Debating our National Story
More suggestions from readers on the “American epic” front, including “Hawaii,” “Big Country,” “Gods and Generals,” “Gettysburg,” “Cold Mountain,” and (from me) “Raintree County.” You can read more here. None would be good enough for my Top 5, or, really, my Top 10, although maybe “Cold Mountain.” If you went that route. If it mattered.
It doesn't. Lists like these, if they're done carefully, are attempts to order the messiness of our culture, but mostly they ignore the larger questions they raise.
I went into the piece, for example, thinking we don't make American epics anymore, but we do, to a certain extent. At the least, we make shorter versions of epics — sans overtures, intermissions and entre’acts. What we don't do is go see them. And even if we do, the epics don't leave the kind of mark on our culture they used to. “Dances with Wolves” was probably the last to do so. The question is why.
I would argue that it has less to do with a general disinterest in our country's history than a general disagreement on what that history is or means. We no longer agree on our national story.
In the past, films like “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” could sub for our national story, but each has a casual attitude toward slavery and its aftermaths, and, for each, the triumph is not the removal of the great stain on our nation but the South rising again after the stain is removed — either individually, like Scarlett, who would never be hungry again, or collectively, like the Klan in “Birth of a Nation,” who are essentially our first superheroes, a team of Lone Rangers riding to save the virtue of white women from carpetbaggers and freed darkies. That was the lie we told ourselves 100 years ago.
We’ve grown, as a country, but we haven’t been able to take our national story with us. We haven’t been able to dramatize it. We’ve only been able to dramatize it abroad, where the enemy was clear (“Saving Private Ryan”) or ourselves (“Apocalypse Now”). But at home?
The great battle within the United States in the 19th century was the Civil War, which was the subject of a ton of movies. They’re still turning them out. From this decade: “Cold Mountain” and “Gods and Generals.”
The great battle within the United States in the 20th century was the civil rights movement, which has been the subject of... what? “Mississippi Burning”? About white FBI agents?
How much has Hollywood, this supposed bastion of liberalism, ignored the civil rights movement? This much: No theatrical film has ever featured, as the main character, an actor playing Martin Luther King, Jr. None. On the other hand, the same could be said, in the era of talkies, about George Washington, so one wonders how much racism, or at least monetary calculations involving race, play a part. You know they do, you just don’t know how much. And if, in an era of Will Smith and Barack Obama, things are changing.
Or are we shying from the epic because we no longer believe the lies we once told ourselves to create such national stories as “Gone with the Wind”? Rather than a misty, nostalgic eye, we keep casting a cold eye upon our past: “There Will Be Blood,” for example.
Others may argue that the multiculturalism of the United States — and the insistence on recognizing each, specific culture and its contributions, however small, to our society — disallows a national story, but I don’t agree. You can find the universal in the specific — that’s the best place to look — and you can find the American-ness in the ethnic story. Just look at “The Godfather.” No movie’s more Italian, no movie’s more American.
I’d be curious to hear what stories, fictional or not, that seem to reflect some aspect of our national story (whatever that is), people would like to see made into movies. There is an epic, I know, to be made out of the civil rights movement. Someday, someone will do it. And if they do it right, people will come.