Monthly Archives: November 2008

Is Washington filmable?

For some time now an unfilmed script about George Washington has been floating around online.  It’s credited to David Franzoni, presumably the same person by that name who wrote Gladiator and Amistad.  You can read it for yourself here.  I just ran across it again while doing some online browsing.  As much as I’d love to see the Revolutionary War play out on the big screen, I’m not sure a Washington biopic is a workable proposition.

It’s not that I have a problem with Washington himself.  Far from it.  It’s pretty hard to study him and come away with anything other than the conviction that he was a genuinely great man, largely because of his persistent efforts to live up to his own demanding standards.  But he was also notoriously aloof and stern, keeping himself remote from others and from his own emotions.  This reservation would make it difficult for an audience to sustain their identification with him for two to three hours. 

There are a lot of episodes from Washington’s life that I’d like to see on film; David Hackett Fischer’s recent book on the fall of New York, the retreat across New Jersey, and the battles for Trenton and Princeton would make a great starting point for a script.  But I think Washington’s own austerity makes it necessary to tell these stories from additional viewpoints, approaching the man himself from the outside, with his emotions only rarely breaking out of that formidable exterior.  This is the way Washington’s contemporaries experienced him.  Washington’s usual, deliberate composure was what made his outburst of rage at Kip’s Bay seem so explosive, and his rare show of weakness at Newburgh so moving.  Any onscreen Washington should also keep his emotional armor fastened tightly, so that the rare opening in that armor would be similarly affecting.  (My main problem with Franzoni’s script is that it conveys a familiarity between Washington and some of his contemporaries that strikes me as inappropriate.)

Like many public figures, Washington consciously crafted his persona.  Uniquely, though, he played his role with sincere determination when no one was looking.  Few of today’s actors could do him justice, and that’s a shame.  Among modern Americans, Washington’s effort to become an embodiment of virtue is a lost art.

(I obtained the Washington portrait from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

A handy overview of America’s military beginnings

I recently picked up a copy of a book that’s worth recommending: A Respectable Army: The Military Origins Of The Republic, 1763-1789, by James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender.  This book is part of Harlan Davidson’s American History Series edited by John Hope Franklin and A.S. Eisenstadt, which offers concise guides to important periods and themes in U.S. history. 

This volume answers a question that’s central to an understanding of the Revolution: How did a republican rebellion started by a citizen militia, supported by a society terrified of standing armies, develop into a war conducted by professional soldiers?  The book also incorporates short summaries of the major campaigns, making it ideal for anyone needing a refresher on the course of the Revolution or instructors looking for a course supplement.  It’s a great introduction to the questions Revolutionary War historians have been asking and the answers they’ve found.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

Let the Lincoln-Obama parallels commence

digital file from intermediary roll copy filmYesterday I noticed that Newsweek‘s cover story compares Lincoln to Obama.  (You can read an online version here.)  Excited by the prospect of posting about it, I logged on this morning to find that Dimitri Rotov and Kevin Levin beat me to the draw.  The Newsweek item references Doris Kearns Goodwin’s thesis that Lincoln built a successful coalition out of his former enemies, and compares this to the buzz about Obama’s prospective political appointments.  Levin questions whether applying this concept to Obama is valid, while Rotov challenges both the Obama comparison and the accuracy of Goodwin’s original argument.  They both make for interesting reading, and I highly recommend them.

Newsweek strains to draw additional parallels between Lincoln and Obama, none of which are particularly profound or useful in understanding either man.  Here’s the opening:

Two thin men from rude beginnings, relatively new to Washington but wise to the world, bring the nation together to face a crisis. Both are superb rhetoricians, both geniuses at stagecraft and timing. Obama, like Lincoln and unlike most modern politicians, even writes his own speeches, or at least drafts the really important ones—by hand, on yellow legal paper—such as his remarkably honest speech on race during the Reverend Wright imbroglio last spring.

Yes, Lincoln was thin, and darned if Obama isn’t thin, too.  Now that’s the kind of insight I’d expect from a prestigious national publication.

It seems to me that whenever we’re subjected to these comparisons between modern and historical public figures, it always comes down to the style of leadership as opposed to its substance.  There is seldom any meaningful attempt to compare the actual policies and decisions that make up the meat and potatoes of public service, or the ideologies behind those policies and decisions.

Drawing on the past doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re informing the present.  Sometimes we’re not really looking to make sense of things; we’re merely skimming the surface of history in search of platitudes and generalities.  The latter doesn’t require us to abandon our intellectual laziness, which probably explains why it’s much more common.

(The Lincoln photo is from the Library of Congress.)

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory

May I recommend some virtual touring?

