Movies based on history have been popular since the rise of film in the entertainment industry. Transporting audiences to a different place and time period is something that film has always had the ability to do and often does very well. Though many films that are based on historical subject matter are carefully researched and try to be as historically accurate as possible, many historians take issue with their historical inaccuracies. There are countless opinions out in the world about the importance and role of historical accuracy in film. Most of these opinions fall into one of two camps: those that argue films should try to be more historically accurate if they are portraying a specific event or time period and those that argue that films should be allowed to take creative liberties with historical accuracy.
Historians will often argue, with good reason, that films that do not take historical accuracy seriously run the risk of giving audiences false impressions of historical events or even time periods as a whole. Films are often guilty of idealizing or romanticizing history at least to some degree, which can give the audience a false impression of the history behind the film. History is not black and white; there are often many different sides to a story and lots of gray areas, which can sometimes be difficult to convey in a film.
Not only did Beyoncé slay in her latest music video, but she got historical. Her single “Formation” touches on feminism, oppression, sexuality, and police brutality, and her video offers a visual representation for the overall theme of African American cultural ownership. It is, of course, an essential message for contemporary discussion, and the formerly-silenced subject is beginning to achieve prevalence in the music industry, but there is something special and bold about Beyoncé’s take on race: by appealing to Civil War memory and forcing viewers to accept the African American struggle for life, freedom, and success, she is shattering perceptions of one of our country’s most popular areas of historical study. What’s more? She’s a woman.
In some scenes, the iconic singer reconnects with her Southern roots by appearing in a Civil War era Southern-style parlor with other women of color, all sporting opulent Victorian clothing. In another, she stands clad in black outside what appears to be a large plantation home and, in an act of rebellion, flips off the camera. These historical allusions certainly create a powerful image of African American social progression, but they also present a more subtle message about the memory of slavery and the Civil War. Beyoncé is denying any attempt to erase her from our history while presenting the complexity of black lives during the Victorian era. She carefully lays out the connotations of black and white, of woman and man, and of power and submission.
This winter, the Gettysburg Compiler will be releasing weekly posts as part of a Mercy Monday feature that will cover issues of medical history, gender and race relations, historical memory, and other themes depicted in the new PBS series Mercy Street.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Lisa Wolfinger, the executive producer and co-creator of Mercy Street. She kindly agreed to be interviewed by the Gettysburg Compiler about her work on the series. Wolfinger also participated in a recent conversation on local public radio station WITF’s Smart Talk program alongside the CWI’s Jill Titus and Ian Isherwood. You can hear their discussion online at WITF’s website.
Lavery: What got you interested in working on a historical drama like Mercy Street?
Wolfinger: I majored in European History at Sussex University in England and have always been passionate about history. Fact is often more dramatic than anything we could invent. Early in my filmmaking career I was given the opportunity by History Channel to produce documentary specials about early American history and had little to no visual material to work with. So I had to find a new way to tell these stories within the confines of a documentary format and fell back on what I knew and that was drama. (I was very involved in theater in college.) Continue reading “Lisa Wolfinger, Executive Producer of PBS’s Mercy Street, Talks History and Memory”
Hamilton is one of Broadway’s newest musicals and it’s the hottest thing to hit the stage in a long time. The show, a rap-opera, follows the life of Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s ‘forgotten Founding Father.’ The show has had immense success since it opened in August 2015, with thousands of followers on the show’s Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube pages. It has exploded from the stage into a cultural phenomenon, but what makes the story of this Founding Father so compelling for audiences? Previous productions of historical musicals and plays have failed on the stage, while Hamilton thrives. What is its secret?
In the first episode of the new PBS series Mercy Street, nurse Anne Hastings is seen applying a plaster cast to a wounded soldier’s bare legs before a captivated audience of surgeons and hospital workers. This action seems trivial today, even unquestionable, but as the show progressed and more scenes portrayed this seemingly insignificant concept of touch, of intimacy between a female nurse and her male patients, its true magnitude became apparent.
Sex was not a popular topic of discussion in Civil War Era America; Victorian society shunned intimacy between men and women and regarded intercourse solely as a means of reproducing and building families, a convention that led to the establishment of separate spheres. Women were expected to remain pure and chaste, while men were responsible for fighting off their intrinsic sexual instincts (both of these standards are sexist, of course, but that’s a story for another blog post), and interactions between the genders were meant to be courteous and, frankly, prudish. The publication of The Scarlet Letter in 1850 did not help this case as women became more apprehensive and fearful of the reactions they might receive; no woman wanted to be the subject of public scorn. Continue reading “Sexual Healing: Nurses, Gender, and Victorian Era Intimacy”
Warning: This show is probably not enjoyable for those with hemophobia. Also, if you like to view the war as a clear-cut conflict between two distinct ideologies, this show is not for you either.
