Reviews - What do customers think about God, Man, & Hollywood: Politically Incorrect Cinema from the Birth of a Nation to the Passion of the Christ?
"Into" films? These essays inform and provoke Aug 10, 2008
This book is for anyone who is "into" movies. Professor Mark Royden Winchell of Clemson University has written full essays on eighteen key films (listed below) and shorter profiles of 100 other movies. According to the author, the movies are all "politically incorrect," though for different reasons -- their portrayals of race, war, violence, and religion among them.
The author is a conservative, but not a predictable one. In the book's forward, a liberal colleague who teaches film at Clemson, R. Barton Palmer, praises Winchell as rational, informed, and passionate. He says Winchell "does not write with the single-minded and ultimately unpersuasive fervor of the true believer."
There's a lot to chew on in the essays, and individuals of different political dispositions will like some of the commentaries and blanch at others. My guess is that the blanch-to-praise ratio will be higher for liberals than conservatives, but every reader will do some of both. Every reader will also encounter fresh views, especially as Winchell wrings new meanings out of individual movie scenes.
There's no particular need to read the essays in the order presented, and the essay on "Ben-Hur" is a good place to start. Winchell's treatment embraces the original book by General Lew Wallace, references the popular stage plays that popularized the story, and describes and compares the silent movie starring Francis X. Bushman and the epic film with Charlton Heston. A strong point each of Winchell's essays is placing a film in the context of the times; in the case of Ben-Hur, that requires reference to 1880, 1926, 1959, and now. Every fan will learn something new and revealing in these essays.
Essays on "Birth of a Nation," "Gone with the Wind," and "Song of the South" touch on the most sensitive and troubled issue in American life, race. Again, Winchell's patient explication of the films will provide much new information. In the review of "Song of the South," for instance, there's as much about Joel Chandler Harris and the Uncle Remus stories as there is about the 1946 Walt Disney film. Here the reader benefits from Winchell's background as a professor of literature.
There's not room in a short review to cover the whole ground, but it's safe to say his interpretations of the films that touch on race are likely to stir controversy. He criticises monochromatic treatments of the ante-Bellum south, the Confederacy, and reconstruction that emphasize racism, and he urges more nuanced views that take into account the values, scholarship, and culture of the time the film portrays and the time it was made.
He scores many points, for sure, and he is right to urge a broader evaluation, in context. But in my view, he does not dislodge the centrality of slavery and racism to secession, the Civil War, and the history that unfolded after the conflict. Many films in the past obscured it, and all who are interested in knowing the true past must untangle how it has been represented -- in the classroom, in literature, and in film -- on the way to grasping the reality. For liberals and conservatives, this book can be informative and suggestive. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has performed a real service by publishing it.
The films covered in the fifteen main essays of the book are: Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, Song of the South, Intruder in the Dust, Ben-Hur, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Patton, A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, The Deer Hunter, Driving Miss Daisy, Shadowlands, Ride with the Devil, Gangs of New York, Gettysburg, Gods and Generals, and The Passion of the Christ.