Tag Archives: historical movies

Reconstructing ‘Free State of Jones’

The reaction to Free State of Jones among movie critics has been pretty lackluster, but most of the historians I’ve heard from seem to have liked it.  (I liked it, too, for whatever that’s worth.)  I suspect this has to do with the fact that the film’s narrative structure doesn’t adopt many of the conventions of storytelling.

Critics have taken the film to task because the plot meanders, because it seems to lack focus, because it tries to do too much, and because the story just sort of tapers off—it “fizzles out long before it ends,” as one critic put it.  From a filmmaking standpoint, these criticisms make sense.  Narratives aren’t supposed to meander and then fizzle out.  Storytellers are supposed to keep things rolling along until events reach a dramatic crescendo and a full resolution.  In Jaws, when Chief Brody detonates that air tank and sends chunks of great white shark into the stratosphere, you know the movie’s over.

Some historical stories conform to these conventions of dramatic narrative.  Gettysburg establishes a few important characters at its outset, then adds in more and more narrative threads, intensifies, and finally reaches a grand climax of resolution.  That happens to be the way the battle played out, so in that case the filmmakers could follow dramatic convention and be faithful to the events they were portraying.

But that’s generally not the way history works.  One of the writers of the musical 1776 once quoted someone as saying, “God writes lousy drama.”

Free State of Jones hits its crescendo near the middle, as Newt Knight’s struggle against the Confederacy becomes an outright war.  After this comes a long, dispiriting declension, in which much of Knight’s work is undone by the retreat from Reconstruction and the return to power of the same people he fought against during the war.  The movie doesn’t end with an exclamation point or a period, but an ellipsis followed by a question mark.

Having read a lot of reviews of the film, I think critics would have reacted more positively if it had been a more straightforward Civil War film, a story of an insurgency culminating in the Confederate flag coming down in front of the Jones County Courthouse and the Stars and Stripes going up.  True, that narrative would’ve been less choppy and rushed, and it wouldn’t have “fizzled out.”  But Gary Ross made a deliberate decision to take a longer view of the Civil War era, one that includes the reversals of Reconstruction. Regardless of whatever liberties Free State of Jones takes with specific incidents or characters, that decision took guts.

And that, I think, is one reason why historians have reacted to the film more positively than movie critics and audiences.  When you’re dealing with history, you don’t always get a story that conforms to narrative convention.  With history, the story sometimes meanders.  It moves in fits and starts, it doubles back on itself, and it tapers off into uncertainty.  That’s exactly what happened in the case of Reconstruction.  If you consider Appomattox to be the end of the Civil War, then the story makes good narrative sense.  It all gets wrapped up in a neat package, with the various narrative threads resolved, the slaves freed, and the Union back together.  But when you take the long view of the Civil War era—as historians often do and as Free State of Jones does—it’s a story of reversals, marked by lulls in the action.  And it’s a story that does indeed fizzle out, just as the nation’s commitment to the war’s gains fizzled out in the 1870s.

Maybe that story isn’t as emotionally satisfying as the ones people are used to hearing about the Civil War.  But I’m glad we got a movie that told it, even if it hasn’t caught on with critics and audiences.

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Footnoting ‘Free State of Jones’

The movie’s not out yet, but one thing’s for sure: Gary Ross, the writer and director of Free State of Jones, is a guy who takes history seriously.

In advance of the film’s release, on June 24, Mr. Ross, whose credits include “Seabiscuit” and the first installment of “The Hunger Games,” is posting an elaborate website annotating some three dozen topics and scenes from the movie, allowing audiences to click through and evaluate for themselves his historical sources, including many primary documents.

“I stopped my life to read and study for two years before I even started writing a script,” Mr. Ross said during a recent interview in his office in Manhattan. “If people want to pick apart this history, they can. But they should know that this wasn’t the glib work of a screenwriter who was inventing things.”

The website’s pretty impressive.  It’s not just an assemblage of short essays on various aspects of the movie’s historical background, but a scene-by-scene breakdown complete with citations to scholarly sources—I mean actual, honest-to-goodness, Chicago Manual of Style footnotes.

I was already interested in seeing this movie, but now I’m really, really interested in seeing it.

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Will ‘Free State of Jones’ change any popular notions of the Civil War?

The trailer for Free State of Jones is out.  In case you haven’t seen it, here you go.