I don’t know if it’s just me being cynical about public disinterest in history, but I was shocked to read that the premiere episode of PBS’ Mercy Street, titled “The New Nurse,” got 3.3 million viewers. Are there really that many people interested in Civil War Era history? There is a great chance that many people unintentionally left PBS on after Downton Abbey, but it wouldn’t shock me if they find themselves intentionally keeping it on again next week. The show was compelling and includes everything a drama should—intensity, romance, and controversy. Most importantly, though, I believe this show has the potential to significantly increase public interest in the Civil War and reveal to the public the true nature of the war.
The show is about a Civil War hospital operating in a mansion in Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia. The producers certainly did not make this show to answer common questions about the Civil War, but rather to make people start thinking. No character’s belief in the show was left uncontested and many myths were broken. The topic of the show itself is daring, for it is not about the military history of the war, but rather the medical history mixed with civilian life. Continue reading “PBS’s Mercy Street Shows No Mercy to Traditionalists”
When alternative band Quiet Hounds released Megaphona in 2012, they presented an album peppered with an impressive range of styles, from folksy ballads to pseudo-manic hipster club tunes. The album’s most unexpected choice, though, came in the form of its closing song, “Beacon Sun.” In it, the band’s lead singer carries a mournful melody. A hypnotizing rhythm runs through the track, underscored by the tattoo of a lethargic tambourine. Indeed, the track is more akin to a jazzed-up hymn than anything else, an impression that is not surprising to listeners once they heave themselves out of the indie haze long enough to catch the song’s lyrics.
An ongoing and rather controversial debate in the Civil War world is that over the rightful placement of the Confederate battle flag in American memory. Being such a provocative symbol both in terms of history and race relations, its ‘true’ meaning and ‘true’ symbolism are constantly in flux. With recent disputes on the removal of the Confederate flag from Robert E. Lee’s tomb at Washington and Lee University making their way into the mainstream news, the complicated meaning of the rebel symbol and where it belongs in American memory have earned their places at the forefront of the national consciousness.
Brad Paisley worked the issue even further into the public arena with the release of the song “Accidental Racist” on his 2013 album Wheelhouse. Set toward the end of the album, the country song with a little flavor of rap features LL Cool J as a guest artist. Immediately after its release, the song drew criticism both from white and black Americans about its aims and the intended meaning behind its unusual yet distinctive lyrics.
July 2012. My best friend and I packed into my 2003 VW Jetta wagon and headed out from Gettysburg, bound for Virginia. We were on Grantcation, a Civil War road trip of two former college buddies. Our mission was to wander battlefields in 100 degree plus heat, a trip which our wives endorsed willingly, I suspect, because they both knew it was far better for us to do it together than subject them to such unabashed nerdery.
In July 1863
A Nation Torn In Tragedy
A Trick Of Fate, Two Great Armies Merge
Gods Of War At Gettysburg
Devastation Lies Ahead
50,000 Bodies Litter The Land
Hell Rages Three Full Days
The Reaper Sows, There’s The Devil To Pay.
Thus begins the first song in Iced Earth’s three-part ballad inspired by the Battle of Gettysburg. The heavy metal epic is intense, dramatic, brutal, tragic, and romantic. Released in 2004 on their album The Glorious Burden – which, incidentally, also features songs inspired by Attila the Hun, the Red Baron, Waterloo, and Valley Forge – Iced Earth’s “Gettysburg (1863)” trilogy offers listeners a vivid musical interpretation of the memory of Gettysburg popularized by Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. Beginning with the “The Devil to Pay” and continuing in “Hold at All Costs” and “High Water Mark,” each song in the trilogy is devoted to the events of a single day of the battle. Encapsulating some of Gettysburg’s best-known moments, the songs each convey a sense of the battle’s epic scale and its powerful legacy. In consequence, however, the ballad reinforces an exclusively emotional interpretation of the Civil War that can obscure a more meaningful understanding of the battle and its larger implications. Continue reading “Heavy Metal Gettysburg and the Allure of Emotive History”