The Civil War in Fiction . . .

Das Boot - The Director's CutRabble in Arms

So here’s the thing: the Civil war in fiction – as exemplified by this clip – is not as compelling as the best Civil War non-fiction and I don’t know if that’s true of any other period in American or human history: the American Revolution had Kenneth Roberts; The Napoleonic Era Patrick O’Brian, Tolstoy, The Sharpe Series, Horatio Hornblower; World War I All Quiet on the Western Front, the poetry of Winfield Owen, Siegfried Sassoon; WW II James Jones, Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, Das Boot; even Crimea has Charge of the Light Brigade, the Thirty Years War Mother Courage.
It’s not much different with movies, with the possible exception of Glory, though I will note that the opening scene at Antietam caused my wife to remark, “That didn’t look anywhere near as bad as you’ve described.” She was, of course, right; the strength of the movie was solely in the characters – but at least it had characters we cared about. However, had the first minutes of Glory been remotely like the first minutes of Saving Private Ryan- as Antietam stands (and hopefully will always stand) as the bloodiest day in American history, hardly a stretch – then imagine the tension, the fear for every one of the characters we had come to know and care for, knowing what they were going to be eventually walking into. The knowledge of how truly horrific it was would have added even greater depth and tension to one of the back stories – the question of whether or not black troops would ever see combat.
That brings me back to the clip from God and Generals – and here I am commenting on the movie and the book it is so faithful to. I also have to admit here that I got through the book only because I kept waiting for a ‘The Killer Angels‘ moment that never occurred . . . I must further admit that I fell asleep, several times, during the movie – in a lifetime of movie fanaticism I can say that about three movies: Ben Hur (I was 3, it was at a drive-in, I made it to the tile falling on the Roman Governor), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (long week at work, plus it was that bad – stayed awake when I got home, though, and watched the cartoon version with the kids, no debate about which was better) and Gods and Generals, which I recommend as an organic alternative to Ambien.
Anyway, this clip is of the assault on Marye’s Hill during the Battle of Fredericksburg, the mid-point of Gods and Generals and the ending of The Ceremony of Innocence. I find it utterly devoid of even a flicker of humanity, think it as compelling as a re-enactment, albeit with better pyrotechnics and a lot more actors, devoid of tension and . . . . horror – for the assaults (more on that later) on Marye’s Hill were most certainly horrific and decidedly one-sided.
The major problem here, I think, is something that Dominic Streatfeild mentioned in a telephone conversation we had in December: the inanity of the sweeping, ‘Generals-on-the-Hill-Watching’ epic view of war – – you all know the scene, sweeping, panoramic, soaring music, the long panning shot, or hawk -view tracking shot ala The Longest Day, as a reminder of how truly insignificant the individual is in such a vast, cosmically important undertaking.
There is, in my opinion, more humanity in the CGI armies of the Lord of the Rings trilogy than these carefully researched, painstakingly re-created combat scenes for the simple reason we care about at least a handful among the thousands fighting. Band of Brothers would have been a series of battle vignettes appreciated by World War II enthusiasts and some military historians (not the good ones), watched by no one else — certainly not my wife, who was riveted every week while hardly a fan of either history or war movies.
The assaults on Marye’s Hill were neither epic nor so organized. They were piecemeal, a brigade at a time, spaced out over the afternoon and evening of December 13, 1862. . . . . Marye’s Hill was a hill, not a long wide plain gently rising to the stone wall. The ground was undulating, cut by the spillway shown – though deeper, sharper – the troops were covered by rises, then exposed, covered again, went up a sharp little rise to be completely, utterly exposed less than a hundred yards from the wall – the wall they did not know was there until they crested the ‘ridge’ . . . . The Confederates were four deep, the effect of their firing was that of machine guns. Artillery had every inch of open ground covered and pre-sighted. No one got within 50 yards of the wall, no one stood there and blazed away for more than two or three volleys. The attacks were simply blown away, eviscerated, before the wall. It was deafening, gory, the ground shook, it reeked . . . .
. . . . The survivors huddled under the ridge, unable to go forward, unable to fall back, joined by survivors from each successive assault. They would be there for the next thirty six hours, freezing, dying, hiding behind bodies, listening to the wounded and jibes and insults from the rebels behind the wall . . . . . the Confederate uniforms were threadbare, at best, they stripped the dead closest to the wall . . . after The Peninsula, Second Manassas, Antietam, there was no romance, chivalry left, it had been bled out – in other words, no one thought twice about shooting at a relatively defenseless Irish Brigade, the better to rid the Army of the Potomac of a potent fighting force.
I guess my primary question in all this is simple: what made the Civil War so sacrosanct? So formulaic? Characters don’t talk, share moments, they orate . . . . without humor, the battle scenes are rote and virtually bloodless.
My Fredericksburg is as far from the Gods and Generals as Saving Private Ryan is The Longest Day, It may never sell a copy, but I’m glad I made it funny, sad, sickening, disturbing, poignant, and real down to the smells – because that’s how it should be seen, not like the clip above.
A final thought, if you must put something like this to music, make it an adagio (or some sadder strains from Copland or Dvorak), and make it unobtrusive: these men made the attack because they were ordered, they obeyed the order because they served with friends, family, and townsmen and to run was to risk life long ostracism. As Shelby Foote said, it would have taken a supreme act of courage to run when the man next to you was your butcher, the man in front your children’s teacher, the captain your lawyer. Soaring music simply has no place.
Knowing that . . . chemistry, seeing, reading, experiencing that chemistry, would make watching the men walking up Marye’s Hill almost unbearable . . . as fascinatingly, entrancingly unbearable as the episodes of Band of Brothers in the Ardennes.
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