My Top Ten “Creature Features!”

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A couple of years ago for fun I posted a list of my “Top Ten Spook Movies.” Ever since it went up it has been among my most viewed posts and consistently one with the longest legs (it still continues to get many views, especially this time of year). So I thought this Halloween I would follow it up with a list of my favorite “Creature Features.”

First the disclaimers: I admit I cheated here in my rankings, deciding to rank the monsters themselves instead of the movies, that way I could get more films on the list before naming my favorite of each type. The majority of the creatures listed here are the staples of the 1930s and 40s iconic monster movies from Universal Pictures, but the others are no less famous. To me, monsters require the viewer to suspend their disbelief even more so than with ghosts, so creature films always seem to blend more easily with comedy (especially the zombies). Thus one might feel I have tainted the list with too many films that play for laughs. So be it.

Further, and related to that, you won’t find brilliant movies such as Jaws, Jurassic Park, Alien, or Aliens on this list, because those films are operating on a much higher level than are the more campy and fun films I consider to be “creature features.”

Lastly, while I like my ghost movies with few special effects, relying more on the right combo of story, characters, camera angles and lighting, creature features by nature have to be more reliant on special effects. Yet, I am not a big fan of either gore or over-the-top computer generated imagery (CGI), so you’ll find my list is made up of classic films with good old-fashioned special effects and still often reliant on using the viewer’s own mind to create the chills and thrills.

So, without further adieu, here are my “Top Ten Creature Features,” all in carefully considered descending order and from the perspective of an historian and a film history buff.

10. The Mummy. The original 1932 film from Universal starring Boris Karloff was inspired by the 1922 opening of King Tut’s tomb and the alleged curse that killed ten of the crypt’s invaders within ten years.

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Karloff

(Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself helped to promote the curse’s supposed legitimacy). The scene in which a long dead Egyptian high priest very slowly returns to life, leaving a witness laughing in hysterical fear, is still pretty chilling.

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Go ahead and hate my choice, but there are far worse things than watching these two good-looking people raid Egyptian tombs.

But at the sake of sounding sacrilegious to true film buffs, I have to admit that my favorite mummy film is 1999’s The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. Yep, I said it. True, it is more action/adventure than it is “creature feature,” the mummy ironically has way less charisma than Karloff’s understated version, the comedic elements are strained, and the film is very overloaded with bad 1990’s CGI.  As Roger Ebert noted, “There is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it.” What I can say in its favor, however, is that the two leads are perfectly and charmingly matched,  the opening scene, which establishes the legendary curse, is near brilliant, and the climactic scene when the high priest’s soul is taken away for eternal damnation, is still bone-chillingly cool.

9. The Invisible Man. There is only one way to go here, and that is with the original 1933 Universal version based fairly closely on the H.G Wells novel and directed by the legendary James Whales.

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Claude Rains

Claude Rains is one of the greatest character actors that ever blessed a Hollywood sound stage, and he puts on a performance here (in his first American film) that carries the whole thing, although you literally never see his face until the very last moments! This one is played for some laughs (“here we go gathering the nuts in May!”), but there are some real chills as the mad scientist descends into sheer lunacy, and the special effects are still pretty amazing considering the limitations of the 1930s.

8. The Wolf Man. OK, if you don’t think Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” is one of the hippest songs ever written (and is there a better opening line?) I do not know how to relate to you.

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Chaney Jr.

The Lon Chaney the song references is of course the legendary “man of a thousand faces” that brought to life so many scary characters in the films of the 1920s and 30s, such as 1925’s Phantom of the Opera (which would have been #11 had this list been longer) and Quasimodo from 1923’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Lon Chaney Jr. the song also references is of course the son of the great actor who went on to a good career of his own in horror films, most famously 1941’s The Wolf Man (which also starred Claude Rains). It is a solid film, tapping into a folklore that is actually centuries old and with a history not unlike that of witchcraft, and features some of the horror genre’s best fog-infested atmospheric scenes (and yes, “his hair was perfect”). It is weakened however by Chaney’s poor acting (I hate to say that). image.jpgBut I have to admit I like my wolf man in more comedic settings, such as the 1980s classic, Teen Wolf, starring Michael J. Fox (Yep. Listen, if those basketball scenes do not crack you up, I don’t know what to say about your sense of humor), and Stephen King’s Silver Bullet (with Corey Haim and Gary Busey, I mean come, on, what an 80s combo!) As Roger Ebert noted, Silver Bullet “is either the worst movie ever made from a Stephen King story, or the funniest.”) But I especially love John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981), my vote for the best of the wolf man movies. The film is just the right mix of humor (yes, that’s the dude from the old Dr. Pepper commercials) and very real horror. The special effects in the transformation scenes are still pretty amazing. There’s no way any CGI has ever topped it. “Huh! Draw blood.”

7. The Thing. Here’s one of only two aliens to make my list, both of which are products of the early Cold War and how things coming from out of the sky to destroy us were oft used film metaphors for our fear of Soviet bombs and/or commie spies within our midst. That trope led to many comically bad 1950s sci-fi movies, and some that are actually pretty good. Howard Hawks’s The Thing From Another World (1951) is one of the best, involving a crashed saucer, an alien recovered from the ship, and the threat it poses to Air Force crewman in an isolated artic base. (Yes, that is Gunsmoke’s James Arness as The Thing, but you can’t tell it).

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Confronting The Thing

James Carpenter remade the film in 1982, and it isn’t bad and actually closer to the original story because the creature can assume the characteristics of other living things around it. But it depends too much on special effects and “gotcha!” jump scares. The original is much more akin to a good ghost movie, because it is dependent on characters, lighting, and mood created by effective cinematography. (The scene where they figure out the shape of the crashed ship is awesome, especially if you get the chance to see it on a big screen). And don’t forget the film’s final warning: “Tell this to everybody, wherever they are. Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”

6. The Living Dead. Ah, zombies. I must admit, I get a kick out zombie films, and that started one night in the mid 1980s when I stayed up extra late one Halloween night and caught a TV airing of the 1968 George Romero cult classic, Night of the Living Dead. Based loosely on the 1954 novel, I am Legend, the film forever changed the depiction of zombies in film.8d5f6f9e86527ee3c802c49380696179--white-zombie-grindhouse.jpg Audiences had long been exposed to reanimated corpses, 1932’s White Zombie featuring Bela Lugosi for instance, a truly creepy and disturbing film set in Haiti. Or especially the Val Lewton classic, I Walked with a Zombie (1943). (See them both. Trust me. Lewton’s films in particular are masterpieces in the use of shadows and sound to create chilling atmospherics). In such films zombies were definitely creepy, but they were essentially catatonic, tied to voodoo practices, controlled by a master, and in the case of the Lewton film, basically harmless.night-of-the-living-dead-at-50.jpg In Romero’s hands, however, they became flesh-eating ghouls that can’t be overcome because of their sheer numbers and relentlessness. Yes, you can take them out by destroying the head, but there are always more. And more. And more. I still think they work best in comedies (with the exception of the first few seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead—man, what has happened to that once great show?), such as Zombieland (2009), the recent The Dead Don’t Die (2019), and by far the best of the comedies, Shaun of the Dead (2004). But in the end, my favorite is still Night of The Living Dead, which was confirmed when I got to see it on the big screen last Halloween. You can’t beat its slow burn beginnings (“they’re coming to get you, Barbara”) and the shocking ending that broke the rules of how horror movies are supposed to end. And come on, it features the best-delivered line of any creature feature movie:

And now on to the Top Five!

5. The Blob. Here’s the other alien to make the list, and this one is way more campy and fun, and yet even creepier. A very young Steve McQueen makes his film debut (as Steven McQueen) alongside the actress that played Helen Crump in The Andy Griffith Show, Aneta Corsaut, in 1958’s The Blob. The two are a couple of middle class teens in suburban 1950s America, suffering from all the same angst as the teens in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause (judgmental cops, WWII-generation parents and adults that can’t relate to or trust the troubled youth), except in this film the event that finally unites the dividedmaxresdefault (1).jpg generations is not the tragic shooting of one teen, it’s a gelatinous blob from outer space that devours townspeople one-by-one, growing ever larger with each victim it consumes. Awesome. There’s some truly iconic scenes in this film (do yourself a favor and skip the 1988 remake), especially involving the movie theater, and it was filmed in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania (yes, that Valley Forge) in deeply rich and beautiful colors (looks great on Blu-Ray). It’s a ton of campy fun, with the Burt Bacharach title song, “Beware of the Blob,” setting the perfect stage. And remember, we are only safe “as long as the Arctic stays cold.”

4. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Starting in 1908, there have been many movie and TV adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 critique of Victorian era hypocrisy and his examination of humankind’s duality. In many ways, the work is classic Freudian theory, but has made for some darn good horror. The most recognized version is the 1941 film starring Spencer Tracy, but trust me, the best is the 1931 version starring Fredric March. dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde-re-release-poster.jpgIt’s a pre-code film, when Hollywood was able to get away with things that self-censorship wouldn’t allow in 1941. At its heart, this story is about sexual lust, and the 1931 version can tap into that way more openly than can the 1941 film. But that’s not the only thing that makes it better; the techniques and lighting used to achieve the transformation scenes are downright creepy and amazing, all the more so because of how subtle and yet still stunning they are. You’ll be hard-pressed to figure out how they did it, and it is way more convincing than any CGI could be. Further, while Tracy was an amazing actor, Frederic March’s performance in the role is far superior. The film captures you right away, with opening shots that are filmed to put the audience into Dr. Jekyll’s point-of view. It’ll mesmerize you within just the first few minutes of the film. It’s no wonder than when the 1941 version came out the studio tried to round up and destroy prints of the 1931 version. Thank goodness that attempt failed.

And now the Top Three!

