America

From ‘Birth’ to ‘Glory’ by Way of ‘Wind’


- April 16th, 2019
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At the end of his documentary series “The Civil War,” Ken Burns bids farewell to many of the figures who drove that story. They departed this earth in touching, even inspiring ways.

There’s General Ulysses S. Grant, stricken with cancer, racing the Reaper to produce an autobiography and thereby provide for his family, and finishing the manuscript one week before his death. (The resulting work is, unlike the overpraised memoirs of a more recent president, a true classic of American literature.)

There’s the aged Confederate General Joseph Johnston, standing bare-headed in the cold as a pallbearer at the 1891 funeral of William Tecumseh Sherman, the man who had harried him out of northern Georgia and chased him through the Carolinas. Urged by a friend to cover up, he replied, “If I were in his place, and Sherman were standing here in mine, he would not put on his hat.” (Johnston died of pneumonia a month later.)

There’s Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Gettysburg, who led his Maine regiment in a bayonet attack that stopped the Southern effort to turn the Union flank on the battle’s second day, thus dooming the rebels to attempt Pickett’s Charge on the third. Chamberlain, full of years and honors, died in 1914 of complications from one of his six war wounds. The narrator concludes: “The war was over.”

The postscript Burns assigns to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest goes like this: “In 1867, he became the first Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, but then quit, when the Klan grew too violent even for him.” That’s more terse than elegiac. Much more could be said about Forrest’s disaffection from the KKK, enough to make the story of his final years an inspiration too.

Forrest didn’t just resign from the Klan; he threatened its remnants. In 1874, when a racial disturbance in Gibson County, Tennessee, ended with the murder of 16 blacks, Forrest attended a Memphis “indignation meeting” along with Jefferson Davis and other leading ex-Confederates. There he said that if he “were entrusted with proper authority he would capture and exterminate the white marauders who disgrace their race by this cowardly murder of negroes.”

Not only that, but Forrest started preaching integration long before its day finally came. At a time when many white Americans, North and South, would rather have deported free blacks from America to Africa, Forrest recommended the immigration of free blacks from Africa to help repopulate the South. In 1875, he told members of a black fraternal group in Memphis:

I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man, to depress none. I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. … I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. … Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand.

As Forrest noted, such sentiments were not then shared by many of his fellow whites, and in fact they would shortly impose a Jim Crow regime in the South that lasted almost a century. (Forrest himself died two years after the Memphis speech.)

It’s a shame that Forrest’s more benign views did not prevail in his day. It’s a further shame that they are ignored now by those who want his memorials destroyed. But my question is how, after being damned by Forrest, Davis and the others, the KKK could ever have become resurgent to the point that it thrived in northern states like Indiana and even marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

We have Hollywood to thank for that. Hollywood melodrama, to be precise. And, just as the indulgence of melodrama is working mischief today, it worked mischief back then.

The most successful and consequential melodrama Hollywood ever produced is “The Birth of a Nation.” Completed in 1915 by film pioneer D.W. Griffith, it tells the story of how two families, the Stonemans of the North and the Camerons of the South, fought, suffered and eventually reconciled during and after the war. (The title reflects Griffith’s view that before the Union victory established the supremacy of federal power, the United States of America were not truly one nation.)

The film aroused a furor. In Boston, black citizens greeted its premiere with a riot at the theater and a petition to the governor that procured a threat of prosecution against Griffith. Despite such protests, “Birth” did enormous business, and it sparked and turbocharged the Klan’s revival.

In Griffith’s version of the Klan’s origin, Ben Cameron, “the little Colonel,” tries to warn a menacing black soldier named Gus away from his kid sister, Flora, but is rebuffed by the Reconstruction carpetbag leader, Silas Lynch. Sitting on a riverbank, “in agony of soul over the degradation and ruin of his people,” Cameron finds inspiration when he sees some white children scare their black playmates by hiding under a sheet and pretending to be ghosts. The Klan makes its debut by scaring “a negro disturber and barn burner” in like manner.

Undeterred by such nonsense, Gus accosts Flora in the woods. She flees, he gives chase, and she throws herself off a cliff to escape him. Her brother arrives in time to hear the dying woman name her pursuer.

Led by “the little Colonel,” the Klan captures Gus and decides his fate in a proceeding that takes as little time on film as many such deeds took in real life. One title reads, “The trial.” A few seconds later, another title reads, “Guilty.” The Klan kills Gus and dumps his body on the carpetbaggers’ doorstep.

In the film’s climax, black soldiers lay siege to a rural cabin in which some of the Stonemans and Camerons have taken refuge, while in town, whites cower behind locked doors as a riot rages in the streets. The Klan rides to the rescue, defeating soldiers and rioters in pitched battles.

Historians Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer wrote in 1957 that the sensation created by “The Birth of a Nation” was “without precedent and has never been duplicated. People had not known that they could be so moved, so roused, by what is, after all, only a succession of pictures passing across a screen.”

Despite its highly problematic subject matter, “Birth” is in the National Film Registry because of artistic merit, technical innovation, and historical significance. But its legendary cinematic virtues don’t obscure the fact that much of the film is just plain racist.

