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Southern Movies, Actual and Fanciful:
A Personal Survey

In the silent era, two of the most exceptional Southern movies are the aforementioned The Birth of a Nation (1915) — made by native Kentuckian D.W. Griffith, with all the racial biases that one might expect from a traditional white Southerner of his era — and the unjustly uncelebrated Stark Love, made a dozen years later in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina by Karl Brown (1896-1990). An uncredited camera operator on The Birth of a Nation and many other Griffith classics, Brown broke into directing with this highly unorthodox and commercially unsuccessful Paramount release about Appalachian mountain folk — a love story shot on location with nonprofessionals for a total cost of about $5,000. Fondly remembered by James Agee, among others, the film was considered lost for many decades until film historian Kevin Brownlow discovered a surviving print at a film archive in Prague in 1968. Although I haven’t seen it in years, it persists in my memory as the most authentic film record that we probably have of the sort of Southern hillbillies caricatured in such Yankee-drawn comic strips as “Barney Google and Snuff Smith” and “Li’l Abner.”

The Birth of a Nation and the much later Gone With the Wind (1939) testify to the enduring popularity of Civil War stories recounted from Southern viewpoints. (Buster Keaton’s The General, released the same year as Stark Love, offers a third example.) By contrast, Hollywood features that deal significantly or honestly with prewar slavery in the South tend to be few and far between. The best example that comes to mind, Richard Fleischer’s well-researched and genuinely shocking Mandingo (1974), has been mainly dismissed in the US as trashy camp — perhaps because it comes too close to the material facts of slavery as a tainted part of the American past to be faced squarely — but praised by some of the more discerning British film critics. (Significantly, I had to order my own DVD copy from Hong Kong.) Less shocking, but no less illuminating, are two clear-sighted movies made on the subject for American television by black filmmaker Charles Burnett, who was born in Mississippi: Nightjohn (1996) and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003).

The Civil War and, more generally, the South figure significantly in much of the work of John Ford as a kind of mythical watershed. To focus momentarily on just the four films Ford made with black actor Stepin Fetchit, only the first of these, The World Moves On (1934), which I haven’t seen, partly takes place during the Civil War. But in the remaining three — Judge Priest (1934), Steamboat ’Round the Bend (1935) and The Sun Shines Bright (1953) — which are all set decades later, in the 1890s or shortly thereafter — the war remains an almost constant reference point. Judge Priest and The Sun Shines Bright are both based on stories by Southern humorist Irwin S. Cobb set in Kentucky; while Steamboat moves up and down the Mississippi River, all three are nostalgic idylls that see that era in Southern history as somehow benighted in spite of the wounds and traumas left by the war.


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