3. King Kong. All hail the mighty Kong. I have a soft spot for the King because he was one of the first things that drew me to classic movies when I was a young kid. I was probably only 8 or maybe 10 years old when I first saw him airing on TV, and I was so transfixed that I went to my school library to find a book on how he was brought to life. Luckily, I found one (and the film section that I revisited many times) and learned about filmmaker Merian C. Cooper’s lifetime obsession with gorillas and the dangers and wonders of filming in the jungle. Released in 1933, King Kong follows a fictional director and his crew (based on Cooper and his cohorts themselves) famous for making the type of jungle documentaries that audiences at the time were used to actually seeing in theaters. What they find on the long lost Skull Island is well known, so it needs no explanation from me here.3b28f65b7646fff3-600x338.jpg For me, the scene in which the native villagers (depicted in ways reflecting the repugnant racist stereotypes of the era) offer up a sacrifice to Kong, is the film’s most chilling moment (it’s use of sound is mesmerizing), more so than even Kong’s fights with other animals and his New York rampage. There have of course been remakes, in 1976, 2005, and 2017, for instance, with Peter Jackson’s 2005 version being the best of those subsequent films. Yet, as good as that movie admittedly was, I didn’t like how Ann Darrow stopped fearing Kong and connected with him, and I feel the CGI takes away the dreamlike quality that the original achieved because of its primitive yet highly effective special effects. The stop-motion animation, gorgeous matte paintings, and rear projection techniques give the film a surreal quality that I think is still fascinating to look upon, especially during his fight with the tyrannosaurus and when he surveys his kingdom from atop his mountain top. As Roger Ebert wrote about the dinosaur fight scene, “there is a moment when he forces its jaws apart, and the bones crack, and blood drips from the gaping throat, and something immediate happens that is hard to duplicate on any computer.” Damn right. When I want to see the King, I go to the original.

2. Frankenstein’s Monster (and his bride). Ok, you all know that Frankenstein isn’t the monster, he’s the doctor. The original story was conceived by Mary Shelley on a dark, cold night when she and her travel companions sat around a gothic fireplace and challenged each other to come up with the best horror story. Her gruesome tale of a doctor that tries to reanimate corpses via electricity/galvanism, only to create a destructive monster, was published in 1818 (she was 21 at the time) and is a classic that reads as a Romantic-era critique of the Industrial Revolution. There have been a large number of adaptations and derivatives of the story, but in my mind you need only deal with four of them. The starting point is of course the 1931 Universal pictures production, Frankensteinwith Boris Karloff as the monster.

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Karloff

It’s brilliant in creating atmospheric mood, particularly in the grave robbing scene and the gorgeous reanimation sequences. And yet it was bested four years later by James Whales’s masterpiece, Bride of Frankenstein. One of my favorite character actors of all time is Elsa Lanchester (she was always perfect in quirky or downright strange roles), and she does double duty in the film, playing both Mary Shelley in an interesting prologue, and the bride in the film’s finale.

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The enchanting Lanchester, as the Bride

But she’s only in the film a mere matter of minutes, as the real stars of the show are Karloff and Colin Clive (as the doctor), the special effects, and most especially, the set/art designers. Forget all the high brow film critiques that have dissected the film from just about every angle looking for hidden imagery and subtext, and just enjoy it for what it is; a great creature feature. (Dr. Praetorious is way creepier than the monster). After that, you’ll need to catch 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. It’s a major step down in quality, but not bad. Yet the real reason to see it is so that you can fully appreciate my choice for the best Frankenstein movie: Mel Brooks’ 1974, Young Frankenstein. The brilliant comedy aside, the film is equal parts spoof and loving homage to the three other films noted here, and really, all of the 1930s Universal monster flicks. A little while ago, my friends and I were discussing what comedy movies we consider to be cinematic masterpieces, and this was my top choice. young-frankenstein.jpgNot only is it funny, but Brooks hits every right film-making note on what made the Universal monster movies so good, from lighting, to set design (many of the machines are the actual ones from the original films), to the use of sound and shadows to create the perfect atmosphere. It’s funny because it gets everything so darn right (and wow, what a great cast). Do yourself a favor and watch all four of these films as a marathon (none of them is very long), and then don’t forget to “PUT. ZE CANDLE. BACK.”

And at number one:

1. Dracula (and his various vampire brethren). Could there ever be any doubt who would be #1? His origins go way further back than any other creature, with precursors in one form or another in most ancient cultures. The most immediate vampire folklore dates to the early 18th century, however. Dracula himself did not emerge until Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, setting most of our current traditions about vampires, their strengths, and their weaknesses. He hit the stage that same year, and then found his way to movie screens by 1921.

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Schreck as “Orlock”

The first real starting place, of course, is 1922’s unauthorized film adaptation, F.W. Murnau’s German expressionist silent film Nosferatufeaturing Max Schreck as Count Orlock. It is a super strange film that will give you the willies, all the more so because of its surreal settings, darkened edges, and jerky shutter speeds. As Ebert notes, “Its eerie power only increases with age. Watching it, we don’t think about screenplays or special effects. We think: This movie believes in vampires.” Then of course there is the film that Tod Browning directed for Universal, 1931’s Dracula, featuring Bela Lugosi in his career-defining role and the film that kicked off Universal’s decade of horror film dominance.

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Lugosi as Count Dracula

As perfect as Lugosi is in the film (a role he played on stage even though at the time he could barely speak English), to me the unsung heroes are actors Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye (who were also in the Frankenstein films) as Van Helsing and Renfield. (Lugosi and Sloan’s standoff scene, as Dracula comes ever-so-close to getting Van Helsing under his spell, is my favorite moment). Lugosi played Dracula many other times, of course, but don’t fail to catch him in Mark of the Vampire (1935) where he plays another vampire. Anyone that gives away the film’s twist should be shot (or bitten), but this one stands out mostly for some super creepy use of sound, with a strange, unexplained low buzz/humming sound that will go right down your spine every time you hear it.

The 1931 blockbuster Dracula was just the beginning of the Count’s never-ending life in films, and there are many that I like, most especially The Horror of Dracula (1958) from the UK’s Hammer Films and featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing (LOVE that ending). I even really enjoy the much-maligned Francis Ford Coppola film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), with its scene of the undead Lucy returning to her tomb (after a night of gorging on babies) sticking with me in my subsequent nightmares. (I’ll probably see her again tonight after thinking about it).

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Lucy’s return in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

I also enjoy more campy vampire films such as Roman Polanski’s 1967 The Fearless Vampire Killers (all the creepier because it features Sharon Tate only two years before her brutal murder), as well as 1980s classics Fright Night and especially The Lost Boys (wow, Corey Haim made this essay twice). Young Kiefer Sutherland was a sinister vampire in Lost Boys, and I love how effectively they used music from The Doors and Jim Morrison’s image.

But listen up, I am about to give you the best advice from this entire essay (consider it your reward for sticking with me this long). One night, set yourself down to watch Nosferatu and then follow it up immediately with Shadow of the Vampire (2001). Never heard of it? It stars John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, and Cary Elwes in a film with an incredible premise. It tells the story of the making of Nosferatu, with the brilliant premise that Max Schreck was so good playing a vampire because he actually was a vampire.

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Dafoe, playing Schreck, playing Orlock

The two films fit together so well that you’ll easily convince yourself that you’re watching a documentary about Nosferatu’s filming, with the impact of making both films stay with you for a long time afterwards. Just trust me on this one.

And so there you have it! My Top Ten “Creature Features!” All of these films are readily available and streaming on many services, from Netflix, to Prime, to Vudu, all with very reasonable rental rates or even sometimes free (Vudu has Nosferatu for a 2.99, and Shadow of the Vampire for free. You can thank me later). You’ve probably already seen most of these, but see them again and make a great Halloween night of it!

And remember,  “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”

Glory is back on the big screen (2 days only)! Glory Hallelujah!

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So today (July 21st, 2019) Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies are screening the movie Glory on the big screen once again in celebration of its 30th anniversary.  It will also play again on Wednesday, July 24th. Check at the Fathom Events website to see where it is playing in your town so that you don’t miss the chance to see this fantastic movie once again up on the big screen, especially if you didn’t catch it way back in 1989. EVERY movie is better on the big screen.

I have a special connection to this film, as in many ways it changed my life and set my career trajectory. Back in 2015, Christian McWhirter (historian at the Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum) asked me to write an essay about the movie for his website, Civil War Pop. I eagerly agreed, arguing that the movie was the best Civil War movie yet to be made.

I think it still is. Here’s the review I wrote in 2015 (with some slight edits):

Seeing Glory was a watershed event in my life and my career is largely a result of it. I bet I’m not the only one.

Growing up in Alabama, Confederate iconography surrounded me. Yet despite my love of history I was not especially drawn to the Civil War. I saw much of Roots (1977)MV5BNTg1Yjk5OGQtMDI1Yy00NjFiLTkwZjctNTMwM2ExNDg4NDhjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTA4NzY1MzY@-1._V1_UY268_CR0,0,182,268_AL_.jpg when it originally aired, but I was just a kid.  As a young teen, the miniseries The Blue and the Gray (1982) and North and South (1985) both sparked a bit of curiosity in the Civil War, but did not lead to a sustained interest. I watched Gone with the Wind (1939) on VHS when I was in high school and loved it, but mostly because I fell in love with Vivian Leigh (I still am).

I understood the South’s desire to maintain slavery caused the Civil War. (Yes, it is possible to have learned that even in an Alabama public school in the ’70s and ’80s.) Still, that meant little to me. Despite my exposure to Roots, I reflected little on the injustice and evils of slavery. What little interest I had in the Civil War involved the South’s valiant struggle against great odds, my Confederate ancestors, and the heroic example of Robert E. Lee.

But Glory changed all that.

In 1985 (around the time I fell in love with Vivian and Patrick Swayze was breaking hearts in North and South), acclaimed producer Freddie Fields and screenwriter Kevin Jarre were on business in Boston. Shaw-Memorial.jpgThe story goes that they stumbled upon the magnificent Augustus Saint-Gaudens bronze relief monument that was dedicated in 1897 on the Boston Commons to honor Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first regiment of black troops raised from a northern state. Its stunning depiction of the regiment marching off to war captivated the two men, and both expressed surprise that blacks had fought in the Civil War.

We can forgive their reaction. This was a time when popular culture had long-since forgotten black Union soldiers. Perhaps the most indelible images many had of African Americans in the Civil War at all were the slaves depicted in Gone with the Wind. Despite the war’s liberation possibilities, Mammy, Pork, and Prissy loyally serve Scarlett, and Big Sam is shown going off with other slaves to dig Confederate fortifications, promising to stop the Yankees.

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Gone with the Wind’s “loyal slaves”

These scenes engrained the Lost Cause depiction of “faithful” wartime slaves into America’s collective memory. Thus, Jarre and Fields were hardly alone in their ignorance as they viewed the monument.

Besides the stunning sculpture, Saint-Gaudens’s masterpiece includes a long inscription providing a broad overview of Shaw and the regiment’s sacrifices, obstacles, and legacy. If you’ve seen it, you know that it is practically an outline of what became Glory. Jarre and Fields immediately saw the potential for a great film from a largely unknown story.

