- The American Civil War and the Hollywood War Film by John Trafton
The Civil War, America's defining event, was even more significant than we imagine. It continues, of course, to deeply influence the ways in which we think about our core values – freedom and equality. But as we learn from John Trafton in The American Civil War and the Hollywood War Film, it also has had an effect on the ways in which we produce and consume film today. Trafton convincingly links the forms of modern war cinema to the representational devices of the century-and-a-half-old war for America's soul, underscoring yet again William Faulkner's well-known observation that "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
For Trafton, the pre-cinematic tropes of painting, photography, and participant journaling, all of which were central to the "telling" of the American Civil War, established the framework through which twentieth century directors, screenwriters, and cinematographers worked to bring armed conflict to life for generations of moviegoers. Painted battle panoramas, exemplified by Paul Philippoteaux's "Gettysburg Cyclorama," offered viewers the verisimilitude of war, immersing them in spectacle and emotion and even providing the illusion of human movement. Photography of battlefield carnage, notably Alexander Gardner's "The Dead of Antietam," brought the war's "death harvest" to civilians on the home front. Soldier diaries, as well as letters to loved ones like that of Major Sullivan Ballou on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run - featured prominently in Ken Burns's "The Civil War" - viscerally connected family members to the brutal realities of war.
These forms established what Trafton terms a "pathos formula," defined as "the way a work of art is aesthetically organized so that the spectator can experience its subject matter and become emotionally involved from a safe vantage point" (9). The use of the pathos formula links us to the classic modern Hollywood war films – "Apocalypse Now" (1979), "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), and "The Hurt Locker" (2009), among others – which realized its emotive possibilities to a degree never imagined by the likes of Philippoteaux, Gardner, or Ballou.
Trafton argues that Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and Kathryn Bigelow are merely continuing their predecessors' work with the advantages of advanced filmic technology. That much has stayed the same. What has changed is "genre memory" – the cultural DNA that determines the unique ways in which each generation recalls and interprets an event. This, of course, explains how Allan Dwan's celebratory "The Sands of Iwo Jima" (1949) could differ so dramatically from Clint Eastwood's ironical "Flags of Our Fathers" (2006). A half-century might as well be a millennium when it comes to genre memory. And just as generals always prepare to fight the last war, so do directors. For Dwan, that war was World War II. For Eastwood, it was the Iraq War, one that was unraveling before his eyes. Both directors are thus participants in a long–running tradition of employing the cinema of war to discuss something else altogether – celebrity, friendship, patriotism, or the meaning of "America" itself.
It is this last subject, more than any other, that explains why filmmakers keep coming back to the Civil War and why they continue to use it to tell other stories about other people in other periods. The Civil War forced Americans to define themselves in their own time and for all time. When Abraham Lincoln told his fellow citizens in [End Page 99] 1862 that "we cannot escape history," he was acknowledging that it would fall to his own generation to offer substance to the ideas of equality and freedom the Founding Fathers had left unformed. Needless to say, Lincoln and his generation were only partially successful, settling some questions and leaving others to the ages. But they and the war they fought fundamentally altered the terms of the argument over the nature of American identity and set it on a new path. In the generations to come, artists working in the powerful and expressive...