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!"