Others were involved in getting the film made. One was Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, who’d written a book on the monument and grown up knowing members of Shaw’s family.  Kirstein’s work was heavily indebted to Peter Burchard’s regimental history, One Gallant Rush (1965)Soon, Jarre, Fields, Kirstein, and Burchard collaborated. Jarre wrote the original screenplay, and Tri-Star Pictures (a new studio that pooled the resources of Columbia, CBS, and HBO) committed to the project.

The original script focused largely on depicting a transformation in Shaw. Early scenes painted him as indifferent to abolitionism despite being the son of prominent and wealthy abolitionists. (This is only slightly inaccurate.

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The real Robert G. Shaw

As a young and handsome man, Shaw had many other interests besides abolitionism, and thus he came across as indifferent in comparison to his parents.) Providing more background on Shaw, the script featured a ridiculous encounter with John Brown in which the zealot castigated him for his lack of abolitionist fervor. Thankfully, Peter Burchard convinced Jarre to dump such scenes, focusing a bit less on Shaw.

The result fit the formula of most war films (meet the soldiers, see them bond through training, watch them fight), complete with a stereotypically diverse group of comrades played by such gifted actors as Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher. Besides Shaw, the men are composite characters, which is frustrating since the regiment contained individuals who’s lives Jarre could’ve easily researched: Frederick Douglass’s two sons and Medal of Honor winner William H. Carney, for example.

It’s also typical in that although largely an African-American story, it places a white hero (Matthew Broderick’s Shaw) at the center, which sadly was standard practice for Hollywood’s historical epics until recent movies like Selma and 12 Years a Slave. Yet if not for Burchard’s script intervention, it could have been worse. Further, without the Shaw focus, in the 1980s it would have been near impossible to find a major studio to produce the film. It is also undeniable that Shaw’s leadership was important to the regiment’s success.

The film’s biggest inaccuracy is that it depicts the regiment as comprised mostly of fugitive slaves, while in truth 80% of the men were northern free blacks.morganfreemanglory.jpg Yet this too is pardonable, because the film tells a larger story than just that of the 54th. It is about all African American men that served in the United States army during the Civil War, a large percentage of which had fled from slavery.

Another distortion is the whipping scene. While it’s true that Shaw insisted on strict discipline and meted out harsh punishments, the character Trip’s AWOL expedition to find shoes would not have involved flogging—a punishment that was outlawed by that time.

However, the scene is one of the film’s best punches, teaching an important historical lesson. Trip (Denzel Washington) has his back exposed, revealing horrific scars indicating a lifetime of resistance to master control, and yet also reminding audiences of slavery’s brutality. He then haughtily flips off his shirt, eyes Shaw and spits defiantly, and manfully readies himself for the blows. As the lashes are laid on, director Edward Zwick’s camera slowly zooms on Trip’s face and we watch in agony as he remains defiant even as each stroke takes an increasingly painful toil. Glory1.jpg When this hardened and resistant man finally breaks, it’s in the form of a quivering face and a tear sliding down his cheek.  The whole scene conveys more about slave resistance than we’ve seen even in more recent films. (It’s also one of the most brilliant scenes by an actor using only his face, and I believe it alone won Washington his first Oscar).

There are several other forgivable inaccuracies, but as a whole the film is solid history.  It becomes clear that at a time when few whites believed that blacks could be effective soldiers, Shaw was intent on proving them wrong by taking the 54th’s training seriously. Glory accurately reveals that if captured, the soldiers risked enslavement, and the officers risked a death sentence, yet they heroically remained committed. As seen in the movie, Shaw was impressed by how quickly and readily the men learned, and his respect for them grew accordingly. The film reveals the racism the men encountered from white northern soldiers and a Congress that denied them full pay. Yet, many white soldiers’ opinions about black soldiers evolved during the war, a dynamic captured well in one particularly moving scene near the end of the film.

It’s here in the third act that Glory is the most impressive, as the men are finally allowed in combat. The night before their largest battle, we watch the men in a religious gathering, and it’s a moving and particularly accurate depiction of slave “shout” songs and worship. It is also true that Shaw sensed his impending death, and yet was focused on what his regiment’s actions could accomplish for the reputation of black soldiers and their race. glory-clip.pngThe final battle scene is stunning and largely true to eyewitness accounts of the attack on Fort Wagner, including Shaw’s last moments.

I was unaware of all these accuracies when I saw it as a college student in 1989, I was just engrossed in a great movie that hooked me immediately with its realistic depiction of Antietam. Yet as I sat in the theater, something slowly changed in me. I recall fighting my own tears during the whipping scene and thinking “there was something bigger going on in that war than the heroics of Lee’s army.” My heart soared when Morgan Freeman announced proudly, “we runaway slaves, but we come back fighting men!”

I still can’t watch the movie without getting emotional during the religious shout when Trip says, “We men, ain’t we? We men.” For me, this is the climax of Glory, and what the whole damn thing is about: men fighting against slavery, racism, and a culture (both North and South) that insisted they were less than human, fit only for manual labor, and not deserving of citizenship. No, they demonstrated by their actions, they were men, willing to “go down, standing up” against their oppressors. It’s powerful stuff.

The gut-wrenchingly realistic and beautifully filmed final battle is more the movie’s coda than its climax. Yet it caused the moment when I knew that my perception of the Civil War had been forever altered. When the rebel flag came up over Fort Wagner indicating that the northern attack had failed, I palpably felt my heart sink in pain. From that moment, my attitude about the Confederacy changed. The good guys had not won that day.

After seeing the film, the Civil War became my passion. I devoured the works of Shelby Foote, James McPherson, and Bruce Catton, but was always drawn back to the African-American perspective of the war as a fight for freedom and citizenship rights. Soon after, I became a ranger at Richmond National Battlefield Park, working on the battlefields of the Peninsula Campaign. 519A7jBXE9L-1._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThis experience, combined with my interest in black participation in the war, led to a graduate school seminar paper, a master’s thesis, a PhD dissertation, and ultimately my book, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation (which I am proud to say won the Wiley Silver Award–now if I could just get a filmmaker interested in it).

But I’m not alone. Due in part to the fact that Glory sparked popular interest in African-American soldiers, scholars have dug deep in the archives and explored many angles of the black Civil War experience, black reenactors have multiplied and educated the public, monuments have been dedicated, and there is now an African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in DC.footer-gate-img-302x195.jpg Few today would be surprised to discover that African Americans were in the Civil War. We’ve become generally aware that freedom was not bestowed on blacks, they fought and died for it.

There are other historians with similar stories as mine, and it’s testament to the power of popular and pubic history. A monument inspired the filmmakers, and their resulting movie caused a shift in historiography (few can make such a claim). Hollywood often gets history wrong, and this film has significant flaws. But Glory inspired a generation of historians, got us asking different questions, and thus is still the best Civil War movie ever made.

Additional Dispatches:

* The film depicts Shaw’s acceptance of command of the 54th as a quick decision with only slight hesitance. In fact, he originally turned down the offer, but changed his mind after weeks of reflection.

* Completely missing is that just before going off to war with the 54th, Shaw quickly married his fiancée despite his mother’s objections. He did so largely because he felt that given the risk of what would happen to him if captured, he would not survive the war.

* Frederick Douglass is depicted in a very brief moment near the start of the film in a scene that does little justice to the role he played in the recruitment of the 54th and the sacrifice he made in sending his two sons off to war in the regiment.

* The movie’s characterization of Colonel James Montgomery is a bit unfair, but the scene of his burning of Darien, Georgia, is accurate, including his sadistic promise to eliminate secessionists “like the Jews of old.” The line is as recorded in Shaw’s personal letters.

* Medal of Honor winner William H. Carney won the award for his gallantry in bringing the American flag back from the doomed attack on Wagner.  As noted, he’s not a character in the film, but during the thick of the battle scene, there is a quick shot of a soldier standing defiantly on the fort’s wall waving the flag. I like to think it’s Carney.

* The film shows a group of reporters gathered on a knoll to get the “best seat in the house” to view the attack on Wagner. This is accurate, and it’s clear the filmmakers used much of the reporters’ eyewitness details in staging the battle scene, making it all the more meaningful when Shaw tells one of them, “if I should fall, remember what you see here.”

* A fair criticism of the film is that it appears that the entire 54th was destroyed at Wagner. In truth, they continued their service until the end of the war, winning more fame at the Battle of Olustee.

* Does it mention slavery? Obviously so. As indicated above, the whipping scene says much about the institution’s brutality and slave resistance, and the religious shout meeting is highly accurate and reveals much about slave survival tactics.

I Taught a Class on Lincoln, Here’s What He Taught Me

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For years, University of Alabama Associate Professor Lawrence F. Kohl (author of the brilliant and historiographically important The Politics of Individualism)  taught a popular class on the life of Abraham Lincoln as an intense, three week, upper level undergrad course every May. When he retired, one of his former students, Rachel K. Deale, took it over for one summer before becoming an Assistant Professor at Barton College. When she left, I was determined to keep the unique class going.

Turns out it was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my 20+ years of college teaching. It rejuvenated me.

I’ve always loved my job and wake up every morning excited to get to do it (yes, I know I’m lucky). But this course was special. Like Dr. Deale, I chose to teach it as a full monthScreen Shot 2019-07-17 at 3.09.24 PM.png course in June, meeting for one hour and 45 minutes every day of the week. That made for a busy month, but an extremely fun one hanging out with Abe and the students (mostly history majors).

The prep work for any course you’ve not taught before can be intense, but especially when it meets every day of the week. I wrote lectures and built image-heavy Powerpoints the night before delivering them, all while keeping up with the reading schedule assigned to my students and quizzing them on it.

I’m confident I taught the students many things about our 16th president and his era that they didn’t know and that will stay with them. Sticking mostly to Kohl’s tried-and-true course outline helped me craft lectures that I feel worked well and kept students engaged in classroom discussions, shedding light on Antebellum and Civil War America, as well as the ways Lincoln’s life prepared him for the role of our leader during America’s most divisive time.

I did alter and add to Kohl’s basic structure, including the role that public history sites, monuments, and movies have played in shaping how Americans have remembered and mythologized Lincoln. We also read about and discussed the differing ways Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon and his White House secretaries (Nicolay and Hay) shaped the memory and historiography of Lincoln.

We also had “Lincoln in the News” assignments (a variation on an assignment I have in my survey courses), requiring students to find and analyze current news stories demonstrating how Abe’s legacy and myth are often used by modern politicians and pundits for both liberal and conservative agendas. We considered how and why the Lincoln myth causes politicians of all stripes to tie their ideologies to his. This allowed for a bit of memory history, but also a discussion of the dangers of “cherry picking” primary source evidence by both historians and others looking for a usable past.  (Ironically, Lincoln himself did this when tying his views against the expansion of slavery to the views of the Founders).

