The Civil War and Hollywood have been a pair ever since Ken Burns—because of potential profits, of course. But most of these recent pictures, with their emphasis on marketing rather than script or acting, have had more in common with Nintendo than any real war.
For the pittance of $500,000, independent filmmaker Robby Henson has done the war justice. Pharaoh’s Army is a beautiful film and one of the best war movies made in years. Written and directed by Henson, based on a tale told by a Kentucky mountaineer, and set and filmed in Kentucky, the film concentrates on one small, half-legendary story, and yet encapsulates a war that was all the more bitter because it was fought among countrymen.
A young mountain woman named Sara Anders (played by Patricia Clarkson), whose husband is off fighting for the Confederacy, has been left behind on the family farm with her children. As the film opens, she is burying her daughter. Soon after the funeral, she is visited by five Yankee soldiers quartered nearby at Cumberland Gap, who have her name as a Confederate sympathizer and who consequently have come to take all her food. But when one of the young soldiers has an accident on the farm, they are forced to stay put until he is strong enough to move. That’s when the story begins.
The movie’s subtitle is “A Very Private Civil War,” and there are in fact no battle scenes. Here the real fight is between Sara and the Union captain, and the film follows the development and inevitable ruin of their friendship: it’s the great conflict writ small.
Effectively widowed, with one precious child left to her and a hardscrabble farm that must somehow feed them both, Sara is a taut, silent woman without much besides her boy, her cause, and her pride. With her husband in the army, she is left behind to do the hating. Faced with an Indiana captain (played beautifully by Chris Cooper) who treats her with an unaccustomed kindness, she faces a painful trial of her loyalties, and by necessity she drags her young son along with her.
There are several wonderful scenes in the film, one of the best showing Sara rocking herself beside her daughter’s grave, in an eerie and very real portrayal of overwhelming grief. Clarkson has another striking scene in which she goes to wash her dress (and her soul) in the creek. Henson acknowledges that “some people have been put off by how cold she is, especially at the end. But I wanted to be truthful to the Scotch-Irish women.”
He has been truthful to that and to much more by creating a film that touches on many of the ironies of the war, without seeming labored. Many spanking-new immigrants from Europe ended up fighting to teach the South what it meant to be an American, and there is one here, a Pole nicknamed “Chicago” for his new hometown (he’s a sympathetic character, played well and with a completely credible accent by Robert Joy). To his captain, who likes him, Chicago is nevertheless an outsider, who has inexplicably taken sides in an American fight.
The role both Northern and Southern pastors played in supporting (or inciting) their congregations is made crystal clear by Kris Kristofferson’s half-fey Confederate preacher, and by the story the Union captain tells of how he was recruited at church. Also, the one black character in the film fights on the Southern side, to the astonishment of the Union sympathizers on screen and no doubt several in the audience.
Yet Henson, who like many Kentuckians had family on both sides of the war, does not consider his film pro-Southern. Perhaps it seems so only because Henson has so much compassion for his characters on both sides, and because today, not to demonize the South is by default to defend it.
Sometimes there is nothing so current as ancient—which in American terms means 19th-century—history. As American troops are once again sent off to fight somebody else’s civil war in Bosnia, we would do well to be reminded by films like this one that war is a very hard necessity. I am not thinking so much of people’s lives, even, though lives are important enough: the hell of it is that there is no high moral ground in wartime. The nature of war prevents that. No one can fight, even for the most justified cause, and not do violence to his own ethics. War changes our souls, and seldom for the better, even when our cause is right. And if it is wrong?
Pharaoh’s Army is available on video this month from Orion Home Video, and will be shown on PBS television stations this September and October.