The most famous shot in the most famous Civil War movie memorializes the Confederate flag in a manner befitting an epic film.
In “Gone With the Wind,” when Scarlett O’Hara arrives at the Atlanta train yard, which has been transformed into a hospital for the Confederate wounded, she walks through a field of injured, moaning men.
The camera pulls up and away as Max Steiner’s music morphs from a mournful version of “Dixie” into a dirge-like snippet of “Swanee River” and ultimately taps, the bugle refrain played at military funerals. The camera finally comes to a halt as the tattered red battle flag fills the frame, rippling in the wind above what appears to be hundreds of wounded soldiers.
It was a moment of great cinema and enduring propaganda.
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The film, which was released in 1939, portrayed insurrectionists and slave owners sympathetically, as Hollywood had done many times before and would do again, from “The Outlaw Josey Wales” to “Cold Mountain” to “Ride With the Devil.”
Filmmaker Kevin Willmott, who teaches at the University of Kansas, says that may be in part because of the kinds of stories Hollywood likes to tell — and sell.
“Hollywood kind of likes losers. I can understand that,” he said. “The loser is always more interesting than the winner. But they don’t explain that the cause he fought for wasn’t that great to begin with.”
In “Gone With the Wind,” an idyllic agrarian civilization is crushed beneath the bootheel of an invading Yankee horde. After intermission, the “Knights and their Ladies Fair” suffer the indignities of Reconstruction at the hands of white scalawags and freed slaves.
It was part of a long tradition in American popular entertainment that celebrated the era of slavery and idealized life down on the plantation. That tradition includes Al Jolson in blackface — the Hollywood heir to 19th-century minstrel acts — as well as “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” a long-running radio show in which white actors played stereotypical African-Americans. (Eventually it made the jump to television with black comedians.)
And it included a 1915 epic movie that continues to be taught in film schools today. D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” is still valued for his innovative storytelling techniques, many of which became part of the standard filmmaking vocabulary.
The polite word for its content is “problematic,” because it depicts marauding African-American federal troops, played by white actors in black makeup, and casts the Ku Klux Klan as the saviors of the oppressed post-war Southerners. In one scene, white Northerners and Southerners are trapped in a cabin as African-American Union troops try to break in. The title card reads: “The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defence of their Aryan birthright.”
Willmott had this tradition in mind when he made his 2004 movie, “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,” a mockumentary about what this country might be like if the South had defeated the North. It’s an acerbic satire that includes TV commercials employing unabashedly racist imagery.
“The more things change the more they stay the same,” he said. “One of the motivations I had for making the film was the Confederate flag. It’s just one of those things that just doesn’t want to go away. It’s like a bad penny.”
The flag has become a major issue since the June 17 shooting deaths of nine people at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Subsequent to the murders, photos of the accused shooter, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, emerged showing him holding the Confederate flag as well as weapons.
As the South Carolina Legislature is debating what to do about the Confederate flag on its state Capitol grounds, Alabama has already removed one on its grounds.
The romantic associations with the flag, fueled significantly by show business, have obscured its original meaning: a symbol of slavery. While its defenders claim it as a symbol of state sovereignty, others call it a symbol of treason.
John Wilkes Booth, Willmott pointed out, was a Confederate sympathizer. After he shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head and leaped to the stage of Ford’s Theatre, he shouted the Virginia motto: “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus always to tyrants”).
“It’s insane,” Willmott said. “We don’t fly the flag of any country we defeated in war, and the Confederates were traitors who murdered an American president.”
Through the years, the flag took on a more generalized meaning. It became a symbol of rebelliousness unconnected to history or politics. Under that pretext, it was OK on “The Dukes of Hazzard” for Bo and Luke to drive the General Lee, a Dodge Charger with the Confederate battle flag painted on the roof. And it was OK for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to use the flag as a backdrop in their concerts in the 1980s.
Except now it’s not so OK. Wal-Mart, Amazon, Sears and eBay are among retailers that have announced they will no longer carry merchandise incorporating the Confederate flag. And Warner Bros. has chosen to no longer license model kits and die-cast versions of the General Lee.
The reason the imagery was so prevalent for so long, Willmott said, was the false notion that the Civil War was more like a falling out among relatives than a fundamental moral conflict.
“They always want to say the North and South were moral equals, and I think Hollywood has always tried to sell that,” he said. “In movies like ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ you’ve got Clint Eastwood being mistreated by all these bad Northerners.
“I’m not saying that never happened, but it doesn’t mean they were moral equivalents. And that’s kind of the big lie.”
You could make a similar argument about “Ride With the Devil,” Ang Lee’s 1999 film about the Border War, which he shot in the Kansas City region. His portrait of Confederate-sympathizing guerrillas was nuanced, although his depiction of William Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence was less brutal than written accounts of the event suggest.
Willmott said inadequate American education is part of the problem. Kids aren’t being taught objective facts about the Civil War.
“There’s a whole generation of people who grew up with this Confederate flag as a symbol of their heritage,” he said. “And they were able to compartmentalize that away from the civil rights reality. It allows them to hold on to the heritage of their grandfathers, but divorced from racism.
“That’s the most amazing kind of denial that really hurts the American fabric. It really hurts the unity of America. It really is the thing that divides the country. It goes back to the belief system that that whole part of our history had nothing to do with racism, and people hold on to that.”
Robert Thompson, who teaches the history of popular culture at Syracuse University, said he, like Willmott, teaches “The Birth of a Nation” in his classes. But the young people have to be prepared for it. Part of his job is to make them understand the historical context and the attitudes reflected by the movie.
The same thing applies to the history of minstrelsy, a show-business tradition in which black entertainers were portrayed for the most part by white actors in broadly stereotypical terms.
“Our pop culture is filled with this sort of thing, but none of that is an argument to continue celebrating it,” Thompson said.
Thompson quoted comedian Larry Wilmore, who on Comedy Central offered South Carolina a bit of unsolicited advice: “How about just take the damn flag down right now?”
“We’re not talking about changing the law or challenging the First Amendment,” Thompson said. “In this case its just common sense and decency.”
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.