In short, although using a narrative approach to the course (each day I essentially told stories about his life), my students and I accomplished more than just learning basic facts about Lincoln. Besides history, we dealt with public history, memory, historiography, and how historians use and misuse primary sources —all within a narrative framework.  Abe himself would have appreciated the use of personal stories as a means of painlessly pulling my audience into considering more complex themes and concepts.

Thus one of the things the class taught me was the usefulness of a biography course. The students stayed engaged as we followed his narrative. Tracing the personal developments in his life, I asked students to consider how those things shaped his career, political beliefs, and perceptions of the events of his time. JKNCVgY.jpg

We all love the juicy and personal details of famous lives, but perhaps this is even more true for a generation that’s grown up watching reality TV. It seems my students’ fascination with Lincoln’s personal life helped keep them engaged as we drifted into those discussions of memory, public history, and historiography, and as they read and analyzed his own writings.

Of course these are the same reasons that biographical books are so effective as a lens for examining a particular historical era, but my experience teaching the Lincoln course convinces me that history departments should consider offering an array of biography courses. It might just be one way we can start attracting more students to upper level history classes, and thus to win back the number of  history majors the field has lost lately.

If you’re a professor or teacher, I encourage you to think about historical figures you’d love to teach a course on and then do it! I believe students might more eagerly sign up for a course on Joan of Arc than they would the 100 Years War, or one on Ronald Reagan more readily than a class on Post-WWII America. How about Elizabeth I instead of Tudor England? Frederick Douglass instead of Antebellum Slavery?

But Lincoln showed me much more than just the advantages of teaching history through biography.

When planning, I intended to focus on Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery. For this reason I chose Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery as my main text.51CRIqJBIcL.jpg On our first day I made clear that students should pay attention to Lincoln’s evolution in regards to slavery and race. By the end of the course, however, following this theme brought me to a realization I had not anticipated.

As we know, judged by the standards of our time Lincoln was racist. But historians often stress that from the perspective of his time he held fairly progressive ideas about African Americans and slavery, and those sentiments evolved over the course of his life, especially during the war. A man once holding views about racial inferiority that were fairly consistent with that of other whites of his time eventually became the first president to openly call for suffrage rights for at least some categories of African Americans (and it cost him his life) and perhaps would have eventually pushed for more than just that.

As Frederick Douglass pointed out in his speech at the dedication of the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument, Lincoln’s evolution was slow in the eyes of abolitionists and radical Republicans, but perhaps it was exactly the pace needed so that public opinion would grow to support emancipation and the 13th amendment. The war’s contingencies, and Lincoln’s responses to them, set and controlled that pace.

Using Foner and selected writings and speeches by Lincoln, I guided students thru Lincoln’s change and pace, showing how and why they happened. When discussing “cherry picking,” we noted how easily it is for people today with varying agendas to find Lincoln’s own words at different times in his life that they can use to “prove” differing points. 37f.png_large.png

Of course this is true with other historical figures, because people’s thoughts and opinions often change over time. That’s the nature of maturing and viewing the world through a larger lens of knowledge and experiences. This is just one reason that context is so important when using primary sources.

The first Lincoln writing we read was his 1832 announcement that he was running for state office. In it, Abe clearly delineates his Whig party political sentiments, but concludes by promising that if he were to one day “discover my opinions to be erroneous, I shall be ready to renounce them.”

A statement of open-mindedness like that is laudatory, and while over Lincoln’s life he clung to most of his core principles, he certainly proved willing to change his mind and evolve, not just in regards to his ideas about slavery and race, but also military strategy. I told my students I feel this was Lincoln’s true greatness; in an age when political partisanship ripped our nation apart, his willingness to change his views based on events, contingencies, and experiences is what saved the Union.

And yet, what struck me by the end of the course was that we often don’t allow our politicians to grow and evolve like that. How frequently do we criticize them for holding a position or beliefs years ago that seem at odds with their current ones or that are now contemptible? In an attempt at a “gotcha” moment, we criticize them for hypocrisy, or allege they only changed their mind out of political expediency. (Lincoln himself faced such criticisms).

Sadly, it seems to me, this plays at least some role in the partisanship preventing the compromise between parties that democracy requires. Why would a politician be swayed by debate or new realities if changing their mind or compromising their positions leads to ridicule and charges of hypocrisy by pundits and political rivals?

As a result, they don’t change their minds or obfuscate in an attempt to hide it when they do. They refuse to admit when they were wrong or refuse to compromise, and we get gridlock. Wouldn’t it be wiser to support politicians willing to renounce their opinions if they discover them to be erroneous, or allow them to evolve with the changing times? If we praise them for doing so, wouldn’t it actually encourage more open mindedness?

Yet in our current political environment it seems we only want politicians that unwaveringly stand firm to convictions, or that come out of the womb with fully formed values and beliefs that match with our current values and standards. Emancipation.jpg

Imagine if Lincoln had never changed his mind about slavery and race. He would have never used emancipation and black troops as a means of winning the war and would have continued to promote the colonization of African Americans outside the country. Had he not shifted on these positions, debatably he would have lost the war. Certainly he would have never promoted any form of black citizenship and would have been happy to see slavery die out over the course of a century or longer.

Thus had he been uncompromising and ideologically consistent to the last, I wonder how we would remember Abraham Lincoln today. He certainly would not be the “Great Emancipator,” and likely would have overseen the destruction of the Union rather than been its savior.

On the last part of our final exam I had students write a “self-reflective” essay in which they considered whether there was anything in Lincoln’s life they found “usable” in their own. The result was interesting, as students remarked on things as varied as Lincoln’s rags-to-riches background, his grief and depression, his leadership qualities, and the value of using simple and relatable language when addressing complex ideas and concepts. Happily, none agreed with labeling Lincoln the “Great Emancipator,” but most clearly demonstrated they understood the essential and crucial role he played in the complicated process and pace of emancipation.

And thus I consider the class to have been a great success, and I hope I’ll I continue to be able to teach it.  I learned some valuable things right along with my students, growing and improving as an educator and in my open-mindedness.

Thanks for the lesson, Mr. President.

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Visiting Richmond’s New American Civil War Museum

 

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Brand new American Civil War Museum, right next door to the National Park Service’s Richmond Battlefield Park Visitor’s Center (building on the left), at Richmond’s historic Tredegar Ironworks.

Back in May, I got to visit the new American Civil War Museum at the Tredegar Iron works. Like many of you, ever since it was announced the Museum of the Confederacy was joining forces and bringing their collection to the project, I’ve eagerly awaited the grand opening. So much so that I got there as soon as my teaching schedule allowed, which thankfully was only two weeks after they first opened the doors.

But really, I’ve been waiting even longer than that.  Fresh out of college I moved to Richmond in 1993 to get a masters degree at VCU and explore all of Virginia’s historic treasures. While the Commonwealth itself did not disappoint (and still doesn’t), I admit Richmond was a let down.

Monument Avenue’s Lost Cause statuary was impressive, of course, as was the White House and Museum of the Confederacy, and Hollywood Cemetery. But beyond that, the pickings were slim for a Civil War buff expecting a lot more, and wanting something that wasn’t steeped in the Lost Cause.

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The Lee Statue on the famous (now infamous?) Monument Avenue.

Even the Richmond National Battlefield Park was a disappointment, with its very outdated exhibits at the site of Chimborazo Hospital (and a film focused on the plight of a middle class white Richmond family during the war), and only small bits of preserved battlefield lands scattered around the eastern suburbs with minimal interpretation—-and that interpretation mainly focused on the Confederate perspective.

It was not the Richmond of which I’d daydreamed.

Fortunately, that began to change just as I arrived. I volunteered and then got a summer seasonal job with the park service, and over the next 8 years got to witness exciting and near constant changes at the park, as a really great staff of historians got more funding, installed more interpretive signs and trails in the park, acquired more land (they now have dang near all of Malvern Hill and Glendale, and an ever increasing amount of Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor), restored historic landscapes, and created a beautiful, cutting-edge visitor’s center in one of the remaining buildings of the historic Tredegar Ironworks.

Just as I left the city to return to Alabama to work on a PhD with Dr. George Rable, Richmond itself got in the updating game, cleaning up and restoring the historic canal walk on the river, repurposing crumbling old warehouses into modern apartments, and cleaning up the surrounding areas around the James River. Then the American Civil War Center opened up next door to the NPS visitor’s center at Tredegar.

The city had become much more of what I envisioned before going there, including now even a monument commemorating Lincoln’s triumphant visit to the city with his son just as the Capital of the Confederacy fell to Union forces.

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Tad & his dad in Richmond

Monument Avenue still lingers, but more inclusive stories are being told, with less Lost Cause distortions. There’s even interpretation of Richmond’s slave pens and markets.

And yet, something has still seemed missing. While the NPS center at Tredegar is great, it appropriately focuses on Richmond and the battlefields, and while their neighbor, the American Civil War Center, was telling a comprehensive story of the war in general, it was heavy on interpretation and light on relics.

Thus when it was announced that the museum was spending around 25 million to build a new, high tech, 28,500 square facility (much of it underground) in and around the Tredegar site, and that they would be incorporating relics from the Museum of the Confederacy, excitement was high that Richmond would now become THE premiere place for Civil War public history interpretation (as it should be).

So, does the museum live up to the high expectations and hype?

Well, yes, and no. Let’s just say this, it has enormous potential.

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Just inside the front doors.

First off, after walking through its beautiful entrance and lobby that encloses Tredegar ruins that were long exposed to the elements, and then past visually stunning enlargements of colorized war-time photographs (featuring a diverse cast of wartime faces), I was ready for an amazing visit.

Because of poor signage, however, it was difficult to figure out which door to walk into for the main exhibit gallery. I started to go in the “out” door, as did many others that I observed. That should be an easy fix though.

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Gallery entrance.

Once inside, I was surprised by how small the permanent exhibit space actually is. Having recently visited the two new Revolutionary War museums in Philadelphia and in Yorktown, I was perhaps expecting too much, as those facilities are huge and nicely spread out. This one takes you from 1861-1865 at comparatively warp speed.

Further, there was curiously little interpretation of the causes of the war, which was contrary to everything I expected considering all the hype about taking the war away from Lost Cause interpretation.

But here is the main problem: the museum is making great effort to tell a more inclusive and diverse narrative of the war, and the written interpretation does so. But the artifacts they have now are just not yet helping them tell that story.

