Civil War in Cinema: Q&A with Lance Rhoades, Seattle-based film scholar

By Michelle Schmidt

Even though the Civil War took place 150 years ago, it has been ongoing topic in film over the past hundred years. Lance Rhoades, a Seattle-based film scholar, will discuss the war’s role in film at next week’s Wine and Wisdom, a conversation series sponsored by the Asotin County Library, Basalt Cellars and Humanities Washington.

We checked in with Rhoades to find out more about what these films explore, why they matter and if he has any favorites:

360: What drew you to this topic of the Civil War in cinema?

Rhoades: As a film historian, I was very interested to know why the Civil War has been one of the most consistently popular subjects in American movie history.

360: What are some of the more well-known films that pick up this subject matter?

Rhoades: The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and Ken Burns’ The Civil War are some of the best-known titles. They are also some of the most commercially successftul in history.

360: What are various themes that are explored in Civil War cinema?

Rhoades: Invariably, Civil War films draw their dramas from the pain caused by a country torn apart. Yet, many of the same films emphasize the strength of the national bond that followed. To a lesser extent, depending upon the viewpoints of the filmmakers, the outrage over slavery or the punitive devastation of Northern tactics is emphasized. Above all, Civil War films have been a lens through which Americans have gauged how divided or united we are.

360: You note that one of the first films about the war appeared less than fifty years after it took place. Why do you think it was picked up so quickly as a subject in film? What were some characteristics or themes of that first film?

Rhoades: There were actually quite a few Civil War films being made around that time, the most famous of which was D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. There were several reasons for the war as a popular subject at the time: the fifty-year anniversary of the war saw lots of commemorations throughout the country, many people were still around who had lived through it, and some filmmakers, especially Griffith, saw a chance to prove that this new media could make grand statements about American history.

360: Do modern Civil War films have meaning beyond historical exploration? What kinds of modern political situations or issues do today’s film explore – whether directly or indirectly?

Rhoades: Over the past forty years or so, a lot of filmmakers have used the Civil War as a backdrop to discuss more contemporary issues, such as the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and gridlocked Congress.

360: As a film scholar, this probably isn’t a fair question – but do you have a favorite Civil War film, either fiction or documentary?

Rhoades: That is a tough one. Ken Burns deserves a lot of credit for his ambitious documentary, which does a good job of focusing on large and small events, on political and military leaders, but also on private individuals, whose stories had been unknown to most. Among works of fiction, Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil is an underrated film that looks at the complicated and confused motives of people fighting guerrilla-style battles against pro-Union Jayhawkers in Missouri.

360: As you share this presentation with audiences, what do you find most resonates with audiences?

Rhoades: From what I have seen and heard, it would have to be discovering what an enormous number of Civil War films have been made over the past one hundred years.

If you go: What: From Birth of a Nation to Ken Burns: The Civil War in Cinema When: Tuesday, Aug. 26 at 7 p.m. Where: Basalt Cellars at 906 Port Dr. in Clarkston Cost: Free, wine available for purchase Schmidt can be contacted at or at (208)305-4578.

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