Most people do not spend Oscar season reflecting on the historical dialectic. But walking through the multiplex on a cold night and comparing the posters for Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, I realized that these two films about the Civil War, each of which won two Academy Awards, represent the thesis and antithesis of what passes for artistic sensibility in today's Hollywood.
Lincoln is the thesis: a high-toned tribute to the principle and politicking behind the 1865 passage of the 13th Amendment, aimed at mainstream critics and fans who prefer a pinch of political correctness with their historical drama. The antithesis is Django Unchained, a campy revenge fantasy set in antebellum Texas and Mississippi, targeted to edgy critics and fans who like a little black humor with their bursting blood squibs.
There is much to admire about Lincoln, from Daniel Day-Lewis's Oscar-winning performance to the finely wrought screenplay by Tony Kushner. When Kushner joined the production, the script had already gone through several drafts, each straining to include all the highlights of the film's main source: Team of Rivals (2005), Doris Kearns Goodwin's "multiple biography" of Lincoln and his cabinet. Kushner saved the film by narrowing the focus to the month preceding the passage of the amendment.
Drawing skillfully on the rich store of speeches and letters cited in Goodwin's book, Kushner's dialogue is sufficiently authentic that the two German friends who saw Lincoln with me, both fairly fluent in English, confessed to having missed a third of it. Maybe the Academy did, too, because they awarded the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay not to Kushner but to Chris Terrio of Argo. This is regrettable, because it will only encourage Hollywood's reluctance to put some bite and flavor into its language, rather than making every character, whether pirate, clownfish, medieval knight, or vampire, speak in Southern Californian dialect.
Also regrettable is Spielberg's inability to tell the difference between beauty and kitsch. For example, the production team deservedly won the Oscar for their meticulous re-creation of the steam, smoke, and haze of a 19th-century urban winter, not to mention the eye-straining flicker of the period's indoor lighting. But Spielberg's cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, uses these effects to create so many auras, haloes, radiant beams, and other theatrical effulgences, the film's wartime Washington ends up looking like a painting by Thomas Kinkade.
Likewise the soundtrack. John Williams is a musical polymath fully capable of enlivening an orchestral score with the salt and grit of period instruments and sounds. But unlike Rob Lane's splendid score for the HBO series John Adams, Williams's score for Lincoln is all sugar and molasses. Apart from two fiddle tunes, one fife-and-drum march, and a chorus of Battle Cry of Freedom, it consists of sobbing violins, muted horns, and all the other movie-music clichés that do not warm the heart so much as microwave it.
On this basis alone, I understand the enthusiasm greeting Django Unchained, Tarantino's surreal tale of a freed slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) and a German immigrant bounty hunter named King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) trying to rescue Django's wife from a sadistic slaveowner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo diCaprio). The film has a typical Tarantino soundtrack, wild and eclectic, mixing Verdi, rap, and spaghetti-western music to whip up excitement and—Tarantino's specialty—make us laugh at the sight of graphic violence.
Tarantino first made us smile at graphic violence during the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs (1992), when one low-life character plays an upbeat British rock song, "Stuck in the Middle with You," while slicing off a police officer's ear. In a similar vein (artery?), the soundtrack of Django Unchained sets a harp solo of Beethoven's Für Elise against a scene in which Django and Schultz share brandy and cigars with Candie in his mansion while two naked "mandingo" fighters (gladiator slaves) maul each other on the carpet.
The mandingo fighter is a fiction, the subject of a cheesy 1957 novel made into a cheesy 1975 movie. But that is the key to understanding Django Unchained. Of all the responses to this film, the most troubling is the praise heaped upon it as a serious treatment of American slavery. It is not that, any more than Tarantino's previous film, Inglourious Basterds (2009), was a serious treatment of the Nazi Holocaust.
