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Cold Mountain – Love story or reactionary utopia?

JANUARY 6, 2004 – The $80-million Civil War era drama, Cold Mountain, is being praised as the movie of the season. But behind the lush production and excellent acting performances is a disturbing and profoundly reactionary message.

The central characters are a white soldier in the Confederate Army (Inman, played by Jude Law) and his romantic fixation, a white preacher’s daughter named Ada (played by Nicole Kidman).

Separated by war, each survives the terrible war years by focussing on their love for each other. Ada struggles to keep her farm going in Cold Mountain after the death of her father, and Inman deserts the army to walk home to Cold Mountain to reunite with Ada.

His long walk through the war-ravaged south is compared in review after review to epic Homer’s epic Odyssey.

He does walk a long way. He does meet a lot of strange characters. He does encounter a lot of tragedy.

And it is a romantic love story. Ada does wait for him. She does hook up with the film’s most interesting character, Ruby, played by Renée Zellweger – a tough young woman raised in the mountains, who saves the helpless southern belle Ada from her own ineptitude.

And even though there is tragedy in the end, there is also happiness. We are left with an idyllic scene at the end of the movie, Ada and her child, Ruby and her family (including her father, a man who used to beat her), sitting around a table in the sunshine, enjoying a meal and the fruits of their labour.

This is all very heart-warming.

But what happened to the black majority? Like Gone with the Wind and a host of films and novels which tell a tragic story about the trials and tribulations of white society in the lost “civilization” of the plantation south, Cold Mountain plays out its dramas on a white-washed canvas where African-Americans are almost invisible.

This is inexcusable. The Civil War pitted the North against the South. There was one over-riding issue – eliminating the barbaric institution of slavery in the South. And literature and films that push this reality into the background become a kind of propaganda by amnesia.

The truth is, you cannot truthfully tell any story about the Civil War without putting African Americans front and centre.

But Cold Mountain manages to write-out this history as if it didn’t exist. In the one concession to history in the film, the opening sequence documents a momentous event from the long siege of Petersburg in 1864. Members of the Northern army – the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteers – were mostly coal miners. They contrived a plan to break the siege.

They dug a 150 meter tunnel from Northern to Southern lines, packed it with gunpowder, and early in the morning on July 30, 1864, the gunpowder exploded, blasting a huge hole in the Southern lines.

For one hour, the Southern troops were helpless. Had the Northern troops exploited this advantage, they could have quickly ended the siege, and possibly ended the war one year early, saving thousands of lives. With Petersburg gone, the Southern army would have been in full retreat to its last bastion of Richmond.

The film documents all this, and also documents the failure of the Northern troops. Thousands of hapless soldiers charged headlong into the crater created by the explosion, but had no idea how to get out once they were inside. They were sitting ducks for the Southern troops, who killed hundreds of them.

But what the film doesn’t tell us is that the original plan called for a division of 4,300 men led by General Ferrero to spearhead the attack.[1]

But all the troops in Ferrero’s division were black. They were highly motivated, as were all the 180,000 black troops who fought in the Northern army. More clearly than anyone else, they understood that what they were involved in was a fight for liberation. Importantly, they were trained and prepared for the assault.

At the last minute, army commanders changed their mind. As happened time and again during the war, the bourgeois leaders of the Northern side held back the struggle through racism and conservativism.

Ferrero’s division of black troops, trained and briefed for the mission, was replaced by an unprepared division of white soldiers. As catastrophe unfolded, the black division was finally thrown into the battle, but only when its conclusion was no longer in doubt. They were slaughtered.[2]

Northern commander General Grant – to his credit – admitted that the battle plans had been completely bungled, calling it “the saddest affair I have ever witnessed in the war.”[3]

But none of this is part of the Cold Mountain story. There is no room in this romantic tragedy for the romance and tragedy of the key protagonists of the deep south – the black victims of slavery, and the black fighters who resisted that terrible institution.

White characters move to the front and are painted with sympathy and complexity. Black characters disappear into the background, and are painted one-dimensionally, when they are painted at all.

Socialists do not demand that culture hoe to a particular line in order to be “great”. There have been many wonderful works of art produced by novelists and filmmakers whose political views are very conservative.

But when the whitewashing of history goes to the extent it does in a film like Cold Mountain, the merits of the film are completely lost.

Cold Mountain – like Gone with the Wind before it – tells a story of romance and tragedy in the deep south. But there was nothing romantic about the “lost” civilization of the plantation south. It was barbaric beyond belief. In side-stepping this brutal reality, Cold Mountain transforms itself from a love story to a reactionary utopia.

© 2004 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.


[1] Christopher Scherff, “Opportunity Lost: The Union Defeat at the Battle of the Crater,” Perspectives in History, 2002, 38–50.

[2] Bryce A. Suderow, “The Battle of the Crater: The Civil War’s Worst Massacre,” Civil War History 43, no. 3 (1997): 219–24.

[3] Ibid., 220.

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