The film treats interracial marriage as a fate worse than death. It pictures uncouth black legislators as contemptible, even though the movies often depict equally uncouth white backwoodsmen with admiration. When Cameron is introduced to the mulatto Lynch, he spurns Lynch’s polite offer of a handshake, a snub that, though it offends the onlooking Stonemans, seems intended to meet with the audience’s approval. And at the end, the Klan completes its triumph by keeping black Southerners from voting, as if casting a ballot were a crime.

The whole story is of, by, and for whites. Except for Gus, Lynch, the elder Stoneman’s mistress and two “faithful souls” in the Cameron household, the blacks in the picture are a nameless horde whose rights, happiness, and future seem to interest the filmmaker not at all.

That’s not so with another Civil War film whose subject intersects with Griffith’s. Yet its presentation of the case is in surprising agreement on one point.

Edward Zwick’s 1989 epic, “Glory,” tells the true story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and it is counted by many Civil War buffs as the best and most authentic depiction of the war on film.

No melodrama here. Instead of whitewashing one side and smearing the other, “Glory” tells its story in full, dutifully recording the terror inflicted by black Union regiments on the Southern backcountry. Zwick’s heroes go along on one of those rapacious forays, and though their commanding officer objects in vain to his superior in the field, and his men carry out their orders reluctantly, this is of no benefit to the victims. Griffith, for his part, simply depicts the events, early in the wartime portion of his film, with no attempt at extenuation. In his melodrama, the black soldiers are villains, and that’s that.

Between “Birth” and “Glory,” was there any other Civil War movie of note? Oh, yes: filmdom’s all-time top grosser, “Gone With the Wind.”

Margaret Mitchell’s novel came out in 1936 and was America’s top-selling fiction title that year and the next, when it won the Pulitzer Prize. No sooner had Hollywood producer David O. Selznick set about bringing it to the screen, however, than he encountered protests like those which had greeted “Birth.” The problem was that since “Wind” dealt with the Civil War and Reconstruction from the Southern perspective, its story was going to involve many of the same elements as “Birth” had done, including lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan.

So Selznick and his screenwriters took care to keep the Klan out of the picture. In Mitchell’s novel, after Scarlett O’Hara is attacked while riding near a shanty town, the retaliatory sortie led by Frank Kennedy and Ashley Wilkes is a KKK raid. It remains off-screen in the movie, with the Klan never mentioned and with nary a Klan robe in sight.

The contrast between book and film here is revealing. In the novel, Scarlett came to be taking her buggy around Atlanta without the protection of a male driver because of two incidents: First, her black driver Uncle Peter refused to continue with her after some Yankee ladies insulted him and her retort to them struck him as inadequate. Second, the taciturn hillbilly ex-con she secured as Peter’s replacement quit her when she started using convict labor at her sawmill.

In the movie, Rhett Butler smiles and shrugs after Scarlett rejects his warning against driving alone “through all that riff-raff” to reach the mill. But in Mitchell’s novel, Rhett is more severe:

If you don’t care personally whether or not you are raped, you might consider the consequences. Because of your obstinacy, you may get yourself into a situation where your gallant fellow townsmen will be forced to avenge you by stringing up a few darkies. And that will bring the Yankees down on them and someone will probably get hanged. Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps one of the reasons the ladies do not like you is that your conduct may cause the neck-stretching of their sons and husbands? And furthermore, if the Ku Klux handles many more negroes, the Yankees are going to tighten up on Atlanta in a way that will make Sherman’s conduct look angelic. . . . They mean to stamp out the Ku Klux if it means burning the whole town again and hanging every male over ten.

By the time this business reached the screen, its most fearsome aspects had vanished almost entirely. The episode even included moments of comic relief.

Such sanitizing kept “Gone With the Wind” from stirring up a second Klan revival. Unfortunately, it hasn’t kept the film out of the cross-hairs of today’s social justice warriors, who, not being content with saying, “Sorry, this flick is not my cup of tea,” are trying to ban it from public viewing. “Wind,” they say, is an artifact of white supremacy, and as such it is beyond the pale.

The melodrama of Southern villainy that runs in such people’s heads has a much worse consequence than what it might mean for movie lovers. With their slogan “‘Law and order’ are code words for racism,” our progressive thinkers have exposed millions of their fellow Americans to dangers that are no mere shadows on a screen.

A woman has a right to drive a buggy past a shantytown, or stroll on a pier in San Francisco Bay, or go jogging in Central Park, without suffering violence of any kind whatsoever. A child has a right to be tucked into bed at night, and not be hidden in a steel bathtub for fear of bullets flying through the walls. All of us have a right to sleep out on the fire escape if we want to, or ride a bicycle, or walk to school, or wait at a bus stop, or go grocery shopping, or attend church or synagogue, without worrying about becoming the next crime statistic.

Protection from criminal violence is something we owe to ourselves and to each other. It’s something the government owes to all who, as Forrest put it, “live honestly and act truly.” And as the image of Lady Justice has attested since antiquity, when the shield of the law has failed to protect, the sword of the law is there to avenge.

These statements are true regardless of race—and only a scoundrel or a fool would call it “white supremacy” to insist on them.

Photo Credit: Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

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