As every Tarantino fan knows, his formative years were spent among the "B" movie racks of the video store where he worked. Today that humble video clerk has achieved wealth and fame. But though wealth and fame often broaden the horizons of self-made artists, they have not broadened his. Just to cite one example: Django Unchained is set in 1858, the year of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. But any reference to those debates, or to any other relevant fact, such as the irregular warfare already occurring in Kansas and Missouri, would be totally out of place in this film. The director's anti-elitist image cannot allow such references, because it depends on the boast that everything he knows about the world he learned from such "B" movie genres as the spaghetti western, slasher film, blaxploitation flick, and second-rate kung fu movie.
Thus, Django Unchained is not about slavery but about Django, a spaghetti western made in 1966 by Italian director Sergio Corbucci. Bankrolled and distributed by Hollywood but produced in Italy and Spain, this genre is best represented by the films of Sergio Leone, who had the foresight to cast the young Clint Eastwood as the nameless, cold-blooded anti-hero in films such as A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). Likewise, Inglourious Basterds is not about the Holocaust but about The Inglorious Bastards, a 1978 "macaroni combat" flick directed by Enzo G. Castellari.
In sum, Tarantino's formula is to start with a movie from the lower end of the "B" movie scale—a "C" movie, if you will—then jazz it up with a talented cast, a lot of clever, pointless dialogue, and a score designed to produce maximum moral dissonance between the music on the soundtrack and the bloodletting on the screen. This is what many people (including me) find so objectionable about Tarantino's films: not the violence per se, but the glee with which we are invited to watch it.
The real question is whether the weighty subjects of slavery and the Holocaust force a moral framework into this formula. My answer is yes, they do. But the improvement is marginal. The only real change here is between a nihilistic cartoon and a melodramatic one. That is, instead of inviting the audience to cheer when one low-life character blasts a hole in another, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained invite the audience to cheer self-righteously when a cartoon hero blasts a hole in a cartoon villain.
Does this dialectic have a synthesis? Yes, but unlike the historical synthesis, which is found in the future, this cinematic synthesis is found in the past—or rather, on Netflix. While comparing Lincoln and Django Unchained, I found myself thinking a lot about Ride with the Devil, a 1999 film directed by Ang Lee and based on a novel by Missouri author Daniel Woodrell. This extraordinary film about the guerilla warfare waged in Missouri and Kansas between Confederate "bushwhackers" and Union "jayhawkers" during the 1860s combines the best attributes of Spielberg's and Tarantino's efforts while avoiding the worst.
Badly edited and barely marketed, Ride with the Devil quickly sank into the obscurity of the battered videotape I rented—and greatly admired—about a decade ago. Fortunately, I was not its only admirer. In 2010 a restored director's cut version was released on DVD from the Criterion Collection, and this version is well worth seeing. Indeed, this 14-year-old film does a better job than either Oscar nominee of making the Civil War live and breathe for the early 21st century.
As noted above, the chief virtues of Lincoln are the authentic production values and the superior acting and writing. These same virtues pervade Ride with the Devil. Filmed on location in and around Pattonsburg, Missouri, its only real peer in terms of period detail (and the use of Civil War re-enactors) is the 1993 epic, Gettysburg. The cast, headed by Toby Maguire and Jeffrey Wright, brings to vivid life the gnarly, antique language of the novel, which may not be quite the way Americans talked in the 1860s, but comes close enough.
For instance, here is how Maguire's character, a bushwhacker named Jake Roedel, explains why losing a finger in a firefight is actually a blessing. Predicting that eventually the Unionists will "riddle me and hang me from a way tall limb like they do," and that "[n]o Southern man would find me for weeks or months, and when they did I'd be bad meat," Jake looks on the bright side: "Surely sometime somebody would look up there at my bones and see the telltale stump and reply, ‘It is nubbin-fingered Jake Roedel!' Then you could go and tell my mother that I was clearly murdered and she wouldn't be tortured by uncertain wonders."
As these lines suggest, there is nothing kitschy or schmaltzy about Ride with the Devil. Neither is it politically correct in the manner of Lincoln, reminding us at every turn (lest we backslide) that slavery was really, really bad. On the contrary, Ride with the Devil seems at first glance to be less politically correct than Django Unchained, which after all, reminds us at every turn (and as luridly as possible) that slavery really, really sucked.
