All posts by Cecily N. Zander

Men Go to Battle and the Civil War’s Dark Turn

ABRUPT, adj. Sudden, without ceremony, like the arrival of a cannonshot and the departure of the soldier whose interests are most affected by it. Dr. Samuel Johnson beautifully said of another author’s ideas that they were “concatenated without abruption.”
                                                  – Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
Image of Henry Mellon (Tim Morton) in Men Go to Battle. A soldier with no real reason for going to war. Courtesy of FilmMovement.

In Zachary Treitz’s 2015 film Men Go to Battle, the Civil War becomes the site of a dark comedy. The film follows in a tradition of fictional accounts of the conflict that deal with the violence of war through humor. Just as Ambrose Bierce’s short fiction made the war seem comically ironic and disorienting, the film relies on a tone of dark humor to reconcile the violence of the era with the mundane lives of its central protagonists. In so doing, the film also speaks to the current scholarly focus on the war’s dark side. This places Men Go to Battle in a cinematic tradition of film as a critique of war, but updates that tradition for a twenty-first-century audience.

The film begins with brothers Henry and Francis Mellon, who eke out a living on their Kentucky farm, until the Civil War abruptly arrives. The film opens in November, 1861, in the fictional Small’s Corner, Kentucky. Francis and Henry struggle to manage their 200-acre farm. Low on resources, Francis begins making precarious financial decisions and taking out his frustrations in a series of escalating pranks on Henry, from buying two mules in the middle of winter (“I got a great deal!”) to throwing an ax at his brother in a drunken stupor. The ax throwing incident ends in a severe injury to Henry’s hand and the need for the town doctor’s services. Finding that the entire town has turned out for a party at the home of the Smalls, the towns wealthiest, slave-owning residents, the brothers seek the doctor there. Henry receives treatment for his hand and returns to the party, determined to speak with Betsy Small, for whom he clearly has amatory feelings. Following a fumbling and failed romantic gesture, an embarrassed Henry runs off into the night.

As Francis desperately searches for Henry, the seasons change and spring dawns with no sign of the lost brother. The only noticeable change on the Mellon farm is an ever-larger pile of firewood, the product of Francis’ frustration. Finally, a letter arrives, sent by one brother to another. Francis asks Betsy Small to read the note, discovering that Henry has joined up with the Union army at Bardstown and is in Huntsville, Alabama, with the 23rd Kentucky. The film shifts to depicting Henry’s experiences of army life, filled with endless drill, marching, and singing off-color songs with his comrades around the campfire after dark (and then catching himself on fire after falling asleep too close to the flames).

The film depicts Henry experiencing what the filmmakers clearly believe to be common wartime occurrences. While on picket duty Henry encounters a Rebel soldier with whom he trades coffee for tobacco. The Confederate asks him if he will bring a newspaper the next day. As his unit prepares to go into battle, Henry writes to Francis that “this war might last longer than me.” As the din of battle draws closer, Henry tears up the letter as the other soldiers around him do the same. After collapsing in battle, Henry decides he has had enough of army life, and, shedding his soldier’s coat and cartridge box, he sets out for home on foot, avoiding Union troops along the way. He returns to find that Francis has married Betsy Small, whose rejection of his advances had caused Henry’s initial flight from home. After spending a night in his old home Henry rises early the next morning and the film cuts to black, suggesting the farmer turned soldier will not be staying.

Henry Mellon (Tim Morton) and Francis Mellon (David Maloney). Down-on-their-luck farmers in rural Kentucky. Courtesy of FilmMovement.

The film’s depiction of the war draws on various strands of Civil War memory, though it does not fit neatly into any interpretive category, be it the Lost Cause, Emancipation, Union, or Reconciliation causes.[1] Henry’s motivation for joining the Union army is presented as a combination of his own embarrassment and their geographic proximity to the North. If anything, the film proposes that men like Henry and Francis had no reason to care about the war at all; it was simply something else to do—something other than unproductive hardscrabble farming. The war, the film suggests, could be joined and left at will. The film uses the Civil War as the backdrop for a dark comedy, where physical and emotional violence occurs with little effect on its characters. In some ways, this humorous yet disaffected portrayal of violence means that the film fits into a new interpretive category of Civil War popular culture and memory: the so called “Dark Turn.” This term describes the new wave of scholarly studies focused on the physical and mental violence of the Civil War and the lasting effects of that violence on those who experienced it.

