess) not many people actually will watch this crap film, and far fewer will be able to finish watching it once they start.  It's just that bad.


Deep Trunk said...

For a little dessert, you should know that the 2nd Amendment "Well regulated militias" were necessary to avoid a slave revolt.

Fiddlin Bill said...

And the current absolutist 2nd Amendment adherents are still, without saying it, trying to mitigate against an imagined "slave revolt." See, e.g., Treyvon Martin. This is part of the NRA propaganda program: gin up grass roots fear. In my tiny town in NC, all the mills have closed, but a second gun shoppe just opened.

Unknown said...

Well, to be fair to the screenwriters - they didn't have much to work with. The book from which the movie was taken was godawful; with all the stilted speechifying, southern glorification, etc; that you saw in the film.

Die alte Aechzener said...

I couldn't agree more. Gettysburg (the movie) was reasonably even-handed about things, and while stilted in it's speechifying, at least was justifiable, and well executed. G&G was just ... propaganda for Treason. Bad propaganda, at that.