It’ll be interesting to see if this movie has any effect on popular notions of the Civil War, the South, and the Confederacy.  People have a tendency to equate the “Civil War South” with the Confederacy.  Using “the South” as shorthand for “the Confederacy” in the context of the Civil War is something we all do from time to time, but it’s important to remind ourselves that the two weren’t synonymous.

The Civil War divided Southerners just as it divided the nation as a whole.  This wasn’t just true in the sense that some states in the South never seceded; it was also true of many people living within Confederate territory.  For many Southerners faced with conscription, shortages, home guards, and requisitions of goods, the idea of rallying around the Confederate flag became more and more distasteful as the war dragged on.  And, of course, some Southerners in Confederate-held territory were never crazy about secession to begin with, as was the case for many people here in East Tennessee.

It’s also noteworthy to see a movie depicting blacks and whites engaged in anti-Confederate resistance.  The point here is not to fashion some myth of interracial amity in the nineteenth-century South.  The point, rather, is to consider black Southerners as Southerners—in other words, as real people with some degree of agency living in the South, rather than an inert mass simply awaiting the war’s outcome.  In other words, when we speak of a divided Civil War South, it’s easy to forget that white Southerners weren’t the only potential source of anti-Confederate dissent within the region.

I think a cinematic reminder of these Southern divisions in the Civil War would do us all some good, whatever region of the country we hail from.  A lot of neo-Confederates equate critiques of the C.S.A. with attacks on the South as a whole.  I can heartily agree with them that a lot of Americans carry unjustified and pernicious prejudices regarding this region, but remembering that “the Confederacy” and “the South” weren’t synonymous might help us all examine the C.S.A. a little more dispassionately.  Conversely, folks from the North who let the darker aspects of the South’s history determine their attitudes toward the region and its people might rethink those attitudes after seeing Newt Knight’s story.  Even in the 1860s, there were Southerners doing unexpected things.

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History at the movies in 2016

For a couple of years Hollywood was giving us history bloggers plenty to talk about, with acclaimed films like 2012’s Lincoln, Argo, and Django Unchained and 2013’s 12 Years a Slave.  That hasn’t been the case in 2015.  I think I only saw a couple of history-related movies this past year, none of them particularly memorable.  Or maybe we all spent so much time blogging and tweeting about that Hamilton musical that we just missed all the films aimed at history buffs.

Some of the movies headed for theaters in 2016 take American history as their subject matter, though, so let’s take a look.

The Revenant.  This one hits select theaters on Christmas Day, but doesn’t get a wide release until Jan. 6.  It’s based on Michael Punke’s novelization of a true incident in the life of fur trapper Hugh Glass.  After joining an 1823 expedition into the American West, Glass barely survived a nasty bear mauling only to be abandoned by his companions, forcing him to endure a 200-mile trek to Fort Kiowa in present-day South Dakota.  The legendary mountain man Jim Bridger was a member of the same party.  The trailer’s fantastic.

The Witch.  A horror movie set in 16th-century New England seems like a no-brainer, but I don’t know that anybody has made one until now.  Looks pretty scary!  (Suggested tagline: In space canst no man heare thou screame.)

The Free State of Jones.  Matthew McConaughey plays Rebel deserter Newt Knight, who waged a mini-Civil War against Confederate authorities in Mississippi.  No trailer for this one yet, but here’s a look at the historical background.

USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage.  They did a made-for-TV movie about the Indianapolis back in the early nineties, and one of the writers of Jaws pitched the idea of building a prequel around the sinking.  (It probably would’ve been better than the Jaws sequels we eventually got.)  Mario Van Peebles directs this new version.  A local news crew visited the set during filming in Mobile, AL.

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“To give the truth of the thing”

After months of anticipation, I finally got to see Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea on Thursday night.  The great age of Yankee whaling has always fascinated me, and the 1820 tragedy of the whaleship Essex is the stuff of which great movies are made, so I was really looking forward to this one.  Unfortunately, I left the theater feeling a little let down.

Part of the problem is the fact that the filmmakers fumble the ball when it comes to the very aspects of the story that have the most dramatic potential.  It’s almost as if Howard and company lose interest in their own movie once that malevolent sperm whale rams the Essex and sends it to the bottom of the Pacific.

