U.S. History in Film

Prof. McClurken’s HIST 329 — Fall 2008

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The Long Walk Home

Wow! What a great movie, what an emotional movie, and what a pertinent movie. With it being exactly one week after the election of our nation’s first black president, I could not stop thinking about how monumentous that election really was as I watched The Long Walk Home. I was born in 1987 and grew up with blacks, I went to school with them, played with them, and interacted with them in myriad ways everyday. For many of this generation Obama’s candidacy was definitely different, but it was far from unthinkable or unbelievable.  We, and in fact most Americans, did not consider his race to be a deciding factor either way. That can be attributed to Obama’s personal choice to not be a “race candidate”, but it is also a testement to how far many Americans have come in accepting non- whites in positions of power and prestige.  I have heard pundits in the press say things to the effect of “it’s about time” or “it took long enough”. I too am glad this day has finally come for America, but watching a film that depicted the very painful reality of segregation that existed only fifty years ago really put things into perspective. In the 1950s blacks were “a different species” and frankly I think we have come a long way. My parents were born in 1953 and 1954, my grandparents were raising their families when the repugnance of racism was at its most raw. Although racism is still visible in very real and heartbreaking forms, for those leaders of the civil rights movement who are still around, what was at one time inconceivable is now a reality.

“Matewan” and Reagan

Again… really liked the movie and enjoyed the side movie debate. 

But I thought I would share this. Link.



It is about Reagan and the air-traffic controllers’ strike in 1981. Fairly new in office, Reagan was seen as an American cowboy, because of his Hollywood persona. This intimidation worked not only with foreign diplomats who sometimes didn’t separate the image of Reagan in his movies and in real life, but it also proved to be true domestically when a showdown took place with the strikers. All the air-traffic strikers’ jobs were terminated. Reagan the villain or this story? Unions certainly thought so. 


I bring up the Cowboy Showdown Allegory because someone had pointed out that Matewan had sort of the Western Movie archetype. In terms of the time, Matewan certainly would be suggesting a comparison between Reagan and the ruthless Detectives against the poor, hard-laboring workers.–Jackie Reed


I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neigther given nor received any unauthorized help on this work. – JT Newcomb

The Confederate Army was arguably winning two years into the American Civil War. A long sequence of Southern victories in major battles corresponded to a long sequence of command changes in the Northern army. General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army was especially strong in the early summer of 1863, following decisive victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson describes the state of the Union Army as being at a “low ebb” at that time.[i] Federal efforts in the Western theater were characterized by a continuing and costly lack of success at Vicksburg in addition to the major defeats in the east.

General Lee seized the opportunity in 1863 to take the fight into enemy territory. He saw that summer as a good time to gather resources on Northern soil, taking the war out of Virginia. He believed more importantly that a major victory in the North could provide a basis for peace talks with the United States. Peace Democrats, commonly referred to as “Copperheads”, were gaining strength in the United States government and might soon be in a position to end the war on terms favorable to the Confederacy, namely allowing for the independence of Southern states. A stunning victory on Union ground might also draw the recognition of European powers sought by the Confederacy.[ii] Foreign assistance would be incredibly helpful in breaking the naval blockade that had been restricting the resources of the Southern war effort, but even simple foreign recognition would effectively justify the existence of the Confederacy as an independent nation.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis had favored a generally defensive strategy until this point in the war. A course of attrition seemed most reliable for wearing down Northern resolve to continue fighting. A stalemate or truce would have been as good as outright victory for the South, since all it sought was independence. Lee was, however, able to convince Davis to approve his plan to campaign north of the Potomac River.[iii]

Lee then marched approximately 75,000 men north along the Shenandoah Valley out of Virginia. He endeavored to use the Blue Ridge Mountains as a screen to mask his troop movements. Military intelligence was primarily acquired at that time by means of cavalry patrols. An army might have been able to gain information from enemy newspapers, civilians, or prisoners, but cavalry reconnaissance was the reliable, “professional” means of gaining intelligence.[iv] Lee would therefore avoid detection moving behind the mountains, where it was much harder for federal cavalry to get to his army.

Lee’s own cavalry was separated from the main army during this movement. The cavalry, under the command of J.E.B. Stuart, moved behind the Federal army to conduct raids. Stuart sought Lee’s permission to do so after his recent embarrassment at the Battle of Brandy Station, where Federal cavalry surprised him and nearly defeated his own.[v] Stuart became cut off behind enemy lines on his raid and lost contact with Lee for nearly two weeks during the campaign northward.

