Antietam, The Movie

“Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution. Poignant longings for beauty, for an end to probing below the surface, for a redemption and celebration of the body of the world. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it.”
Susan Sontag On Photography

Our visit to Antietam started off with the introductory film at the park service visitor’s center. It’s an impressive piece of filmmaking, full of special effects and dramatic battle scenes. It makes very clear that more men died in single day at Antietam than any other day in American history. You are left with a clear sense of the suffering and destruction. We are told of how brave soldiers fought heroically on both sides and that the battle was considered a Union victory, although at great cost.

We get some sense of what happened on the battlefield, but outside of a few key pieces of geography they are quickly forgotten. The context and reasons get only slight mention—not enough to make them memorable and cogent. How the two sides got to Antietam, what they were doing there, what they hoped to accomplish and how this related to the war as a whole is barely mentioned.

This seems to be a consistent problem with many of the most engaging historical films.  We saw this a few days earlier at Mount Vernon. There is great effort put into costumes, acting, cinematography and special effects. It is all brought together to make something that is dramatic, exciting and tugs at your emotions. You feel awed by the events of history and the sacrifices that have been made but no clear sense of what the sacrifice was for. What was the result of all this drama and bloodshed? Was it worth it? Did it accomplish what they had hoped? Was that ultimately a good thing? Was there a better way to approach it?

In the end we have no idea how whether we are watching the Civil War or the French and Indian War.  They feel so much alike and lack the necessary details to understand the difference. They just had different costumes and set decoration. In the end we merely learned that brave people were hacking each other to pieces for vague platitudes and the good guys won. We tend think about war in much the same way as a sporting event and perhaps that is why we don’t give it much thought before starting and fighting them.

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~ by severalfourmany on June 5, 2011.

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