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Solid interpretation. But unfortunately, few of the relics help tell this story

Yes, you won’t find many Civil War museums with an audio and visual presentation telling the story of an enslaved girl that was brutally whipped for allegedly poisoning her owner, or that displays slave shackles, or that interprets the post-war years by featuring a Reconstruction era KKK hood and garment.

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Not exactly a common site in a Civil war museum, though it should be.

The African American story, as well as the Union story, are both featured throughout the exhibits. There is also homefront and gendered history, but with few exceptions (like the ones just mentioned) the artifacts packed behind the glass cases are overwhelmingly the treasures from the old Museum of the Confederacy.

But Oh! What a collection it is! I won’t spoil it for you by naming too much, but you’ll be stunned at the personal wartime possessions on display that were owned by the pantheon of Confederate luminaries, from Jefferson Davis, to Lee, to Stonewall, to Jeb Stuart. (You know, all those dudes out there on Monument Avenue.)

Of course all this was on display at the old Museum of the Confederacy, but it makes it no less amazing to see them again, especially in this more inclusive context and in the new digs.  You’ll find yourself staring in awe at such things, seemingly tucked away in the corners.

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This display, for example, is a Stonewall Jackson fan’s dream come true.

Here’s a big tip: DO NOT rush through this museum. Read EVERY description of EVERY relic. What they have will blow your mind. Just one small example: the sword Lewis Armistead used to urge rebel soldiers forward into Union lines just as he was mortally wounded during “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg. But you’ll miss it and other jaw-dropping possessions if you aren’t paying attention.

And yet, as amazing as these things are, they are just not helping the museum to tell the story it strives to tell.

The battles themselves get shunted away to high tech electronic video boards that visitors can interact with, which is fine, I’d rather see visitors get out to the battlefields themselves if that is what they are looking for. But theoretically that means the museum should be focused on social and cultural history, and most of the interpretation is, but yet the most attention-grabbing relics are largely battle-related accouterment from southern soldiers and officers.

My guess is that the museum’s folks are aware of this problem, and that the acquisition of other relics must become their number one goal now that the space has been constructed and the doors open. (I hope they are aware of this auction, for example).  Having such stunning possessions from Lee, Jackson, and et. al, makes it all the more glaring that there is essentially nothing from Grant, Sherman, and Lincoln or etc. on display. What few Union relics are on display are related to POWs that were penned in Richmond’s warehouse prisons.

How nice would it be, for instance, to juxtapose the relics of Robert E. Lee, with those of Union General George Henry Thomas, contrasting the two Virginians and drawing attention to a southern white man that unlike Lee, refused to break his vow to the U.S. military to fight the constitution’s enemies, “both foreign and domestic.”

And there are precious fewer artifacts telling the African American perspective on the war. Don’t expect to see many rifles or other possessions carried by the USCTs that were among the city’s first liberators, for example. If you saw Harriet Tubman’s shawl at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, or Nat Turner’s bible there, you won’t find similar items here, despite the fact that the museum’s objectives and narrative would make those types of relics a perfect fit.

I really don’t want this to sound like a negative review, however. There is so much room for growth in this facility. Over time, I have no doubt that future acquisitions and perhaps loaned items will help the American Civil War Museum tell the story it is telling.

And I especially do not want to discourage anyone from visiting the museum in its current incarnation. On the contrary, go now and ASAP. I promise you will be awed by the facility’s location, design, and the amazing relics on display. And you’ll be impressed by its interpretation.

Let’s please give the American Civil War Museum all the support, encouragement, and positive “word-of-mouth” we can, as they are trying to tell important stories that will move Richmond, and us, even more away from the Lost Cause.

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Yes, that’s a rebel flag, but it is one that Tad Lincoln took home with him as a trophy after he and his father visited Richmond. How cool is that? Now THAT is the perfect context for displaying that thing.

 

On NPS Visitation & that Wall Street Journal article

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So, two weeks ago I was interviewed by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal doing a story on National Park Service visitation at Civil War battlefield sites. As you may know, I was a long-time seasonal ranger for the NPS, and my “former” status means I can talk freely with the press—something that current rangers can’t readily do.

Anyway, the premise of the article, as presented to me, was that in light of declining numbers, what should/could the NPS do to generate more interest in the parks?

During the phone interview, I gave the reporter a little bit of background, explaining that park visitation has spikes and subsequent declines, usually associated with cultural and pop-cultural events—the centennial celebrations in the early 60s, the popularity of Ken Burn’s Civil War series in the 80s, and the release of movies like 1989’s Glory and 1993’s Gettysburg, for examples.

Unfortunately, those spikes came at a time when the park service was still a bit stuck in the rut of “who shot who, and where” interpretation. Further, I theorized that because most of the Civil War parks are in the South, a lot of that surge was from southern whites.

Sadly, for varied and complex reasons, African Americans have been rare visitors to the park battlefield sites, I told the reporter,  not the least of which is because of the legacy of Jim Crow, as public parks in the South have not exactly been seen as welcoming to blacks. That problem persists—-if your parents didn’t take you to the parks, you’re not very likely to take your own kids.

gen-stonewall-jackson-1a.jpgAfrican Americans have also been largely excluded from the narratives told at these sites as well. When they did show up, they faced monuments making the defenders of slavery look like superheroes.

So, I theorized, the “base” (though far from all) of the visitation surges has been white southerners looking to the parks for narratives about where their ancestors fought and where they did sacrificial and glorious deeds.

However, since about the mid 90s, I told the reporter, the NPS has made efforts to broaden the narratives at the parks, telling more inclusive stories and focusing on more than just old school military history. Social, cultural, and political history has slowly but surely begun to be reflected in NPS interpretation, telling richer and more diverse stories that shed light on the war’s causes, contingencies, and enduring legacies. We’re just now reaching a flowering of this at NPS sites, but there’s still a long way to go, especially at those sites down here in the deep south.

The downside, however, is that these changes have been off-putting to many in that “base” of white southerners, who don’t want to come to the parks and be exposed to what they see as the national government’s (the winners) version of the story.

It is uncomfortable and upsetting to them to be told and/or reminded that great, great, grandpa fought for a government founded for the direct purpose of preserving slavery, or that the post-war activities of their ancestors tended to celebrate and rewrite the Confederacy’s struggle and purpose, as a means of recreating and perpetuating slavery and racial barriers in other forms.

8185141_g.jpg“No!” They insist, “States Rights! Heritage, not hate!”

That, I told the reporter, probably helps to explain (to at least some degree) why the numbers are currently down at NPS sites after the surge in the 80s and early 90s. These people are more comfortable visiting privately or locally owned Antebellum homes and sites that tell the story they want to hear—or just staying away from history sites altogether. The current debate over Confederate symbols has only exacerbated this dynamic.

I’ve seen proof of this in two ways recently. While visiting a locally funded battlefield site in North Carolina, I encountered a visitor’s center staffed by a man spewing the Lost Cause, chapter and verse, and criticizing those parks funded by state and federal money “because they want to make everything about slavery.” Secondly, just yesterday I saw a Facebook post in response to the Wall Street Journal article in which the writer declared he’d stopped going to parks “because the liberal academics have re-written the story.” Others shared similar sentiments, but with more vitriol.

So then, what is the solution? Should the parks abandon their new emphasis on telling more honest and inclusive history in order to get this base back to the parks? Heaven forbid!

Instead, I speculated to the reporter, the focus needs to be on broadening the base of people that come to the Civil War battlefield parks. Youth programs need more support and emphasis. The use of technology to enhance the visitor experience must continue to expand (new and high tech museums and apps, etc). Park interpreters must hone their skills and energetically look at different techniques for presenting more engaging tours.  Social media must continue to be utilized (and perhaps traditional advertising) to demonstrate the expanding focus of the parks’ interpretations.

And, I told the reporter, we need NEW monuments and memorials on the battlefields and elsewhere, that celebrate and honor the efforts of the extremely diverse cast of characters that shaped the war and its consequences.

Further, I speculated that we might be on the verge of another surge in visitation caused by pop-culture, as Spielberg and Dicaprio have a movie in the works about U.S. Grant, and other projects are coming (long overdue) that focus on Harriet Tubman and Robert SmallsTubmanMarkerPlantation_54_990x660.jpgThat so many history-related movies have done so well lately, is an indication to me that people are still fascinated and hungry to know more about the past. 

I concluded the interview with a very optimistic tone about the future of the parks, pointing out that I was at that moment sitting at an Antebellum site here in Tuscaloosa (not NPS) where there was an older white gentleman roaming around, but also several kids and two African American women, all of which were reading the interpretive signs.

Almost none of that made it into the article. I asked the reporter who else he’d interviewed, and he indicated he’d spoken with Peter Carmichael, Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. Knowing Pete well (we worked together long ago as seasonal rangers), I said “Oh! I bet he gave you some good stuff.” To which the reporter responded, “well, yeah sort of. He is also optimistic like you about the new technology.”

Pete’s interview didn’t even make it into the article.

I’m not sure why the reporter was focused on such a pessimistic assessment, but as a result the piece has gotten a lot of attention and spawned others with cynical tones, like this one, or this one from the right-wing The Federalist, both of which tie the problem to a decline in the teaching of history in public schools (an assertion that is debatable itself.)

There has also been some pushback from NPS folks. John Hennessy, National Park Service historian, for example, has done a great job on his Facebook page of challenging the very premise that the park’s numbers are down. (And personally, I think if the number of reenactments and reenactors are on the decline, that’s a good thing. But my thoughts on that are a whole other discussion). The awesome folks at Civil War Trails also assure us that “the known and recent stats are encouraging.”

I think we would be better served by articles from such high profile platforms like the Wall Street Journal focusing on the great strides the Park Service has taken and continues to take in broadening the stories they tell. A recent trip I took out to City Point, Virginia (Grant’s Headquarters during the last phase of the war), for example,  focused on the plantation there, its forms of slave resistance, and the very complex master/slave relationship there. Further, a recent trip out to South Carolina’s Fort Moutrie NPS site led to an encounter with this amazing interpretive sign:

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Man, I love this interpretation, especially that it concludes on an positive note (the sign is not NPS, but it is on NPS land). The NPS visitor’s center there also included displays on the Middle Passage.

So instead of throwing dirt on the grave of NPS Civil War Battlefield sites and pondering their demise, let’s focus on the transitional phase they are in now and support and champion the fantastic historians and curators they employ that are getting the story right, (especially because they often receive blowback from visitors that resent it).

Let’s also highly resolve to dedicate ourselves to helping the NPS spread the word about their mission in a way that broadens the demographics of their visitation, getting those numbers surging again. Shall we?

