Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.” I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”
Pride in our heroes of the War for Southern Independence has just about been shamed out of us down here in the South. Their statues have a hard time staying upright. But what was the significance of their struggle? Yes, they were defending slavery (in some cases) or the South’s right to deal with the problem of slavery without Yankee interference (in others). And slavery needed to end. I know. But there was more to it than that. This is what their memory means to me. Just call me unreconstructed.
I got to recite this on the porch of the Appomattox Courthouse a few years ago.[Cue Rebel Yell.]
“I’d rather die a thousand deaths,” he’d said;
Well, better he should die them than his men.
Though there was nothing left for them to win,
Still at his word they would have fought and bled
(Or starved, more likely—true—but dead is dead).
So Lee, immaculate in his dress grays,
And Grant, unbuttoned, chewing his cigar,
Sat down together there to end the war.
And when they had agreed on every phrase,
They signed it through an inexplicable haze.
And Lee stepped out upon the porch that day
And drove his fist into his open hand
Three times while staring out across the land.
And then, since there was nothing more to say,
He mounted Traveler and rode away.
And now he’d have to face the thin gray lines.
“It’s Gen’ral Lee!” With joy they gathered ‘round.
He tried to speak, but could not force a sound,
‘Til slowly in his face they read the signs
And silence fell beneath the somber pines.
Only those nearby could comprehend
The words, “Superior numbers . . . forced to yield . . .
Your horses you may keep to plow your fields . . .
I’ve done the best I could for you, my friends.
You’re heroes all. Farewell.” And so it ends:
The last gasp of the South that might have been,
The first breath of the South as she would be,
Beaten, bowed—but with a memory:
The independence that she could not win,
The Lost Cause, and the frailty of men.
The noblest soldier living could not save
Her from the long defeat or from the tears.
It would protect her for a hundred years
From half the vulgar lies with which men pave
The primrose paths that lead but to the grave.
For Lee stepped out upon the porch that day
And drove his fist into his open hand
Three times while staring out across the land.
And then, since there was nothing more to say,
He mounted Traveler and rode away.
Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!
Donald T. Williams, PhD
I would guess that most of us who decide to take up our metaphorical pens these days to write fiction have probably never been in an actual war. (That includes me, of course.) It is interesting then that war and conflict are featured so prominently in so much fantasy and science fiction. Don’t get me wrong; I think that’s a good thing. I would much rather we have to stretch to understand that subject than that we know it too well, but it does present a problem: How do we write believable stories that involve war when we really know so little about it? The answer is (and hopefully will remain) that we must learn by proxy, from the experience of others.
In this series of posts, I’ll be exploring some themes gleaned from military history to illuminate points that I think many people misunderstand and thereby dispel the corresponding misconceptions about war. I hope you find them useful!
War is cruelty and you cannot refine it….
–William T. Sherman
Those words, written by Sherman to the mayor and city council of Atlanta, Georgia in 1864 have often been distorted to say that “War is Hell.” For our purposes, the meaning is the same. Whatever ideas of glory and honor that we may still entertain about war, the reality is that it is a painful, difficult, and horrible reality–one that no sane person would wish on themselves or on anyone else.
Of course, this isn’t what we often encounter in fiction. For millennia, authors have shown the “good” side of war: the excitement, the bravery, the sacrifice, the awe of martial prowess, and even the bittersweet sense of success.* If you are familiar with the fad for reenacting Civil War battles, you get a sense of this. “Soldiers” march forward, and then simply lie down when it is their turn to “die.” Bands play inspirational music, and you’re supposed to get a sense of “what it was like.” Nonsense. As I hear historian Bud Robertson has said, when you find a way to disembowel people, blow off arms and legs, etc., then you’ll have an idea of “what it was like”!
When authors and historians sanitize the dark side of war, we lose sight of the reality of the devastation, anguish, and destruction that war extracts as its ultimate price. This is true for the individual soldier, as well as for the people left back at home.
In the beginning of the Civil War, Americans based much of their expectations on fiction, including popular authors at the time like Sir Walter Scott. As a result, they believed that all combat should be glorious, all soldiers honorable, and civilian targets should be automatically exempt from the destruction wrecked by the armies. Soldiers on both sides rushed to enlist because they were afraid they would miss the excitement. They were desperate to “see the elephant,” as it was called. People in the cities thought that only “honorable” tactics and strategies should be allowed, and therefore demanded that essentially everyone but professional soldiers be spared the horrors of war as long as they weren’t actually in uniform. For example, they believed that the enemy army should have to pay them for supplies, and not interfere with daily life at all, even if “bushwhackers” (civilians sneaking out to play soldier) were harassing the army and killing people.
