The Gettysburg effect on ACW filmmaking

Have you seen any good Civil War films lately?

A couple of Australians are currently promoting their new, four-hour study of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger - "The Ister" - and getting rave reviews:

"It is absolutely correct and proper to say that, 'You can't do anything with philosophy'." - Heidegger
Apparently you can do something with philosophy - make successful films - that you cannot do with Civil War history.

Why would that be?

It seems that the drive and energy that produces Civil War films nowadays comes from the same place that informs the most boyish appreciation of the war; the uniforms, the explosions, the masses of men, the flags, the pageantry and the pain. This is what you get from Turner and Maxwell who failed to learn from "Gone with the Wind."

You can make successful war epics using a War and Peace structure, where the war is backdrop to a compelling personal or family story. This is what the producers of "Cold Mountain" were reaching for. The failures of Turner and Maxwell were prefigured in the 1960s in a big international film flop, "Waterloo," which went down after extracting the purely military component of Napoleon's Europe (discarding the War and Peace formula) and showcasing that - Turner and Maxwell style - in its own epic.

There are commercially and artistically successful Civil War films with stronger military elements than might be found in a War and Peace treatment. John Wayne's "Horse Soldiers" is about the difficult comradeship of two men, commander and surgeon. The remarkable thing about this movie is how it takes the childlike Turner/Maxwell element, wraps it up into a glorious scene with a dressed ranks charge - the attack of the cadets - and then has the adult characters denigrate that scene as not representing war. "Let's get back to the war," they imply and then they do, a very different war from that found in a Troiani painting.

A commercial Civil War film that was abandoned after production is "Ride with the Devil." It features kids waging a dirty war in Missouri and its central trick is to draw the audience - it seems to aim for a teen non-ACW viewership - into sympathy for and admiration of the brutal, marauding Confederate partisans. Whether the film would have succeeded commercially with normal studio support is unknown.

So one can deviate from the War and Peace formula inclining towards higher levels of military content without sacrificing too much complexity while assuming more commercial risk.

But there is this Gettysburg theory of war that creates problems for ACW buffs who want to make movies. The Gettysburg "ideology" (if you will) is a trap because its subscribers imagine a compact, universally shared view of the war (of all war, really) embodied in these highly problematic assumptions:

* That battles produce victory or defeat in war
* That bigger battles produce bigger results
* That battles are decided overwhelmingly by actions taken on the field
* That the principals on the battlefield have sufficient personal relations with their subordinates and peers to impart an epic quality to decisions and events.

And so, the battle is the thing. And in its most extreme form, this view holds that Gettysburg must be the key to the whole war. Why, then, not focus on the battle?

The vast moviegoing public does not accept this. Not because of any historiographic wisdom but because it simply does not know. The Gettysburg or Waterloo style film palpably tastes to them of particular historical opinions and theories; they may or may not share these; they certainly don't want the Gettysburg ideology jammed at them for several hours.

And this is why a film about Martin Heidegger(!) that respectfully and honestly turns over the material and its underlying issues and problems, has a better chance of critical and commercial success than an epic movie filled with the "decisive combat" of "heroic figures".