The Confederate army was therefore operating with an incredible lack of information when it collided with Union troops outside of Gettysburg on July 1 of that summer. It was by pure chance that Confederate infantry and Union cavalry found each other on that day. The Union detachment was one of many send in every direction away from the main body of the army on its own information gathering mission.

Lee found himself in an unfamiliar position as the fighting took shape at the Battle of Gettysburg. The Southerners had been advantaged until that time by fighting in their own territory. They had known the roads and terrain better, civilians had been much more cooperative with them, their spies were much more effective near home, and their cavalry had been far more helpful.[vi] All of these details reversed when the Confederate army marched into Pennsylvania. Lee faced completely new disadvantages.

Please see “pages” to the right for additional information on the battle and film.

[i] James M. McPherson, “Commentary Track,” Gettysburg, DVD, directed by Ronald F. Maxwell (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1993).

[ii]Terry L. Jones, Cemetery Hill: The Struggle for the High Ground (Cambridge, MA: Da Capro Press, 2003), 9-14.

[iii] G. Moxley Sorrel, Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer (Jackson, TN: McCowat-Mercer Press, 1958), 150-156.

[iv] Craig Symonds, “Commentary Track,” Gettysburg, DVD, directed by Ronald F. Maxwell (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1993).

[v] Jones, 15-21.

[vi] McPherson.

Best Years of Our Lives

Best Years of Our Lives is a great movie with a lot of truth to it. I noticed on one of the countdowns on AOL it is #7 on the greatest inspirational movies list which I found pretty neat. It is a very historically accurate movie, almost on the same lines as Glory. It accurately depicts the arrival of WWII veterans back home and the hardships they faced trying to acclimate back into their hometowns. It was a very trying time for soldiers and it was not an easy task for them to return to civilian life. This movie shows the struggles they faced trying to leave their war life behind. It was a very entertaining movie and definitely one of the best movies we’ve watched so far.


Although slow at times, Matewan is one of the more historically accurate films we’ve watched this semester. The movie accurately portrayed the company stores and poor conditions in which the miners worked and lived. The movie also depicted the harsh brutality between the workers and the bosses (bosses holding guns as workers walked out of the mine) and also between the workers themselves. A great example of this brutal competition is when the train first arrives in Matewan and a group of men ambush those who are coming off the train. The characters in the film are fictional but the skepticism concerning joining the union was real. For the most part Matewan was pretty boring but it gave great insight into a very interesting part of history.

Best Years of Our Lives

I wanted to start my post on “Best Years” before the discussion, partially to have time to round out my thoughts and partly because I wanted to write my initial thoughts before hearing the thoughts of the class. Not that I think that my thoughts are really different than anyone else’s, it is just easier to identify mine at this point.

I have to say that I think the movie being made in the time of its subject was very effective. It is harder to judge it as representing ‘history’, as it wasn’t exactly considered history at the time. However, it seemed more realistically emotionally affecting and honest than a good deal of the movies that we’ve watched this semester. Of course, a lot of this could be the fact that we have grown up with many of the recurring faces in the movies that we’ve seen, whereas there is a further distance between us and the stars of this movie and even the subject matter of the movie itself.

Unfortunately, as representative as it seems of a general feeling of the time, it is restricted to a general white, relatively well-off feeling of the time. Its small town setting is not uncommon in movies from any period and is a handy way to represent the entire country by example (is it synecdoche? one of those fancy English major words describes this, I believe). However, it is also a handy way to leave out African-Americans, Japanese-Americans and Mexican-Americans. This, I believe, is where the movie and subject matter suffer the most from coming out of its own time period.

I’ll write more about this after class tomorrow.


Matewan is an interesting movie. From our study and discussion it is apparent that it is one of the most historically accurate of the films we have seen thus far. It does however revolve around two completely fictional characters, Joe and Danny. This is only somewhat disconcerting because they both represent well a certain view in labor history. Joe is a pacifist who embodies a true union supporter – wanting the union to accept blacks, immigrants, etc. so that they can work together to achieve their objectives. Danny (according to Professor McClurken) can be associated with those individuals who shared their first hand experiences of this massacre with director John Sayles. Many of them would have been around Danny’s age at the time of the event.

Overall there is much more to compliment about the film than there is to pick apart.

On the topic of whether or not the degree of historical accuracy of a film directly correlates to how “slow” or “boring” the film is… In a way I agree that there is a correlation. I immediately think documentary and cringe. But if you really think about it there are decent films (entertainment wise) that do portray a section of history very well. Matewan wasn’t my favorite movie, but it did fit into both categories – entertaining and historically accurate, so maybe it is one of the exceptions to our rule. AND maybe it is due to the lack of industry pressure that Sayles is able to create such a film… I like this explanation.