An historian’s review of The Highwaymen: “Did Robin Hood ever shoot a gas station attendant point blank in the head for four dollars and a tank of gas?”

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The line of dialogue used above in my title is from Netflix’s new original film, The Highwaymen, and says much about the corrective the film gives us about the two infamous outlaws, Bonnie & Clyde.

Disclaimer: I’m certainly not an expert on Bonnie & Clyde. Yet besides baseball history and film history, true crime was one of the first things I dabbled in when I was a kid just falling in love with history, and I remain a frequent reader of those topics today (antebellum and Civil War America are my fields of specialty). So while I have done no original research on Bonnie and Clyde, over the years I’ve taught about them, and especially their era, in my US history courses. As a cinema history buff, I also understand their place in film history.

I first saw the Arthur Penn directed Bonnie and Clyde on VHS as a teenager, and it immediately bothered me, even though I appreciated it as an excellent film. Without knowing anything about the true facts, I recognized who the real bad guys were.

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Dunaway and Beatty as the glamorized Bonnie and Clyde

Sure, it was made during the antihero, counterculture, stick-it-to-the man late 1960s (and spawned a new generation of director-as-auteur films and anti-establishment movies), but I saw it as a young teen in the conservative 80s and was as curious about the cops that hunted down the murderous duo as I was Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty’s sexy and charismatic depictions of the title characters.

When I did a little reading, I was angered by the depiction of Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, a  legendary law enforcer well before he tracked down Bonnie & Clyde. Played by Denver Pyle (soon to be Uncle Jesse on TV’s Dukes of Hazzard), the film portrays him (in completely invented scenes) as a petty man who engineers the duo’s deaths mainly out of spiteful vengeance because they publicly made him look like a bumbling idiot and fool.

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Pyle’s Hamer, ridiculed by the duo in a totally fabricated scene

He’s clearly the film’s bad guy, as the free-wheeling, deeply in love couple go on an exciting crime spree, staying one step ahead of the law, entertaining themselves and a country in the throes of the depression, before meeting a tragic Shakespearean-like ending.

This romanticized take on Bonnie & Clyde endures, a product of the film’s cultural power. Even a recent PBS documentary that tried to set the record straight relied on commentators that were clearly admirers of the outlaws and/or related to them. The effort to de-romanticize the couple was mainly an acknowledgement that their life on the run, living out of stolen cars and one step ahead of the law, was exhausting. Awww, poor things!  More recent, NBC’s Timeless did paint them as killers and Hamer as “a good man,” but dwelled mostly on how much in love the couple were, causing the show’s heroes to realize their own affection for each other. Aww, how sweet.

I’m certainly not the only one annoyed by the 1967 film’s impact. Frank Hamer’s family sued the movie’s producers in 1968, winning a hefty settlement, but the damage was done.  Legendary actor Robert Duvall (one of my all-time favs) has always made no secret of his disdain for the film, openly criticizing the acting as being over-the-top, but especially its treatment of Hamer and the Texas Rangers. And John Fusco, one of the producers and writer of this new movie, hated Bonnie and Clyde too.

Approaching Hamer Jr. for help and his blessing in making a corrective film, Fusco found the legendary lawmen’s son understandably leery of Hollywood, expressing outright hatred for Warren Beatty’s role in slandering his father, and he labeled the famous criminals “two pint-sized punks who weren’t worth the caps that were busted on them.”  Fusco was able to win Hamer Jr.’s cooperation, however, when convincing the lawman’s son that he agreed with those sentiments.

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The real Gault (above) and Hamer

The result was a script about Hamer and his ranger partner Maney Gault, garnering interest from Robert Redford and Paul Newman (wow, what a movie that would have made).

Unfortunately the project got tied up in Hollywood limbo, until now, with Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the Texas rangers that hunted and gunned down the pint sized punks. They’re no Redford and Newman, but they’re dang good replacements.

Unlike some historians, I am just fine when a film takes certain liberties with the facts if it serves a greater truth. For a tight two hour movie, events have to be contracted, some people and their actions have to be condensed into composite characters, action scenes have to be heightened. Further, dialogue has to be invented that gives background and fleshes out characters and thus sometimes has them speaking in ways they may not have actually spoken.

These things all-too-often annoy nit-picky historians that do not understand the craft and needs of the filmmaker, especially when it steps into their field of specialty. But if these liberties are done in a way that paints an overall picture and interpretation that is accurate (sadly not the case with the 1967 classic), I’m just fine with it.

This is definitely the case with The Highwaymen, as it sometimes plays fast and loose with the specifics, and yet does so in ways revealing historically accurate generalizations.  A perfect example is a scene in which our heroes (the rangers!) encounter their prey, fail to catch them because a crowd of the killers’ fans and admirers get in the way, resulting in a car chase.  Clyde then does some slick driving in a dusty open field that loses Hamer and Gault. This simply didn’t happen.

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The real Clyde Barrow posing with his car of choice, a Ford V-8

But the invented scene reveals historical truth: Bonnie and Clyde were cultural heroes to many at the time, he was damn good behind the wheel of a V-8 Ford, specialized in alluding the police, and often covered hundreds of miles in doing so.

Other liberties are taken. Maney Gault didn’t join Hamer until the later days of the chase, for example, but his presence throughout the film helps flesh out Hamer’s past and devotion to justice, and essentially becomes his inner conscience. While Hamer was chasing them, the Barrow Gang had two separate events in which they killed law enforcers. The details of the first one, the killing of two motorcycle cops in what are known as the “Grapevine” murders, are taken from eyewitness testimony that has been questioned. The second murder is fudged because the details are quicker to depict than the actual details would have been. Some scenes are complete inventions, but serve the purpose of showing the support the killers had from family, friends, and admirers, and the lengths to which law enforcement was willing to go in order to bag them.

But these liberties create a movie with a steady narrative flow, character development and drama, and yet still gives the audience a needed and accurate historical corrective. Bonnie and Clyde were bad people, committing hundreds of robberies (both large and petty) across many states and murdering 13 people (or possibly more), 9 of which were law enforcers.

In depression-era America they were viewed as modern-day Robin Hoods. But they definitely weren’t, as small-time mom-and-pop stores and isolated gas stations were their favorite targets, not the hated banks of the Great Depression, and they were not handing out to the poor.

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The most famous picture of these two sociopaths

The killers were extremely heavily armed (with military grade weapons like a BAR), making them a serious danger to even an experienced manhunter and killer like Hamer. Yet despite the help they got from family, friends, and admirers, Hamer chased them down using old fashioned methods, cutting deals, and setting up an ambush on an isolated rural backroad near Gibsland, Louisiana that brutally ended their sinful ways.

And he did so because of a devotion to the law and his anger that cop killers were being treated as heroes. These historically accurate broad truths are ably revealed in The Highwaymen.

Look, the film is no masterpiece, but the performances from the two famous leads carry it along nicely and give it punch. It isn’t the sexy and freewheeling 1967 film. Rather, it is appropriately dark and gritty. The Great Depression setting provides accurate and interesting visuals and the story is nicely situated within the era.

Admittedly, there is some weak dialogue (but some that is excellent), and one or two scenes feature moments that way too conveniently serve the narrative. This is not a complex film, although it surprisingly dwells on the psychological consequences of killing (even in the name of justice) in ways that most action films do not, featuring some good contemplative dialogue. In the end, it is an enjoyable, old fashioned movie, where the good and bad guys are clearly distinguished.

****Warning, spoilers ahead as I further address the film’s accuracy. If you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to jump now to the last two paragraphs****

Bonnie Parker is definitely depicted as one of the bad ones, and I can tell you now that many Bonnie and Clyde buffs/amateur historians are going to be miffed about it.

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She was clowning around in this pic, but make no mistake, this is no heroine

In The Highwaymen, she is just as involved in the shootings as Clyde, providing covering fire in shootouts and brutally offing a motorcycle cop as he lay disabled on the ground.

These facts are disputed, and many of her sympathizers point to the fact that under oath gang members absolved her of killings. Yet eyewitness testimony does exist that she did fire at law enforcement. Further, the “Grapevine killing” scene (the killing of two motorcycle cops that had stumbled upon the gang and thought they were stranded motorists) is based on the testimony of one witness that was the closest to the murders of several other witnesses, a farmer that claimed Bonnie delivered the coup de grace to one of the officers. Gaining his 15 minutes of fame, the farmer told his story over and over, even for newsreels, and some claim his details changed over time. This has led many to discredit his testimony,  embracing instead that of a married couple that were farther away with an obscured view and that said Bonnie didn’t shoot.

We’ll likely never know the truth for sure, but I am fine with the film going with the original witness, because people at the time believed it, Hamer believed it, the ballistics on the scene supports it, and it led to more public support for downing the duo. The scene therefore serves the greater purpose of painting Bonnie as equally guilty. Heck, even she didn’t try to deny it: shortly after the grapevine killings the gang killed another cop (depicted in the film) and shot and kidnapped yet another (left vague in the film) letting him go with Bonnie’s only request being that he tell the press (that had pinned her with one of the Grapevine killings) that she didn’t smoke cigars! Apparently, she felt that was more damaging to her public image than was being a cop killer.

But whether she pulled the trigger or not, make no mistake, Bonnie Parker was going along with hundreds of robberies, and running with and abetting (and bedding) a repeated murderer. She doesn’t deserve our sympathy, and by depicting her popping off the policemen, the movie makes that truth clear and palpable.

The other aspect of the film that requires the most scrutiny regarding accuracy is the set-up and carrying out of the famous last ambush. The six members of the posse (led by Hamer and including Gault, 2 Dallas deputies, and 2 local Louisiana officers) all told different stories.

How was it set up? The movie’s story is that Hamer and Gault predicted (based on the gang’s established pattern of going to a member’s home after each spree) that the killers would show up at the Louisiana home of the father of one of Clyde’s gang members, Henry Methvin.

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Woody and Costner in pursuit

Methvin’s father was then pressured to help set up the ambush if his son was spared the death penalty (and possibly all charges) in Texas (other states’s charges would still be in place). The ambush was then arranged as soon as Henry could slip free from the couple, as the group had an agreement that if they got separated they would meet up at (or possibly nearby) the Methvin place near Gibsland, Louisiana.

Is that actually how the deal went down?  It is possible that Methvin’s father made the initial contact with law enforcement, not the other way around. Further, was he a willing participant, as in the 1967 movie, or a reluctant or even forced one? Or might he not even been involved at all?  We will likely never know the exact details because Hamer was intent on keeping his methods secret, covering up details as much as possible and protecting sources.

