Book Review: Writing History with Lightning: Cinematic Representations of Nineteenth-Century America


by Matthew Christopher Hulbert and John C. Ionescoe, editors

Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2019. Pp. xii, 338. Illus., filmography, notes, biblio., index. $55.00 . ISBN: 0807170461

Film and the Shaping of Popular Historical Memory

When criticized about historical inaccuracies in their work, filmmakers often respond by claiming “artistic license”, and even “after all, it’s only a movie”, yet they often also issue “study guides” for schools that help promote their products as having historical value. In this book, the editors, scholars of the Civil War and Southern history, have collected more than two dozen essays by a number of historians and film scholars which look at the “historicity” of several cinematic portrayals of nineteenth century America.

The essays fall into five groups, the frontier and national expansion, slavery and the ante bellum South, sectionalism and Civil War, the Lost Cause, Reconstruction, and the West, and economics, immigration, and African-American lives in the Gilded Age. All of the essays make the case that from the beginning cinema has reflected contemporary social, political, gender, and racial attitudes, rather than history as their principal themes.

Essays often address films in pairs, matching, for example The Alamo of 1960 with that of 2004, a compare-and-contrast approach that, in this case shows both films historically flawed, due to the “message” each seeks to send, albeit that the latter may be more accurate in some details. This is a pattern found in several other essays.

Recent films dealing with slavery – Amistad, 12 Years a Slave, etc. are often criticized not, as in the case of most earlier pictures, for sugar-coating the institution as for the fact that they usually center the narrative around a white character.

Fans of Santa Fe Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, Little Big Man, Gettysburg, or The Gangs of New York will find their favorite pictures roundly criticized,

In many ways the most interesting essay is that by Prof. John David Smith (North Carolina) on Glory. After reminding us that the role of African-American troops in the Civil War – and in most wars – was largely neglected in film until relatively recently, Smith offers two levels of criticism. Firstly he addresses what are the most often mentioned “flaws” in the film, that the 54th Massachusetts was hardly the “first” African-American regiment, nor even the first to get into action, nor was the regiment denied uniforms and equipment for a long time, that the attack on Fort Wagner was at dawn, not dusk, and that it took place with the water on the regiment’s right, not left, and so forth, all correct, but ultimately all relatively minor. More importantly, Smith notes that film centers on Col. Robert Gould Shaw, with the black characters only roughly sketched in; in fact Sgt. William Harvey Carney, the most famous African-American soldier in the regiment is totally missing, despite a Medal of Honor performance rescuing the colors under fire. In short, while certainly finding Glory to be a positive treatment, Smith notes the “nit pick” flaws of the film which are most often mentioned by critics, and then lays out what are perhaps the most serious problems with it.

Well worth a read, for anyone with an interest in nineteenth century America, film, and the problem of film and history.


Note: Writing History with Lightning is also available in several e-editions.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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