It was that event which inspired the climax of Melville’s Moby-Dick, but what was the ending of Ishmael’s fictional adventure was only the beginning of the Essex crew’s months-long ordeal of exposure, starvation, despair, cannibalism, and (for nearly two-thirds of them) eventual death.  Curiously, though, the film gives the crew’s experiences after the sinking an almost cursory treatment.  It’s like reading a CliffsNotes version of Nathaniel Philbrick’s book: the story’s highlights are there, but there’s no heart.

But the main thing that irked me about the film is its treatment of the relationship between history and myth.  Putting this into words requires dropping quite a few spoilers, so read what follows at your own risk if you’re planning on seeing the movie (which I still recommend, despite my disappointment with it).

The marketing for the movie really hammered the connection between the Essex tragedy and Melville’s novel.  BASED ON THE INCREDIBLE TRUE STORY THAT INSPIRED MOBY-DICK, the posters proclaimed.  It’s not a bad PR move to link the film with such an instantly recognizable title.

And anybody who glanced at the cast list on IMDB before the movie’s release would’ve known that the Moby-Dick angle would come up in the film, since Melville is one of the characters (portrayed by Ben Whishaw, the same actor who plays Q in the new Bond movies).

The historical Melville did indeed cross paths with a few people who had close ties to the Essex tragedy.  While at sea as a crew member of the whaler Acushnet, he met the son of Owen Chase, first mate on the Essex‘s final voyage and the main character in Howard’s movie.  William Chase loaned Melville a copy of his father’s published account of the disaster; Melville recalled that reading it “had a surprising effect upon me,” and he included a quote from it in the “Extracts” at the beginning of Moby-Dick.   Years later, after his novel’s publication, Melville visited the Essex‘s home port of Nantucket and met the ill-fated ship’s captain, George Pollard.

Thomas Nickerson’s sketch of the whale’s attack on the Essex. Nantucket Historical Association via Wikimedia Commons

These incidents apparently weren’t sufficient for the makers of In the Heart of the Sea.  Rather than having Melville meet Chase’s son during a gam or Captain Pollard after Moby-Dick‘s publication, the movie has a fictional framing device in which Melville travels to Nantucket while working on his book to interview Thomas Nickerson, the Essex‘s former cabin boy.  In the film, the aged Nickerson has refused to speak of the tragedy to anyone.  He reluctantly agrees to tell his story to Melville only because his wife persuades him that they need the money.

As I’ve said before, I don’t mind dramatic license in historical movies when it’s used to good effect, but it irks me when filmmakers substitute a fictional episode for the truth when the truth would serve just as well.  I think that’s the case with the movie’s fictional meeting between Melville and Nickerson.

Is the notion of Melville hearing the tale from Nickerson any more dramatic than what actually happened, when the young would-be writer read a copy of Chase’s account given to him by the first mate’s own son, aboard a whaler, and (as Melville himself recalled) “so close to the very latitude of the shipwreck” itself?  I don’t see how the movie’s fictional framing device is an improvement.  In fact, since Chase is the film’s protagonist, it makes more sense to tell the story from his perspective rather than Nickerson’s, although the former cabin boy later wrote his own account of the disaster.

And while the fictional Nickerson-Melville interview provides many poignant moments, surely Melville’s actual encounter with Captain Pollard was just as poignant as anything the filmmakers could have contrived, if not more so.  By the time Melville met Pollard, the former whaling master was a broken man.  On his next voyage after the Essex tragedy he captained a ship that ran aground and sank off Hawaii.*  Marked as a cursed man, he never took command of a whaling ship again.  He spent his last years as Nantucket’s night watchman.  “To the islanders he was a nobody,” Melville wrote of the aged captain.  “To me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.”

Even more puzzling to me was another bit of dramatic license.  The filmmakers evidently decided that “the incredible true story that inspired Moby-Dick” needed to include Moby Dick himself.

In the film, the Essex hits a dry spell in which their prey is scarce; frustrated, the captain and mates stop over in South America, where they meet a group of fellow whalers who have come from an area in the southern Pacific swarming with sperm whales.  But the other crew also warns them that a malevolent white whale is also prowling those waters.  Undaunted, Pollard and his crew strike out, only to come face-to-face with the mottled white whale himself—the very whale, as it turns out, who rams the Essex and dooms her crew to their long ordeal on the open sea.  The mottled whale reappears periodically throughout the movie, apparently pursuing the stranded crew across hundreds of miles of ocean for reasons that are never clear.  The overall effect is to turn what was already a gripping story of survival into something like Jaws—or perhaps the 1977 film Orca, in which Richard Harris does battle with a killer whale out for revenge against the man who killed its mate.

