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‘Man’s bullshit’ and other wars

Why Cold Mountain has gained a warm reception.

Graham Barnfield

Topics Culture

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Does Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain deserve a second look, given the widespread complaint that it has been unjustly denied Oscar nominations? On paper, it would be the least controversial of the three current celluloid outings for Nicole Kidman. Whereas Dogville (1) has been slated for its alleged anti-Americanism and The Human Stain sets out to skewer 1990s PC, one would expect Ms Kidman’s 1860s trials and tribulations to be accepted as a handsome historical drama.

Yet instead, this Civil War romance has connected with contemporary mores and offended a few commentators in the process. This unexpected burst of relevance has briefly raised the stakes in making the movie seem a serious Oscar contender.

As astute commentators such as Munira Mirza have pointed out, Cold Mountain’s response to the situation of its gorgeous protagonists Ada Monroe (Kidman) and Inman (Jude Law) is to say ‘war is hell’ (2). We are shown the Civil War in its gory detail, the opening crosscutting between the battle of Petersburg and the duo’s initial courtship. The Union assault on well-defended southern fortifications reveals some of the barbarous consequences of mixing old and new military techniques, not least when a conventional infantry charge leaves Northern troops penned up to be blasted senseless from machine-tooled rifle barrels.

No wonder Inman seeks to desert amid the killing and gore (despite being on the winning side in this particular battle). It is understandable why some critics saw the USA’s open-ended ‘war on terror’ reflected in Minghella’s latest epic, where Southern good ol’ boys make optimistic predictions of a month-long war.

However, few have noted the role of the movie in further eroding the legitimacy of the Civil War itself. Making a Palaeolithic ‘bring back slavery’ statement would soon see the withdrawal of invitations to Hollywood dinner parties – and though characterised as fundamentalist by liberal journalists, the Bush administration has no intention of restoring a pre-Bill of Rights Constitution. The outcome of the Civil War was a great triumph for humanity, irrespective of the subsequent compromises and lingering inequalities. Yet in recent years this victory has been called into question.

For instance, when Garry Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg appeared in the early 1990s, its theme – Abraham Lincoln’s mastery as a nation-builder – was often overlooked in favour of the chapter, based largely on private correspondence, which showed Lincoln to have a low opinion of ‘the Negro’. Like small boys charging straight to the rude words in a dictionary, liberals rushed to see Lincoln ‘exposed’ as a racist, Secret History-style. If his personal sincerity was questionable, then maybe Lincoln’s achievements were suspect too.

Martin Scorsese’s overblown Gangs of New York had a similar undercurrent. Here the anti-social fiefdoms and vendettas of various criminals were shown as heroic, while official attempts to quell the 1863 Draft Riots as oppressive (3). Yet on reading Scorsese’s non-fiction source by Herbert Asbury, it’s clear that the gangs’ historian had a far lower opinion of his subjects: ‘The fighting which raged through the streets of New York City from Monday to Saturday during a hot week in July, 1863, began as a protest against the Conscription Act which had been passed by Congress in March, but that phase of the struggle was soon forgotten, and thereafter the riots were an insurrection of the criminal element against the established order.’ (4)

Apparently the ‘established order’ included the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue and Negro waiters working in Nassau Street, both targets of the rioters. Yet transplant the worst race riots in history to Hollywood via the Cinecitta Studios and they acquire a heroic character, not least when counterposed to the human meat grinder of the Civil War down south. Knee-jerk radicalism today means saying ‘not in my name’ to current conflicts, and the same sensibility infects mainstream movies’ treatment of the past.

How different from those such as Karl Marx who praised Lincoln: ‘While the workingmen, the true political power of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic…they were unable to attain the true freedom of labour or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation, but this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war.’ (5). For US socialist leader Max Shachtman, the Civil War and Reconstruction period ‘completed the bourgeois democratic revolution commenced in 1776 with the declaration of independence from England. For the Negro masses, this second revolution – to destroy the stranglehold of the slavocracy over the unfoldment of industrial capitalism – yielded all that the democratic revolution in this country will ever yield them (6).

Even David Roediger, inspiration to white ‘race traitors’ everywhere, grudgingly accepts that ‘abandoning the effort to fight a war to preserve slavery against a slaveholding power, Lincoln in effect acknowledged with the Emancipation Proclamation that the failure of the Union to defeat the South quickly and the momentous efforts of slaves to free themselves necessitated turning the Civil War into a revolution’ (7). For the best part of 150 years, progressive opinion has seen the Civil War as a just war. Now Hollywood is taking the view that it was just ‘man’s bullshit’, as Cold Mountain’s Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger) puts it.

Like Gangs of New York, Cold Mountain seems to have adopted GK Chesterton’s maxim, ‘To make a thing real you must make it local’. This follows in the tradition of Charles Frazier’s overrated novel, which is so ‘local’ that in places it reads like a recipe book for surviving on a handful of walnuts and giblets (the Inman diet?). Transformed into film, this aspect of the book stimulated audience squeamishness at the screening I attended: they enjoyed the Battle of Petersburg but groaned audibly when assorted livestock got the chop.

Part of Frazier’s charm is that, like Daniel Woodrell’s superior novel Woe to Live On (the basis for Ang Lee’s Ride With the Devil), it captures stilted Victorian English as both dialogue and epistolary style. The prudish Ada even takes ‘widow’s easement’ in the novel, a scene absent from the film. Yet this emphasis on locality is a successful aspect of the novel’s interior world that makes way for a more box office-friendly vernacular in the movie.

Frazier and Woodrell are head and shoulders above their respective adaptations, both in character development and their portrayal of the desperation inherent in the war. Yet transformed into mainstream movies with epic pretensions, the fiction loses these attributes. Where once stood plausible characters amid historical cataclysm (albeit on the wrong side), in their place are beautifully shot yet soppy romances, underscored by manipulative soundtracks telling us what to think.

Graham Barnfield is a lecturer at the University of East London.

(1) Cultural Depression, by Graham Barnfield

(2) See Cold Mountain, Munira Mirza, on Culture Wars

(3) Gangs of New York, Dolan Cummings, on Culture Wars

(4) Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, Herbert Asbury (1928), Arrow: 2003, p108. Buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA

(5) Letters to Americans, 1848-1895, Marx and Engels, International Publishers, 1953; p66

(6) Race and Revolution, Verso: 2003, p90

(7) The Wages of Whiteness, Verso, 1991, p174. Buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA

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