I’d like to recommend an interesting site that I just added to my blogroll.  It’s not a new blog, but I only became aware of it today.  Buddventures is a chronicle of one history buff’s visits to sites around the country.  There are plenty of photos, along with lots of information on the places highlighted.  Best of all, a lot of the posts are devoted to Revolutionary War battlefields in the South.

The only drawback is that it makes me wish I could hit the road myself for a few days.

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Filed under American Revolution, History on the Web, Museums and Historic Sites

Hacking merrily away at history budgets

Politicians and bureaucrats are generally happy to give cultural institutions the short end of the stick in times of economic distress, so right now historic sites and museums across the country are taking hits.  Check out this news story describing the situation in states like Arizona and Illinois.  In addition to providing a rather wide-ranging overview of the situation, it also touches on the subject of local economies’ dependence on historical tourism:

“For a lot of these smaller communities, these historic sites were huge income generators,” said Hostetter, staff representative for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 in Springfield, Ill. “That’s a huge blow to a lot of these economies.”

Vandalia (Ill.) Mayor Ricky Gottman estimates that closing the Vandalia Statehouse where Lincoln was a state representative will cost his community as much as $50,000 a year in sales and other taxes.

Call me simple-minded, but it sounds like this is just a means of compounding the problem.

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Filed under Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites

Everybody’s talking about Civil War art

For the past few days, history bloggers have been buzzing about Civil War art, specifically the paintings of artists like Mort Kunstler and Don Troiani.  I thought I might as well weigh in.

The Tipsy Historian opened up with a Veterans Day salvo, arguing that modern-day Civil War art sanitizes the brutal reality of combat and distorts our view of the past.  He also compares these images unfavorably with wartime illustrations of battle:

There were of course contemporary artist renderings of Civil War fighting, most from journalists and troops who witnessed fighting. This art, while certainly not as refined as Mr. Troiani’s, pulled no punches when it came to showing destruction and death. You may be sure these depictions weren’t getting slapped up on the walls of private homes.

I’m not sure I agree with this.  There were a lot of people churning out battle pictures during and after the war, and many weren’t hardened eyewitnesses.  In my former capacity as an assistant curator, I looked at a lot of these prints and illustrations, and none were particularly explicit or accurate.  Take a look at this Kurz and Allison print of the storming of Ft. Wagner.  It dates from twenty-five years after the war, but the overall feel is similar to a lot of earlier material:

Personally, I think images like this one pull quite a few punches indeed.  There’s death, but it’s noble and remarkably clean.  If anything, there’s less gritty realism here than in most Kunstler and Troiani prints, which do convey something of the dirt, smoke, exhaustion, and confusion of warfare.  Of course, I’m not accounting for eyewitness sketches by people like Waud, but I think we can safely conclude that sanitized battle prints aren’t an exclusively modern phenomenon.

I also take issue with the idea that wartime images like these wouldn’t have been seen in private homes.  I suspect that accounted for a large portion of sales by firms producing images like the one above.  Anyway, the same blogger offers further thoughts on modern-day Civil War art here and here.

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin takes a shot at a rather mushy painting of Robert E. Lee.  The sentimental depicitions of Confederate commanders that characterize many modern Civil War artworks bother him so much that one of his subsequent comments sounds almost like an apology: “I’ve admitted a few times that I own a number of prints by Don Troiani, which hang in my office. I consider them to be more on the line of investments considering that I have doubled my money.”  Admitted?  Geez, what’s to admit?  It’s not like we’re talking about soft-core porn.  Hey, we’re all history buffs around here, right?

I’d like to get a few historical prints myself, when I can spare the money.  I’ve been drooling over Troiani’s King’s Mountain and Cowpens pieces for a while now, and eventually I’ll probably buckle under and shell out the cash.  While I’m making out my wish list, I wouldn’t refuse one of the many Pickett’s Charge prints floating around out there; no history nut’s home is really complete without one.  These images may not convey the total reality of warfare, but they remind me of places I love and subjects that fascinate me, and they’re a cut above dogs playing poker.

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Filed under American Revolution, Civil War, History and Memory, History on the Web

Civil War tourism at its finest

Planning to do some heritage touring in the Shenandoah Valley?  Looking for that one-of-a-kind stop to make your itinerary complete?  Consider Dinosaur Kingdom in Natural Bridge, VA.  Here’s a description from RoadsideAmerica.com:

As the tour begins, visitors are asked to imagine themselves in 1863. A family of Virginia paleontologists has accidentally dug a mine shaft into a hidden valley of living dinosaurs. Unfortunately, the Union Army has tagged along, hoping to kidnap the big lizards and use them as “weapons of mass destruction” against the South.

Finally, a site where I can indulge my affinity for prehistoric reptiles and my interest in history at the same time.  There are more details and photos available here.

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