Which is also the case with the ambush. In my mind, the big question is how the posse managed to get Barrow to slow down or even stop, as he normally pushed his stolen V-8 Fords on back country roads at top speeds. The generally accepted version is that they used Methvin’s father’s truck to slow Clyde down, placing it in the road as though it were broken down. But was the father also willingly out in the road as a decoy by his truck?

In the 1970s, one posse member claimed Methvin’s father was never a willing participant in the deal and that Hamer handcuffed him to a tree on the side of the road and then used his truck as the decoy. In the 1967 film version, he is a willing participant, but The Highwaymen plausibly splits the difference, having the father agree to the deal, but depicting Hamer as not trusting that he wouldn’t warn the killers, and thus forcing the father to be there with them on the side of the road (but as a decoy, not shackled to a tree).

After the car slowed or stopped, were Bonnie and Clyde offered a chance to put their hands up? All six guys told different stories. Why?  Some argue that the three groups distrusted and disliked each other, so they all told self -serving stories. Perhaps the differences were just a product of the natural phenomenon that different people will often see the same event in different ways, particularly if it was fast and violent. Personally,  I think it is a product of both those things, but also that Hamer swore them all to secrecy about what actually happened, because it is very likely the first shot was fired prematurely, without warning, before the killers even made a move.

Again, we will never know for sure what actually happened that morning, but the film depicts (in a scene filmed on the actual site of the real ambush) that a warning was given.

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The ambush site today. The film was shot here, though it required covering the road with dirt and bringing in foliage so that the woods appear closer to the road, as they were then.

Hamer himself delivers the demand of “hands up,” coming out into the road (VERY unlikely), followed by a few breathless moments of fear on both sides. Bonnie then makes a move for her weapon, leading to the excessively lethal barrage.

Yet once again, I am OK with this depiction, because the brief pause gives us the film’s first close-up of Bonnie and Clyde’s faces. Before that moment, we only see them briefly and usually from a distance (something some commentators have criticized). Yet the beauty of this decision is that once we see Hamer and Gault’s prey for the first time up close, we realize, as the two rangers must have, that these monsters were essentially just kids that went down a very wrong path, paying an appropriately heavy price for it.

(And yes, the scenes involving crazed souvenir hunters is accurate, with the reality being even more insane than is depicted).

Thus the film’s ending is shocking and somber, just as was the ending of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. But where that film wants us to feel sad for the tragic couple and angered by the brutal trap that was set from them, The Highwayman simply wants us to feel the tragedy of violence.

The ending is appropriately not rousing and triumphant, as our heroes literally ride off into the sunset. The jolting and somber finale makes the film’s point, as Bonnie and Clyde clearly understood, that those that live by the sword will die by the sword, and that the wages of sin are death.

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Actual photograph from moments after the slaughter

A quick response to Max Boot’s critique of historians. Aren’t retention and anti-intellectualism the real problems?

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Mr. Hand taught it to them, but what did they retain?

So an opinion piece by Max Boot appeared today in the Washington Post that has historians riled up and angry, venting and offering a corrective on Twitter and elsewhere.

The short of it: Boot argues Americans today don’t know the nation’s history very well, Trump’s election is an indication of that, and professional historians are somewhat to blame for the problem because they have turned away from more traditional and narrative history (“perversely” neglecting political, economic, and military history), and are not engaged with the public.

Here’s my humble and quick response:

First, there is not much proof today’s Americans are less educated about historical facts than they were in the past. Ironically, Boot criticizes the “Make America Great Again” slogan for its hearkening to a Golden Age that never existed. He is right, of course, but Boot is a little guilty of doing the same thing when he seemingly implies there was a Golden Age when Americans knew their history better than they do now.

Show me the empirical evidence of that and I’ll concede the point. Personally, I find my parent’s and grandparent’s generations to be in as much need of historical education as my students.

As for Trump’s election, historians TRIED to warn the public about him and his agenda, and on much the same things Boot points out; such as the dangerous isolationism and nationalism of “America First,” the lessons about tariffs from Smoot-Hawley, and his ignorance of the importance of NATO and free trade. We wrote blog posts, articles, opinion pieces (many in Boot’s own Washington Post), and even signed petitions, started Facebook pages (complete with videos), created podcasts, and engaged in Tweet-storms in a desperate attempt to reach the public before the election.

Further,  these and other public outreach activities hardly began or ended with the election, and more historians are involved in them now than ever. To say that professional historians are not publicly engaged shows a willful ignorance of just how active we are in both traditional and social media.

Yet the sad truth is there is only so much we can do when there is an anti-intellectual sentiment out there among many voters (which is not a new dynamic, but is now fostered and cultivated by the blowhards on Fox News, talk radio, and most recently, by Don Jr.’s rant about “loser” teachers) that holds that professional historians are all left wing “libtards” trying to brainwash an entire generation. If we stood against Trump, many felt, than voting for him seemed to them to be the right thing to do.

As to the last charge, that we have been neglecting political, economic, and military history in favor of an ever-narrowing focus on cultural, social, and gender history, that is a touchy subject within the profession creating riffs in history departments across the country. Boot’s assertion riled up historians because it touches a nerve.

However, while I agree much of the research that professional historians are engaged in nowadays has become increasingly microcosmic and esoteric (with shrinking usefulness in engaging the broader public), I refuse to accept that more traditional history and narrative history is not still done, and that it is somehow disappearing in the classroom, particularly in high school and survey-level history classes.

I teach at both a large research university and a small community college and have friends that teach at others and in high school, and I can assure you my colleagues are rightfully teaching cultural, social, and gender history (which even Boot acknowledges is a necessary corrective to much that has been taught in the past), right along with political, economic, and military history. EVERY DAY.

Boot’s assertion to the contrary has become a tired old critique that, in the words of my favorite 19th century phrase, has become “played out.”

Nevertheless, if we are honest with ourselves, Boot’s bigger point still remains; Americans are largely ignorant of history. So if this stuff IS getting taught every day, why don’t Americans seem to know it?

That many professionals emerge from graduate school as excellent researchers, but ill-prepared to be effective teachers, is without a doubt part of the problem.

But to me, the bigger problem is with how we grade and assess what students learn. Simply put, the way we are doing things assures only one thing: that students cram things into their short-term memory just long enough to do well on a test and a course . . . and then it is gone.

At some point in their lives, most Americans that have been through school or college have taken American history courses, they have read and/or been lectured on all the things we wish citizens knew about our history, and then proved on a test that they absorbed it.

Sadly, however, most seem to have not retained it.

So in the end, Boot is wrong, but he is right. Instead of getting defensive and angry, perhaps educators need to consider better strategies for how we test, assuring that our lessons actually get committed to our student’s long-term memories.

Personally, I have grappled with this for years in my own classes, and still have no good answer (although I often think final comprehensive oral exams for even undergrads– at the end of their four years– is perhaps a good idea).

Instead of blaming historians for things that are not true, and bemoaning a Golden Age of history education that never existed, I think we would all be better served if we spent more time asking the question, “why are students not retaining what they get taught about America’s history?,” and also figuring out how to combat the anti-intellectualism that is at the core of much of the public’s refusal to hear us out.

 

“They Shall Not Grow Old”—See it, Seriously. Just Do It.

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Today my mind is on the movies (as it frequently is). Did you notice that six out of the eight films nominated for Best Picture are based on history? (Roma, The Favourite, “BlacKkKlansman,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Vice,” and “Green Book.”) No one will ever be able to convince me that people are not interested in history, but think about the diversity in those films: Powerful white guys in the White House; A Mexican female housekeeper in the 70s; A gay rock star; A black jazz pianist and his white bodyguard traveling in the segregated south; Two female cousins vying for the affection of Queen Anne in the early 1700s; A black police detective that infiltrates the 1970s Klu Klux Klan.

That’s an impressive array of historical diversity.  Don’t forget I reviewed BlacKkKlansman back in the summer.  I don’t think it is the favorite to win, but it is also up for 5 total awards (including director for Spike Lee and supporting actor for Adam Driver). It is a powerful film.

But the movie I’m posting about today is the WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old from Peter Jackson. It may have came and went from your local theater without you ever realizing it, as it was presented in December and mid-January as a Fathom Event (which puts limited-run programs into theaters, such as classic Hollywood movies, concerts, operas, and Broadway musicals). It broke records during its first two-day run, so they brought it back for two more in January (which is when I caught it).

Thankfully, both appearances of the documentary did so well that they’ve decided to open it up on February 1st in 500 theaters in 150 markets. I can’t encourage you enough to see it if it comes to a theater near you (and if not, consider a road trip) . Rearrange your schedule if you have to, but DO NOT MISS IT.

It uses the Imperial War Museum’s collection of WWI footage, along with interviews with veterans that were done by the BBC in the 1960s. There are no historians or a narrator, just the vets themselves, telling the story of their experiences; training, arriving and living on the Western Front, going over the top, dying or arriving at the hospital, and then going home. There is no thesis or agenda apart from hearing and seeing the British soldiers themselves.

What makes it so spectacular, however, is what Jackson has done with the film footage and the sound. I really don’t want to tell you much because, honestly, it really is just too difficult to explain the power of this film until you see it for yourself.

It is deceptively simple just to tell you that he corrected the original speeds of the footage, colorized it, put it into 3D, and added a meticulously accurate soundtrack (so much so that they had lip readers decipher what the soldiers were saying, then hired voice actors from the same geographic regions as the soldiers on screen so that the accents would be accurate). But really, that just doesn’t even come close to explaining the experience of seeing what Jackson has done with this footage. (Stick around after the credits for Jackson’s explanation of how it was all done).

Do not wait to see this at home on DVD or Blu Ray. The big screen and the 3D are key to its visual power (and I tend to loathe 3D). Those things will be lost at home, no matter how big your screen is.

The first twenty minutes or so of the movie saves its punch for when the troops arrive in the trenches. At that point, Jackson pulls you into the trenches in a way that is stupefying and mesmerizing.

Again, it really can’t be described. Just see it. It is nothing short of perhaps the most visually stunning experience I have ever had in a movie theater.

Seriously.

In the end, however, what you will be struck with the most is the way that Jackson uses the faces of the soldiers to tell their story. The images that are most imbedded in my brain are of men just minutes away from going “over-the-top” to what was certain death. You can see in their faces that they know it is their last moments on earth, and they are scared to death.

No movie or documentary has ever presented the true face of war as stunningly as They Shall Not Grow Old. We are looking at men about to die on the Western Front, but they just as easily could be men moments from dying in any war.

