Saturday, January 17, 2015

Point of Regret

This week I tuned in to watch the pilot episode of Amazon's new Civil War drama entitled Point of Honor.  Centered on the fictional, elite Rhodes Family of Lynchburg, Virginia, the show blends historical fictions, paradoxes, and boatloads of clichés.  A 21st century equivalent to North and South, the soap opera presents an historically improbable yet cinematically predictable plot of torn families and loyalties in 1861.  At the outset of the conflict, the Rhodes elders elect to free their slaves in the wake of Fort Sumter--to the consternation of the daughters.  Better yet, one of those daughters is married to the northern West Point classmate of her brother.  While a vast minority of real-life planters freed their slaves, including John Randolph of Roanoke, most did not do so until after their deaths.  In Point of Honor, however, the youthful Rhodes clan free their slaves, renounce the institution, and then inexplicably fight for the Confederacy defending that same institution.  While the show does not sugarcoat the horrors of slavery as in many Lost Cause films, it is nevertheless an historical oxymoron and squanders an opportunity to delve into profound issues of the time period.

In short, Amazon's Civil War production suffers from The Patriot Syndrome. In that 2000 Revolutionary War film, Mel Gibson's character owns a South Carolina plantation on which there are no slaves.  Rather, the African Americans on the property "work the land as freed men."  The absurdity and scarcity of such a scenario is equally embraced in Point of Honor and other films.  Morally upstanding white protagonists somehow always have to be the exception rather than the rule within their slave society. There's nothing wrong with creating main characters with flaws--as online shows such as House of Cards have revealed. In this context, there is a certain lack of creative courage with Point of Honor.  

Additionally, the show has received criticism for it simplification of antebellum issues and contemporary social strife.  As Sonia Saraiya with Salon writes: "The pilot demonstrates ridiculous historical inaccuracy and mind-boggling racial insensitivity, but that doesn’t even really cover it. It’s more that the show is offering up a narrative of whiteness in the South that is worryingly, terrifyingly convenient in a world still very much plagued by racial inequity."  In this regard, the program seems to care more about evoking sympathy for the elite planter class than conveying some semblance of authenticity.  Considering that show writer Randall Wallace also penned the equally inaccurate Braveheart and Pearl Harbor, none of this should come as a great surprise to viewers.

From a military history perspective, the show begins with a commendably orchestrated recreation of First Bull Run, but quickly spirals beyond reality with a series of hackneyed skirmishes and a perverse Union officer with a Colonel Kurtz-style blood lust.  Typically, I embrace most film productions about the Civil War era because I fervently believe that cinema has the ability to spark interest in the past.  Unfortunately, Point of Honor provides little use to educators except to reveal another episode of fantasy historical exceptionalism.  The question remains: Why do screenwriters insist on fabricating narratives when true stories are far more astute and revealing?

1 comment:

  1. Spot on review. Filmmakers have a tendency to romanticize the past and this is one of the most dreadful representatives of Civil War cinema. Likewise, there is a general misunderstanding of southern society and the relationship between land and slave owner and what that labor force meant to a family of prominence. It boils down to the writer not doing his research to understand the pre-war South or society of the Civil War period. If they did, the lead actresses would not be dressed like harlots in a bawdy house. No amount of good intentions from re-enactors or historical advisors could have saved this one.