There really was a historical white whale nicknamed Mocha Dick who acquired a fearsome reputation around the waters off South America in the early 1800s.  That was another source of inspiration for Melville.  But since the movie touts itself as the “incredible true story” behind Moby-Dick, why re-fictionalize the Essex tragedy by adding in the very same elements that Melville did?  The film promises us the kernel of historical truth behind a great work of fiction, only to obscure that truth behind fictional embellishments taken from the novel.  It seems like a horribly unnecessary step backward.

Surely the most compelling thing about the story behind In the Heart of the Sea is the fact that it’s a true story.  That awesome climax of Melville’s novel really did happen; an enraged leviathan really did send a whaling ship to the bottom of the sea, setting off an ordeal of death, despair, and survival that is remarkable enough on its own without any dramatic license.

I think the filmmakers’ liberties with the Essex story reflect something about the relationship between history, drama, and memory more generally.  Some historical incidents and figures acquire cultural significance when talented writers and filmmakers come along and embellish them, turning them into stories that move people in a way that only great fiction or drama can.  And because the stories move people so deeply, they often want to get at the truth behind them, if only to come as close as possible to touching those fictional characters.  Thus historic sites linked to these embellished stories play up those links in their marketing; likewise for non-fiction books that promise to tell the true stories behind some legend, novel, or popular movie.  But often, when people finally encounter the historical truth behind those stories and characters they love, that truth only disappoints them.  The reason is because great stories rarely just happen.  Great storytellers know how to glean bits of truth from the world around them and remake them into something meaningful by means of their own imaginations.

Melville had that magic touch.  The wreck of the Essex gave him the spectacular ending to the story he wanted to tell.  But the Essex tragedy is one of those rare instances where the truth is just as dramatic and compelling as what the storyteller made of it.  That, I think, is what the filmmakers lost sight of.  We’ve already got Moby-Dick; we didn’t need another fictionalized take on the Essex.  The “incredible true story” on its own would have been…well, incredible.

That’s not to say that all dramatic license is off-limits when making historical movies.  To spin a good yarn, it’s necessary to (as Melville himself put it) “throw in a little fancy.”  But even while writing his novel, he claimed that he aimed “to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.”  I had hoped the filmmakers would “give the truth of the thing” when I sat down to watch In the Heart of the Sea.  Instead, it seems they took the advice of the newsman in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Melville’s legend became fact, so they filmed the legend.

*A few years ago, NOAA archaeologists found the remains of this ship, the first discovery of a sunken Nantucket whaler.

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George Washington’s gritty origin story

Seems like all the heroes are getting their origin stories re-told.  Batman Begins, The Wolverine, Man of Steel, Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, GothamAnd now this…

New Line has closed a deal to acquire The Virginian, a formative period action thriller about Founding Father George Washington before he found his place in defiance of the British Army. The script is by Michael Gunn, a protege of Aaron Sorkin. This one has had more than its share of buzz around town, because agents of talent have asked to read it on behalf of their star clients, though there is no star attached at this stage. Donald De Line will produce. Deal was mid-six figures.…

The script’s movie potential is best described as Last Of The Mohicans meets Braveheart. A down-and-out, young George Washington — desperate to join the British Army — accepts a dangerous mission to conquer a French fort and save the American colonies.

Wait, mid-six figures?  Geez, maybe we really should get on that Southern Campaign script.

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The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum’s newest exhibit features a glimpse at Hollywood’s Lincoln

Cross-posted to the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

The newest exhibit at Lincoln Memorial University’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum opened this week.  “Clouds and Darkness Surround Us”: The Life of Mary Todd Lincoln examines the tragic fate of Lincoln’s widow, and features original costumes from Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film alongside additional material from the ALLM collection.  This exhibit runs through November 20, 2015.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum is hosting a number of special events, including a screening of Spielberg’s film and presentations on the history of Lincoln in the movies.  For more information about the exhibit and upcoming events, visit the ALLM website.

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