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Hollywood takes on the Civil War

On the heels of the Civil War's 150th anniversary come film and TV projects from Robert Redford, Carlton Cuse and others that may take a page from the richer, and darker, narratives being uncovered.

April 12, 2011|By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times
  • President Lincoln and Gen. George McClellan at Antietam in 1862.
President Lincoln and Gen. George McClellan at Antietam in 1862. (Library of Congress )

When South Carolina artillerymen opened fire on a small band of federal troops garrisoned in Ft. Sumter exactly 150 years ago Tuesday, the American Civil War officially began. Now Hollywood is getting ready to fight the nation's bloodiest conflict all over again with a passel of new sesquicentennial-ready film and TV projects from some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, including directors Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Robert Redford. There's even a pilot for a TV series set against the backdrop of the war, from one of the executive producers of ABC's hit drama "Lost."

Of course, the war between the North and South over slavery and states' rights has for decades supplied a bottomless well of drama — and potential profit — for storytellers. But the new wave of projects is coming at a time when researchers raised in the post-Vietnam era have revolutionized Civil War scholarship with a richer, and darker, understanding of a struggle most Americans probably still know best from high-school history courses.

"The Civil War is the most important event in American history," Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker whose landmark 1990 series about the conflict was rerun on PBS stations last week, said in an interview. "Everything that came before the Civil War led up to it; everything since has been, in many ways, a direct consequence of it."

Details of much of the new writing is under wraps and in other cases still evolving, but whatever material is produced is bound to help re-shape Hollywood's legacy on an endlessly reinterpreted crisis in the country's history. It's still unclear, for example, how the new fare will deal with the subject of race, which has occupied historians for decades over its precise role in the conflict, but which popular entertainment has largely skirted.

"Hollywood has a frankly terrible history with the Civil War," said David W. Blight, a Yale historian currently on a fellowship at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, whose 2001 book "Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory" exploded many of the myths associated with the postwar Reconstruction period.

A key problem, Blight noted, was the "Lost Cause" mythology, which was promoted by Southern writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and depicted the Confederacy as a noble and idyllic civilization vanquished by impossible odds. In some viewers' minds, the notion of sumptuous plantations filled with contented, wisecracking slaves still persists.

"'Gone With the Wind' laid that down in cinematic terms, so that you can probably never pull its roots out," Blight said.

In the last 20 or 30 years, though, scholars who lived through the country's Vietnam experience began to look at the much more-distant Civil War through a new lens.

"When the Vietnam generation began to study the Civil War we got a darker story — we got to the prisons, the question of death, the common soldiers' brutal experience," Blight said.

The cable network History is perhaps making the biggest bet, or at least the longest. History executives — who haven't exactly ignored the Civil War in the past — plan to devote splashy special programming to the war over the next four years, which is how long the original conflict lasted. Next month, the channel will kick things off with "Gettysburg," a two-hour documentary enhanced with CGI and reenactments from filmmaking brothers Ridley and Tony Scott. A panoramic view of the war's crucial battle over three days in July 1863, the film is designed to give a grunt's-eye, and sometimes gruesome, view of the action.

"You're gonna be looking at what it was really like to be with these guys on the ground," said Dirk Hoogstra, senior vice president of programming and development for History.

History has also scheduled a documentary on Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, the best-known Confederate and Union generals, and formed an educational and charity initiative with the Civil War Trust and the National Park Foundation.

And just to make sure no viewer fails to get the message, the network is even adding special Civil War-themed episodes of series such as "Pawn Stars" and "American Pickers."

For History, the war is a natural for its heavily male-skewing audience. "We've done just about everything you can possibly imagine on the Civil War a couple of times," Hoogstra said, only half-joking. But programming related to the conflict nearly always pulls good ratings, he added.

Elsewhere, where the written record meets imagination, producers are hoping to pick up where the facts leave off with several new dramatized accounts of the war.

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