For one of the first times this semester, I watched the film before the lecture on historical content. My impression? Matewan, as far as historical films go, was pretty acuarte to the events surrounding West Virginian coal miners unionizing in the 1920s, as well as to the Matewan Massacre. BUT….I haven’t been so bored by a movie in a long time. Even if a movie is historically acurate, it does nothing to alter public perception if it can’t even capture my attention – someone who enjoys historical films. I kept checking the time every 5 minutes, hoping it would be over soon, but alas, it continued to drone on. One thing that did not help the film’s case in my mind is that the actors seemed to mumble a lot. Maybe this was an unfortunate product of their attempts to acheive Appalachain accents, but it made the diaologue difficult to understand, and the dvd lacked subtitles.
Apparently this film was low budget. Even so, jewels have been known to emerge out of little money…well I would not call Matewan a jewel. I did enjoy the performance by the young preacher boy who I am not sure even existed historically. I always love watching James Earl Jones in movies, but even he could not save this one for me…his portrayal as Few Clothes Johnson was that of a noble Black man, but more like a follower of the union, rather than a leader – especially towards the end when he was picked to execute Joe. He seemed rather feable and naive when holding that gun.
Overall, even though this movie took less historical liberties than a lot of films we have seen this semester, its impact on me was not significant.


This movie doesn’t really deserve to be talked about in great detail, at least not in a historical context. I agree with many peers’ references to Pocahontas. Wyatt and Pocahontas are much the same in that they are both historical characters whose stories have been completely mangled into myth from the perspective of ONE very wrong side of the story. Pocahontas was English-ized and turned into a classic tale of romance and the integrating of cultures. Wyatt was warped into some hero who was ‘just passin through’ when an unfortunate sequence of events happened to his brothers. The key to this story is that Wyatt and his brothers were the victims of the story, when in reality it doesn’t seem to be so. The real travesty for the story is the death of James – inspiring Wyatt to take the law into his own hands and avenge his lost cattle and dead brother. Sigh- not at all what happened. It does make for an interesting story (as did Pocahontas’s reworking), but it is certainly not something to dwell long on given that our purpose of viewing it was to find it’s historical-ness.

We did manage to find a few somewhat accurate portions – the thin line between female entertainer and prostitute (as demonstrated by Chihuahua (GREAT name by the way)), the landscape and garb seemed pretty accurate (they filmed in the desert and wore a lot of the same clothes as was common in that time – the one exception being Clementine), AND to me, most importantly there was a sense of taking the law into the hands of average citizens, which as demonstrated in numerous readings is pretty accurate.

Overall – not a very entertaining movie, and not at all a historically accurate one. At least it was pretty short.

If you liked it, what else could you want?

In response to the other blogs and people who detest this movie’s historical inaccuracy, I don’t care terribly much about it. For one, I don’t even think it’s that great of a film, even for all its fabrications. The film does the same job other Westerns do of perpetuating the myth of the old west as, well, we already discussed it to be. It had a lot of stereotypes (don’t all westerns/most movies of the era?) and a good, believable setting. The only difference is that it implied that this was truth. If people like the popular image of the Old West, who among them really cares (excepting we historians) to find out it if this likeable legendary man is fact or fiction, and risk spoiling their image of him? I mean, really, how many of us cared that much about Wyatt Earp and tried to analyze the movies before this week? This character so marginalized in history that few people know the realities of his life?

After all, as Dr. M. told us, when John Ford was confronted about the film’s historical inaccuracies, he asked something akin to, “Well, did you like it?” [man said it was his favorite] What else could you want?”

The difference between this film and Pocahontas is that this does not mislead people of all ages, all around the country, about some very significant events in our nation’s history and the relations that had such a strong influence on the actions of the earliest settlers. But that’s a whole other story, 8 weeks old. I won’t dwell on it.

I was asked to spell out the sounds (accompanied by gestures) that I used to help articulate a point I made in class discussion…. Clementine’s role was just to be someone to make Doc be like “eehhh,” and for Chihuahua to be all “rrrrgh!” about….

Also, I have a question. So, there’s a town in the middle of the desert. Dr. M. talked about how people were dirty and didn’t bathe often, and that makes a lot of sense especially in the desert, without much water for bathing. But there’s enough water for a town, nonetheless (although perhaps not as much as the alcohol there). Were there a lot of wells? An underground reservoir that a silver strike chanced to be near? And the very night the Earps arrive in town chances to be one with a rainstorm.

Similarly, did anyone notice how there were always clouds in the sky? Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t there very few clouds in the desert? The clouds depicted were obviously immobile, by the way. What’s wrong with having no clouds? Was that too much to ask, or were the filmmakers covering something up?


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