Or, The New American Civil War Film

Glory and Dances With Wolves, unlike previous Civil War films, are above all, lyric odes to liberal guilt.

Westerns and films like Gone With the Wind simply dove headlong into inaccuracy, either writing people of color out of the picture entirely or showing them as happy with their lot and de-politicizing their nineteenth-century lives. The Civil War wasn't about slavery at all, they claim: it was about standing up to those Northern bullies to preserve chivalry. But after some hundred years of civil rights activism, Hollywood can no longer do that.

Instead, another rewrite of American history is done. Now America wasn't founded by white men all alone in Paradise, as previously claimed: it was forged by nice white men, who understood that Racism Is Wrong, even in 1863, and fought openly against it. We now have movies that recognize racism's role in American history, movies which recognize the roles of different groups of color in America and the ways in which key historical events were radically different for them. But is this really the perfect new world that Kevin Costner dreams of?

This brave new vision of a multicultural America crumbles because it is still centered around white men. Previously, the message taught in movies and schools was that we had a nation of white men who created all our history. Now the school system has become a little more conscious of diversity, and therefore the historical dramas must follow along if they want to seem accurate. It may simply be appropriate that the new message of these dramas is that we were a nation of white men being really nice to people of color in the face of a few mean racists: this message at least respects what most of us white people want to believe about ourselves and our history. And it has about as much truth to it as does the history we currently teach - more, but not enough.

Consider the protagonists of Glory and Dances With Wolves. Despite advertising themselves somewhat desperately as being the first true film histories of their respective ethnic groups, both films center around white men. In fact, on many levels, Glory is not a film about black men in the Civil War, but about the struggles of one liberal upper-class white man to understand black men and be accepted by them.

The same themes prevail in Dances With Wolves, but even more blatantly, as almost all the action and dialogue in the first hour of the film comes from the white protagonist. This was Costner's main way of manipulating history. We are given no historical background in his film, unlike Glory; instead, we are given one man and his diary all alone for half the film, and asked to identify with his struggle. Costner's tactic is to shut us off in a metaphorical room paralelling Dunbar's isolation until we have given up on historical context and agreed to live in his world.

Glory is more frank and communicative. We are told all the politics of the situation from an openly abolitionist point of view, and we have a great range of characters with whom to identify. Everyone is a facile stereotype, from the guilty liberal to the angry black man. But at least Glory does not as its viewers to pretend they are all white men: the main characters include a wider range of perspectives, personalities, and races.

Both movies raise, as an unspoken central question, the problem of why bad things happen. Why did the government practice genocide on Native American nations? Why did they treat free black men across the country so much like slaves? In Dances With Wolves, the answer is blessedly simple: It's because they were insane.

Every single white man in the movie is unrelievedly racist and unrelievedly insane. They are all either urinating upon themselves and committing suicide, or so homicidally violent as to seem legally insane anyway. (And the difference between those categories also says something important about our society.) Even our protagonist is "crazy" (walking on mauled feed, riding suicidally, arms spread Christ-like into battle) until he goes out into the wilderness and meets a wolf and some Indians.

In a few weeks, he goes from walking into walls and tripping over wolves1 to offering sage counsel and cultural exchange to the Native Americans. In a very loose interpretation of Anglo/Native political histories, Costner seems to be proposing that one can either be a dangerously insane member of the dangerously insane white culture, or else be saved by accepting Geronimo into one's heart and essentially "becoming Indian."

Glory provides a marginally more complex history of race relations, but it is still a story of white men being saved from the abusive racist dominant culture by embracing the culture and politics of an oppressed group and being accepted by them. On the surface, these are both relatively accurate historical films, but in their core metaphors of fall and redemption, they reflect a more recent history of guilty white people learning the horrors of racism and seeking forgiveness -- in this case, by rewriting history.

In this sense, Dances With Wolves and Glory are not stories of historical events shown with new and improved accuracy. They are simply a way of saying, "Look, this is how we really wish we'd done it. We're creating entire film worlds in which to remedy our mistakes. Can't we be friends?"

As American origin myths, both films are evidence of some improvement in mainstream historical awareness. Mainstream America, or at least Hollywood, clearly wants to tell true, inclusive stories that expose the country's nasty racist underbelly. They just aren't comfortable telling these stories from non-mainstream standpoints yet. Perhaps, too, they are aware that these are new origin myths and that in making them, they are rewriting both history and the everyday world. With films like Glory and Dances With Wolves being shown in high school and junior high classes today, we are raising a more racially and historically aware generation of kids. Maybe they can grow up to make the really radical films that actually show interracial relationships, and main protgonists of color, and leave the stereotypes behind.

1. I suspect "tripping over wolves" is what his "Indian name" really meant. "Hey, let's call this guy 'trips over wolves!' He'll never know the difference! Ha!"

The problem I have with oakling's original writeup is that the two movies on which it relies are, in fact, quite different in their subject matter. Dances With Wolves, as far as I know, is an entirely fictional account of a Civil War "hero" who ultimately finds peace in the West by shedding his civilized ways and joining the unspoiled Native Americans on the frontier. Glory, on the other hand, is a (mostly) historical account of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the son of a prominent Boston abolitionist, who was given the task of raising and commanding the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first regiment composed entirely of Northern African-American troops recruited to fight for the Union in the American Civil War.

While I am more than willing to accept oakling's straightforward analysis of the mythical Dances With Wolves, I can't let the discussion of Glory go unanswered. By calling both movies "absurd liberal myths," it's almost as though oakling didn't understand that the plot line in Glory actually happened.

Robert Gould Shaw was a living, breathing, 25-year old captain in the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment when Governor John Andrew asked him to lead the first regiment of black troops raised in a Northern State. Before Shaw's all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment was mustered into service on May 13, 1963, all of the previous African-American regiments fighting for the Union had been raised from freed slaves in the occupied South. None saw any actual combat.

On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts, with Colonel Shaw in command, led the suicidal attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina. During the attack, the troops of the 54th lost nearly one quarter of their men, including Colonel Shaw.

After the attack failed, the Confederate troops, furious that the Union had allowed African-Americans to be armed and led into battle by white commanders, tried to disgrace Colonel Shaw by burying him in a mass grave with his fallen troops.

Shaw's abolitionist father, upon being told that his son had died and been buried in this way, responded that he was proud of his son, whom he said would have wanted to die no other way.

Incidentally, oakling's "angry black man" in Glory had a name. He was Sgt. William H. Carney, an African-American man from New Bedford, MA. Sgt. Carney crawled through the murderous Confederate gunfire to rescue the fallen Union flag, being wounded six times in the process. For his valor, Carney became the first African-American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, albeit 37 years later, in 1900.

In light of this factual background, I can't help but think that any attempt to play off the story of Colonel Shaw and his regiment as an "absurd liberal myth" is just wrong.

Uncomfortable as it may be for us to admit today, it took Union leaders a long time to get used to the idea of arming African-American soldiers and placing them in positions of responsibility. This was understandable at the time, if not laudable. Union commanders were generally unfamiliar with African-Americans, and were worried about putting them in the line of fire without proof that they could fight. A prime example of this is Ulysses S. Grant, who started the war convinced that blacks could only perform garrison duty, but who, by the end of the Civil War, had come to the conclusion that the "freed slave" was the most potent weapon the Union had against the South.

In this racially oppressive climate, it fell on white officers, like Robert Gould Shaw, to step up to the plate and agree to recruit, train, and lead these new, experimental troops. In hindsight, it may be easy to think of Shaw as a racist dilettante, but, in fact, it took a tremendous amount of courage for him to accept the assignment asked of him. It was the initial leadership of commanders like Shaw that gave African-American troops their first chance to prove themselves. And it was the ultimate sacrifice of commanders like Shaw that gave those African-American troops their first taste of citizenship.

So I just wanted to set the record straight. Robert Gould Shaw and William H. Carney were not "myths" created by a guilty Hollywood producer. Colonel Shaw was not the same as Kevin Costner's Lieutenant John Dunbar, "tripping" over wolves and riding, Christ-like, into a make-believe hail of gunfire. Shaw was a real person, and died in a real hail of gunfire for a cause he believed in. He lived, died, and was buried in a mass grave, because he wanted to, and did, make a difference.

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