Jackson has truly captured the face of battle.

When it was over, I couldn’t help but feel the film is perhaps as powerful to look at in our times as it was for 1862 New York audiences to have seen Matthew Brady’s “Dead of Antietam” for the first time.

You know that famous quote from a New York Times reviewer: “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

Well, that’s pretty much what Jackson has done.

Let me say it one last time as emphatically as I can:

DO NOT MISS THE FILM IN THE THEATER AND IN 3D.

Just trust me.

Public History, the NPS, and the Shutdown

During the partial government shutdown I wrote a little piece for the Daily Beast about the impact Trump’s war for his wall was having on the public historians that work for the National Park Service. Based on interviews I did via email with several rangers, their frustrated voices came through loud and clear.

In many ways, however, I consider the piece a small love letter to the work they do at the sites of our nation’s most important historic events. When I was first started falling in love with history and visiting those sites, the rangers and their tours were a great inspiration to me. I eventually become a seasonal park ranger at the Richmond National Battlefield Park back in the 90s, and still cherish those years of working with such great historians to bring the importance of the sites and the Civil War to the public. There are many days in which I wish I was still doing it.

Anyway, during the shutdown, my thoughts were mostly with them because I knew not only about their financial sacrifices, but how much it was hurting them to not be able to do a job they dearly love. I am happy they are back on the job (for now), and let’s hope the government will no longer hold federal employees and their important jobs as hostages during a political fight.

 

An Historian’s Review of “On the Basis of Sex”

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First a disclaimer: While I have a PhD in US history and teach 20th century history every semester, I do not specialize in legal history, women’s rights, the career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or even modern U.S. history.  I’m far from an expert on those topics. That said, I found the historical accuracy of the new biopic On the Basis of Sex to be praiseworthy, but better still, it’s just a darn good movie that reminds us that most of our rights have come from people fighting for more than what our Founding Fathers intended.

I’ve been excited about seeing the film since the trailers started running several months ago, but alas my college town is not one of the chosen ones when films open in “select cities.” It was only this past week that it went nationwide, so I joined a couple of my fellow historians and caught it on a Saturday night when my local mutliplex was bustling with a large crowd of diverse filmgoers. Most were there to see the latest action flicks, comedies, and family films, of course,  but I was pleasantly surprised by both the number of people there to see On the Basis of Sex, as well as the diversity in the audience.  Excellent. Different races, genders, and ages were represented, and I even had two families with young children sitting behind me.  While that wouldn’t be surprising in a big budget action film, it was encouraging to see for a history film about a modern feminist icon.

On the Basis of Sex tells the story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s path toward becoming one of the most successful legal champions of gender equality, from her early days in law school to one of her first successful cases before a circuit court.

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1 of only 9 women in her 1956 Harvard class of over 500

Along the way, we learn  the important role her husband played in her career (It’s nice to see a flip on the normal Hollywood script of a male protagonist with a doting and supportive wife. Here it’s the other way around), but more importantly, her legal battle plan for taking on sex discrimination.

A little history: Ruth Bader Ginsburg understood that Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP’s success in Brown V. Board of Education came because the building blocks of legal precedents were in place before that landmark decision. The problem in the war against sex discrimination, however, was that when Ginsburg started her fight, the legal precedents did not exist. What did exist, however, were hundreds of laws nationwide that differentiated between the sexes, many of which restricted the rights of women.

Lawyers like Dorothy Kenyon and Pauli Murray had argued for gender equality in the past, but had been unsuccessful, Ginsburg felt, because America’s culture was not ready for it. As she has noted, “the courts are seldom out in front of social change.”

Yet by the late 60s and early 70s, a cultural revolution had begun to bring about a social change for women, so Ginsburg set about to build the legal precedents for gender equality, one case at a time.

“I [saw] myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days,” she explained in the recent critically acclaimed documentary, RBG, “because the judges didn’t think sex discrimination existed.” This required her to hone a non-confrontational yet educational argumentative style that served her well, all the way to her current seat on the Supreme Court.  In lower courts and often before the Supreme Court in the 1970s, she successfully built a string of legal precedents which interpreted the 14th amendment as providing equal protection for citizens regardless of gender.

“My expectation,” she explained in RBG, “was that I would repeat that argument maybe half a dozen times. I didn’t expect it to happen in one fell swoop. I think generally in our society, real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”

On the Basis of Sex focuses on just one of the first steps, Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. In it, Ginsburg and the A.C.L.U. did something seemingly ironic, taking on the case of a gentlemen for whom the law discriminated against in a tax-deduction law because he was a man.

Though not in the film, this case was not the only time Ginsburg used discrimination against men to build legal precedent for the unconstitutionality of sex discrimination (one case even included some frat bros challenging a law that allowed women to buy beer at a younger age than men!). This was not reverse psychology, it was constructing important legal building blocks that challenged gender-based discrimination.

On the Basis of Sex is an entertaining film that works because of a uniformly fine cast with particularly solid performances from Felicity Jone as Ruth, and Armie Hammer as her husband Martin. They make for a very attractive couple, which was true of the real life Ginsburgs.

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But so too were the real Martin and Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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Hammer & Jones, a good looking pair.

The set designs and wardrobes are subtly authentic (they don’t over-the-top scream “This is the 50s. This is the 60s! This is the 70s!” as we get in so many other films and shows), the story pacing feels just right, and the dialogue sounds true-to-life. The film also works on several levels; as love story, social commentary, and courtroom drama.

 

So is it accurate?

Warning: Some spoilers coming next. You might want to see the film before proceeding—

As with most history movies, the film has to simplify and condense some elements in order to suit the needs of a well-paced and dramatic two-hour story (something that all-too-often annoys historians as they nit-pick a film’s accuracy). In this case, most of these factual distortions are pretty minor (for examples, Ruth didn’t actually spur-of-the moment fly out to Denver to meet her client, the ACLU was not as reluctant to take the case as portrayed, there was never a moot court that led them to decide on splitting the argumentation between the husband and wife).

The biggest bending of the facts are understandable and forgivable. In truth, Dorothy Kenyon and Pauli Murray

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Ginsburg & daughter meet with Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates).

were not involved in the case as depicted in the film (the above mentioned distortions were created for the purpose of getting them in the story). In real life, their names were added to the legal brief as a show of respect and acknowledgement of their pioneering work, and thus their additions in the movie come from the same honorable motive.

Further, the climactic court room scene before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals features a dramatic moment when Ginsburg gets a bit rattled by the challenging questions she received from the circuit justices. This requires her to buck up her resolve and find her voice, dramatically winning over the court during rebuttals. That’s all hogwash, as Ginsburg never actually faced that moment of weakness, she took control of the proceedings with her powerful argumentation from the outset.

Still, we can forgive the screenplay’s punching up of the drama (it was written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman), as it gives the film some tension-filled moments that ramp up the triumphant tone of the ultimate victory. I’m ok with that, it’s a movie that has to sell tickets. Unlike some historians, I sympathize with films taking a little dramatic license, as long as the the greater historical truth is told. That’s very true in the case of On the Basis of Sex.

The climactic moment in the film prominently features a quote that shows up in the movie’s commercials and trailers, and it seemingly challenges the assertion that On the Basis of Sex is accurate. In response to a judge’s assertion that the word “woman” does not appear in the Constitution, Ginsburg dramatically reminds the court, “nor does the word freedom.”

on-the-basis-of-sex-felicity-jones.jpg

“Nor does the word ‘freedom,’ your honor.”

A knee-jerk reaction might be to point out that it DOES appear in the Bill of Rights, certainly that makes it in the Constitution.

Uh oh! Major error?

But the scene requires context. The unamended version of the Constitution in fact does not include “freedom.” Thus Ginsburg was reminding the court of something I try to remind my students of every semester. Our Constitution is not restricted by its framer’s values. It can, and has been amended to extend its rights and protections to people that our founders excluded.

Praise be! Otherwise, as I tell my students, many African Americans would still be legally enslaved, women would have few rights, and only white male landholders would have the right to vote!

Thus the line is not inaccurate and is in fact a powerful reminder that part of the story of our nation’s history has been the extension of rights beyond original intent.

While the movie ends there, the Moritz victory led to Ginsburg’s other 1970s victories in bigger and more important cases, most immediately Reed v. Reed (which the film shows Ginsburg writing the legal brief for, building on the Moritz case’s argumentation). Ending the film with this early triumph provides it with an appropriate running time and victorious moment, yet misses the challenges Ginsburg and the women’s right movement faced in the 1970s from conservative forces like Phyllis Schlafly.

The film’s focus also allows it to sidestep Ginsburg’s sometimes controversial thoughts on Roe v. Wade. While certainly not an opponent of the decision, she’s famously expressed the belief that grounding its argumentation in the right to privacy, rather than as a matter of equal protection, made it a questionable ruling without enough precedent to make it more firm. “Doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped,” she has argued, may prove unstable.” Further, “Roe v. Wade sparked public opposition and academic criticism, in part, I believe, because the Court ventured too far in the change it ordered and presented an incomplete justification for its action.”

These sentiments (as well as a more moderate reputation she earned while on the DC Circuit Court–voting more with Republican appointees than Democrats and straying little from precedent) are part of the reason why many feminist groups initially privately opposed Ginsburg’s nomination for the Supreme Court.

But will the ongoing shift in the court’s make-up ultimately prove Ginsburg to have been correct about Roe v. Wade? Should it have been based more firmly on the precedents she established?

Also in light of current events, another thing that struck me about On the Basis of Sex stems from it reminding us in the ending titles that Ginsburg was confirmed by the Senate, 96-3. This seems most remarkable now, and it is, especially considering she was a Clinton appointee. Of course her confirmation was a breath of fresh air that the nation needed after the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill tawdriness, and that likely played a role in the vote count.

And yet the tally still tells us much about how our current polarization has unfortunately politicized our court, certainly not what the Founders intended for it. During Ginsburg’s confirmation hearing, Senator Orrin Hatch told her, “I disagree with you on a number of things, and I’m sure you disagree with me. But that isn’t the issue, is it? And frankly, I admire you. You’ve earned the right, in my opinion, to be on the Supreme Court.”

Can you imagine Hatch or very many other senators saying something like that now?

Anyway, go see On the Basis of Sex, it is an accurate and timely reminder that not all of our nation’s heroes have been men, that protests and cultural revolutions often have to precede changes to the law, and that the expansion of rights in this country has had to be fought for by those wiling to buck the system established by our Founding Fathers.

Twitter: @GlennBrasher