Most notably, Ride with the Devil is told from the Confederate side. Jake is the son of German immigrants who sympathize with the North. But after witnessing the killing of his best friend's father by jayhawkers, he joins the bushwhackers and spends the next two years in skirmishes with Union irregulars and raids against Union-sympathizing civilians. These scenes contain enough gunfire and bursting blood squibs to satisfy all but the most gore-addicted Tarantino fan. And they are more skillfully choreographed, filmed, and edited than any of Tarantino's celebrated action sequences.
A Moral Framework
But here is the difference: Ride with the Devil has a moral framework more hard-edged and historically accurate than either Lincoln or Django Unchained. To be sure, Lincoln does not show cartoon heroes blasting holes in cartoon villains. But for all its rich talk, dry humor, and political shrewdness, Lincoln is more melodrama than drama, let alone tragedy.
For example, the states-rights and popular sovereignty arguments set forth by Stephen Douglas in 1858 were inferior to Lincoln's arguments based on the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence. A more serious film would have dramatized those arguments, if only because hundreds of thousands of Americans died defending them. But Lincoln turns tragedy into a moralistic face-off between nasty white racists and noble abolitionists, with the humble black folk waiting on the sidelines.
The point is that neither Oscar-winning film has a scene like the one in Ride with the Devil in which Jake and his fellow bushwhackers join Quantrill's Raiders as they invade Lawrence, Kansas, and begin shooting every man and boy in sight. This famous massacre contains as much bad-ass killing as your average Tarantino film. But it does not invite us to cheer. On the contrary, it horrifies us by showing the terror of the victims and the agony of their families.
The Lawrence massacre also horrifies Jake, and the event is a turning point in his life. Breaking into a restaurant on the main street of Lawrence, he orders the proprietor and his son to cook breakfast for him and his companions. Still brandishing his gun and speaking harshly to the proprietor, he greedily devours his eggs—and it is only when another group of raiders arrive, lusting for more blood, that we realize Jake's true intention, which is to spare these two lives at least.
Men and Charlatans
Finally and most important, neither Oscar-winning film has a character like Holt, the former slave played with brilliant understatement by Jeffrey Wright. Holt has been freed but remains loyal to the white master he grew up with, George Clyde (Simon Baker). Indeed, Holt's loyalty is so strong that he has followed Clyde into battle against the North, and when Clyde is killed halfway through the film, the freedman erupts in grief.
Yet this is not the sum total of Holt's character. On the contrary, through his friendship with Jake, who, unlike Clyde, treats him as an equal, Holt gradually sheds his servile manner and becomes a man. This transformation is easy to overlook, because it takes place mostly in the background. But by the end, Wright's amazingly subtle performance turns out to be the key to the whole film. Anyone who doubts this is hereby urged to watch the interview with Wright on the Criterion Collection DVD.
There are no characters like Holt in Lincoln, which ends with a sepia-toned recitation by Day-Lewis of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address that omits the part about both sides praying to the same God and reading the same Bible, while the Almighty proceeds with his own purposes. To fully appreciate those words, a filmmaker would have to understand that the American Civil War was not a morally simplistic melodrama but a fratricidal tragedy.
Nor was it a morally simplistic cartoon. Along with Jake and Holt, Ride with the Devil contains a character named Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), for whom the civil strife in Missouri and Kansas becomes a soul-killing horror. This same horror now grips millions of people in the world, as out-of-control blood vengeance claims innumerable lives, including those of many American soldiers. This is what I find most offensive about Tarantino's recent films: their celebration of blood vengeance as the answer not to fictional injustices but to real historical ones.
Far be it from me to suggest that Tarantino ever ventured into the "A" movie racks to watch Ride with the Devil. But it is a rather striking coincidence that Django Unchained also features a former slave realizing his manhood through his friendship with a German immigrant who is himself an outsider in the war-torn American South. If you want to see this story done well, in a way suitable for grown-ups, then skip Django Unchained and see the director's cut of Ride with the Devil. It won't restore your faith in Hollywood, but it might remind you that not everyone there is a charlatan.