Class Notes

For Civil War and Memory we watched John Ford’s classic Civil War Cavalry film The Horse Soldiers staring John Wayne and William Holden. Released in 1959, in the height of the Civil Rights movement we were watching to see how the themes of the Lost Cause were portrayed. Again, the way I ask students to watch films for this class is to imagine they know nothing about the Civil War and discuss what this film would tell them. They do not need to concern themselves with accuracy, this film depicts a true story, but as with most films of this period they are not concerned with accuracy. I am only interested in what they can learn about the war. As for causes of the war the movie is silent. Slaves are portrayed but never called slaves and the only slave in a leading role is portrayed as a loyal ally to her mistress. The only real reference to her servitude was when her mistress say she had to stay up late to clean all the dishes.  Throughout the entire film there are no references to any causes or reasons for the war on either side. As for why the south lost, the only reference to being outmanned came from when the local military school for children who were mustered into service, but for most of the movie the Northern soldiers were having to stay on the move because they were outnumber crossing enemy territory. It does show both sides as brave and honorable. While the heroes of the film were northern soldiers, they do not portray the southern soldiers as bad guys, just their opponents. When they interact with any Confederates, they were honorable men and not villains. The main female lead was a Confederate spy the Union cavalry was forced to take along was portrayed a completely loyal to the cause and would sacrifice anything to help her nation. There was nothing at all about the eventual end of the conflict or anything to suggest why the south would lose. In fact, the move starts off with Grant saying they have been whipped since the war began (not true in the west) and how the south was stronger. Being during the Civil Rights movement did little for his film, as race really was not a major theme. If anything, there was a strong anti-war message, which would be expected later in the 1960s with the Vietnam War but was surprised to find it so strong in 1959.

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