That was laughably unrealistic, but they believed it anyway. The soldiers learned the truth first. Commanders don’t make “suggestions,” even in a democratic country, and they will tell you to do things you don’t want to do–in the Civil War they would arrest you, beat you, brand you, or even shoot you if you disobeyed. Even the best intentioned government will have problems with supply, and for the confederates, food often ran very short and clothing and shoes were scarce. No matter–you marched anyway. As such, life in the armies became difficult and tedious, punctuated only by short periods of sheer terror in which you are convinced that the enemy is trying to kill you in particular. Your friends died painful, pitiful deaths. If you were lucky, you wouldn’t join them. It wasn’t long before the average soldier didn’t think he had seen the elephant so much as been trampled by it.
The civilians eventually had their misconceptions dispelled too. War takes place between nations, not just military forces. Armies don’t materialize out of thin air; they are the products of the nations they represent and, by extension, their peoples. When a nation is locked in combat for its very existence, it will strike at any and every point of possible vulnerability, and that includes (legitimately) the people who put the army into the field and the economy that sustains it. When a war is on, all bets are off, and you cannot reasonably expect it to be otherwise. If you have food and a soldier is hungry, he as a gun (and friends with guns). Guess what’s going to happen.
Worse, like the One Ring, war often loosens the inhibitions of even reasonable, regular people. Individuals who would never dream of stealing or killing during peacetime are willing to do it during a war. All of this adds up to, as Sherman put it so well, “cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”
That is a fact of history that we cannot forget, if we want to write about war. Pretending it is otherwise perpetuates a myth that can and has caused harm for many years now. Let’s not carry it any further. As you write your fiction, keep this in mind, and do what you must to show the dark side of war for what it is.
*Hollywood, the gaming industry, and modern fiction writers also often (but not always) continue this pattern on roids by often glorifying pointless violence in the absence of a any good cause, meaning violence for its own sake. (Think of just about any movie Quentin Tarantino has ever made…) That is a post for another day, at some point in the future!
Next Week–War is sometimes unavoidable…so every prudent culture must be ready for it.
It will go on forever, and how thrilling that is. It has this universal life, this continuing life. Every nation has experienced war – and defeat and renaissance. So all people can identify with the characters. Not only that, it’s terribly well constructed. Something happens every three minutes, and it keeps you on your toes and the edge of your seat, which is quite a feat, I must say. ~ Olivia de Havilland
One of the greatest masterpieces of all time is 1939’s stunning and riveting Gone with the Wind. This was the landmark film that brought the first Academy Award win to a black actress (Hattie McDaniel). It was the film in which Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable, and Olivia de Havilland played the roles that most defined their careers. It was also the greatest gamble (and greatest triumph) of producer David O. Selznick’s career. Far from a simple tale, this is a complex story that gets far too underestimated today.
Gone with the Wind is a multi-faceted story, comprising three predominate themes: love, survival, and personal growth. It tells of the undying love a group of people (the wealthy southerners) hold for their way of life, the unrealistic love that Scarlett O’Hara has for Ashley Wilkes, the realistic love that Rhett Butler has for Scarlett, the love between doting fathers and their daughters (which can sometimes harm rather than bless), and the pure love that a woman can have for a friend. It examines the effect a catastrophic event (war, in this case) has on people of varying personalities and values. Some characters, such as Scarlett and Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, are survivors, whereas others, such as Gerald O’Hara, do not have the needed temperament to survive. Finally, through its focus on Scarlett, the film shows how events can carry one from immaturity to maturity.
Two foundational scenes immediately establish the personalities of each of the central characters and set up the issues these characters will face. In the first scene, at Tara, spoiled, immature Scarlett reveals her unrealistic devotion to Ashley Wilkes and her dismissal of Melanie Hamilton, Ashley’s fiance. After informing Scarlett of the unsuitability of her affections, her father Gerald lectures her on the importance of the land (specifically Tara). By the end of this first scene, the two overriding influences and motivations for Scarlett’s actions are established: her obsessive love for Ashley and her connection to Tara. In the background of both this scene and the next is the uninformed eagerness of men for war.
The second foundational scene takes place at Twelve Oaks, the Wilkes’ plantation. Here the audience meets Melanie Hamilton, whose maturity, selflessness, and genuineness make her the antithesis to Scarlett (and Margaret Mitchell’s intended heroine of the story). While Scarlett is supposed to be napping with the other young ladies, she establishes a precedent for her future rejection of proper feminine behavior by sneaking downstairs to declare her love to Ashley. In the first of several similar incidents, he turns her down, yet does not do so in a passionate enough manner to convince Scarlett of his veracity. Rhett Butler overhears Scarlett and Ashley. In only a moment, Rhett understands Scarlett in a way which no one else ever has. Such insight into her character infuriates Scarlett, who is still in that immature stage of preferring fantasy to reality (a problem which will plague her for much of the film). In the end of the scene, Scarlett commences her pattern of marrying for the wrong reasons, and the Civil War begins.
Following the opening two scenes, the rest of this film is a series of incidents which chip away at Scarlett’s separation from reality, forcing her into maturity. Widowhood is the first blow, temporarily forcing her to grow up. As this growth is only on the surface, she rejects it rather quickly, demonstrated by her decision to dance with Rhett at a bazaar. The reality of war is the next major blow, forcing Scarlett to take care of first wounded soldiers, and then Melanie. When maturity is too much for her, Scarlett tries to flee home to her mother, only to find her mother dead and her entire world overturned. Scarlett must then become the provider and protector of her family. A second marriage illustrates her attempt to once more place responsibility and work on the shoulders of someone else. When widowed for the second time, Scarlett gets her first honest glimpse of consequences for actions, then turns to liquor to shield herself once again. It is not until she has lost her child, her truest champion and friend (Melanie), and the real love of her life (Rhett), that Scarlett finally grows into a mature woman. She is still selfish and flawed, but at least she is finally self-reliant.
Gone with the Wind is the ultimate producer’s movie. Members of the cast, including Olivia de Havilland and Evelyn Keyes, often told in interviews of the nearly-manic involvement in David Selznick in this production. He examined and approved every detail, even down to the number of ruffles on Melanie Hamilton’s grey gown.
His diligent work set the precedent for such respected future producers as James Cameron (Titanic) and Steven Spielberg (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial). It has been the trend, since the 1940s, for directors to be identified with films far more than producers. However, Selznick and the producers he influenced have gone against this trend with the result of several blockbusters.
Another noticeable influence this film has had on future films is in the portrayals of the two lead characters. Scarlett as a tough woman weathering events of historical importance and going against convention has influenced such portrayals as Kate Winslet’s Rose Calvert in Titanic and Jodie Foster’s Anna Leonowens in Anna and the King. Rhett as the rakishly handsome and cosmopolitan man viewed as romantic, despite his regrettable treatment of women, has likewise inspired a number of future performances. Most notable among these are Sean Connery’s portrayals of James Bond (Goldfinger, From Russia with Love).
For me, Gone with the Wind is a masterpiece not only because of the stunning cinematography and phenomenal storytelling, but predominately for the details. One aspect that I have always found intriguing is the masterful use of staircases during important moments in the film. It is while descending a staircase that Melanie and Ashley encounter Scarlett, whereas Scarlett encounters Rhett for the first time while ascending that same staircase (perhaps a symbolic commentary on two different types of marriage). At the foot of a staircase at Tara, Scarlett shoots a carpet-bagger, an important point in her process from childhood to adulthood. Bonnie Blue Butler shares a tender moment with her mother on a staircase at Scarlett and Rhett’s mansion, followed only moments later by Scarlett’s miscarriage and near death through falling down those same stairs.
I marvel also at the way in which minute scenes in the film express the brutal impact of war. In a powerful scene set in Atlanta, the citizens read the casualty lists from a recent battle. Immediately after learning of the massive number of deaths of family and friends, the camera focuses on young boys fighting back tears as they continue to play Dixie, rallying their fellow citizens to continue in the struggle. In another scene, little Beau Wilkes (Melanie and Ashley’s son) toddles unsteadily on his legs, learning to walk, while surrounded by returned soldiers who are too weak from fighting and near-starvation to be able to walk. One man has lost a leg, and will have to relearn this basic skill, perhaps doing so alongside Beau.
Many classic films have had profound effects on me, but Gone with the Wind is the only one to which I actually owe my existence. In 1967, my parents went to see a screening of Gone with the Wind on their third date. Swept away by the romance of the film, my father accidentally proposed to my mother that night. She, to her surprise, accidentally accepted. Eight months later, they married. My mother, still quite smitten with Rhett Butler, convinced my father to grow a mustache, which he still has. Forty-two years have passed since my parents first watched Gone with the Wind, but this particular “Rhett” and “Scarlett” are still very much in love.
After hearing my parents’ love story many times as a child, I became fascinated by Gone with the Wind. At age nine, I watched it for the first time. Although too young to fully appreciate the rich artistry of the production, I was still captivated. That same year, I read the novel for the first of several times (I highly recommend it, too). I credit this film with sparking not only my love of classic films, but also my fascination with film history. I have now spent twelve years studying film history, and will be pursuing it further for the rest of my life, I suspect. Though few people connected with the making of Gone with the Wind are alive today, their legacy is still a vivid influence in my life. Such is the power of a well-made classic.
*In case you’re wondering, the quote in the title of this post was not said by Scarlet. It was said by Melanie to her husband Ashley, and it is the line that most aptly summarizes Melanie’s character and her attitude toward every other character in the film.