Defending this new Dark Turn in Civil War scholarship, Brian Matthew Jordan has argued that such studies are crucial because “Civil War Americans themselves wrestled with the war’s purpose, debated its meaning, and were preoccupied by its violence.”[2] While this interpretative trend has its scholarly detractors, it is clear in Men Go to Battle that some of its preoccupations are filtering into mainstream cultural depictions of the Civil War. While the violence of the war itself intrudes on the lives of the Mellon brothers, their day-to-day lives condition them to accept a bleak future, which the film emphasizes through its under-lit scenes and grainy texture. The war throws friends out their homes, has neighbors on edge about being killed by their slaves, and sees Francis being punched by Union soldiers in the street. The only recourse the brothers have for countering the violence is their humor.

Lieutenant A.G. Bierce, 1862. Bierce served in the 9th Indiana Volunteers until he was wounded in 1864. Courtesy of The Ambrose Bierce Site.

The Civil War produced its own dark sense of humor, a tone Men Go to Battle channels in its screenplay. No soldier captured this tone better than Ambrose Bierce, whose short stories of the war are imbued with the same sensibility. For Bierce, war and violence could serve as a point of mockery or disorienting strangeness, as Stephen B. Cushman has discussed in his analysis of Bierce’s short story “Chickamauga.”[3] A veteran of that battle, Bierce knew of what he wrote. The experiences Bierce had in the army informed much of the short fiction he later wrote. The characters that Bierce depicted in his stories were often presented as heroes. Heroes, however, who could not escape the cruel irony of war, like Carter Druse in “A Horseman in the Sky,” forced to shoot his own father; or Captain Coulter in “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch,” who shelled his own house and killed his family. Walt Whitman famously said in reference to the Civil War that “the real war will never get in the books.”[4] In Bierce’s stories this platitude seems painfully true.[5]

If the real war never got into the books, it might follow that it will never appear on screen. While films from the post-Vietnam period contained similar critiques of war and its violence, in recent years the focus of Civil War movies has been trained on the celebration of an emancipation narrative.[6] Men Go to Battle offers a new imagining of the war for a modern audience accustomed to films centered on the conflict that are imbued with purpose and moral righteousness. Instead, Men Go to Battle evokes a mood reminiscent of the Dark Turn in recent Civil War scholarship, with its tacit acceptance of violence as a fact of the war and nineteenth century life. It combats this violence and the hardships experienced by its characters with a tone that is both humorous and disorienting, leaving the viewer uncertain whether to laugh at the struggles of two failed farmers or feel empathy for their plight. While the film certainly does not rise to the level of Lincoln, Glory, or Gone with the Wind as a tool with which to teach interpretations of the conflict, it offers students and scholars alike a moment to reflect on how cinematic Civil War will appear on their screens in the future.

[1] For an explanation of these categories and examples of pre-2008 Civil War popular culture in each interpretive vein, see Gary W. Gallagher, Cause Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008). Scholarly work on Civil War memory such as Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015) has discussed the paradoxes of the memory of the conflict in the popular imagination—including the denial of the centrality of slavery to the Confederate cause and the more modern emphasis on the Union armies fighting a war to end slavery (see Janney, 309).

[2] Brian Matthew Jordan, “The Future of Civil War History,” Emerging Civil War, June 23, 2016 < https://emergingcivilwar.com/2016/06/23/the-future-of-civil-war-history-brian-matthew-jordan/>.

[3] Stephen B. Cushman, Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shape What We Know About the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 115-145.

[4] Walt Whitman, Prose Works 1892: Specimen Days, ed. by Floyd Stovall (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 116.

[5] For a sense of Bierce’s fiction the edited collection Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War, ed. William McCann (Washington DC: Regnery Publishing, 1956) is an excellent starting point.

[6] As noted by Gallagher, “throughout the 1990s and beyond, Emancipation has achieved dominance, with Reconciliation maintaining a steady but secondary presence in a number of films.” [Gallagher, Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten, 92.]

Cecily N. Zander

Cecily N. Zander is a PhD student studying the Civil War and nineteenth century U.S. History at The Pennsylvania State University. She earned a B.A. in History from the University of Virginia. Her current work focuses on the intersection of the Civil War and the Indian Wars. Broadly, her work seeks to explore how the West figured in the military and political policy-making of the United States throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction.