Letters

Haven't white Southerners suffered enough? Anyway, slavery is irrelevant to the plot (and geography) of "Cold Mountain." Readers respond to Stephanie Zacharek's review.


Salon Staff
January 6, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)

[Read Stephanie Zacharek's review of "Cold Mountain."]

Stephanie Zacharek's review of "Cold Mountain" is racist, inexplicably hostile and intellectually dishonest. Her biggest problem with the story seems to be that it portrays white people suffering during the Civil War. To openly disdain the concept of white Southerners' suffering because of a war caused by other white Southerners would be equivalent to blaming the current conflict in Iraq on every white private in the U.S. Army. The premise is absurd on its face. You don't have to be sympathetic to the concept of slavery to sympathize with the suffering of all the affected parties in what was a particularly brutal conflict. So, no, "Cold Mountain" is not a comprehensive study of the Civil War. Why, exactly, is that a weakness?

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The review sounds, to me, as if Zacharek screened the movie seeking to be offended by it, and her exertions to justify her silly approach are, well, tiresome. One example of her stream of idiotic observations: "Ada, for her part, is devastated by Inman's absence. We know this because she stops combing her hair." Sure, Zacharek, finding the world you've grown up in turned upside down, losing your father, and feeling completely ill-equipped to fend for yourself are not sufficient excuses for allowing your personal grooming practices to slip. Whatever.

I haven't seen the movie, and Zacharek's review does absolutely nothing to sway me one way or the other, primarily because it's clear that whatever she's pissed off about, the movie had nothing to do with it.

-- Hope Lee

I viewed "Cold Mountain" today and enjoyed all two and a half hours of it. Your reviewer nitpicked the film mercilessly and in my opinion, most unfairly. I could agree with the assessment of Jude Law's performance -- it was wooden and one-note. The most glaring flaw in the critique spotlights the reviewer's lack of knowledge about the demographics of the slave population in the South. It was the economics of cotton and the plantation system that enslaved most of the blacks, neither of which was present to any extent in the mountains depicted in the movie. The escaped slaves would most likely have come from the coastal plain seeking refuge in the mountains. The minister and his daughter came from Charleston with slaves, but freed them in Cold Mountain apparently without any regret, even though it made Ada's life on the farm almost impossible. The performances, the story, the photography, the editing and the direction were all outstanding.

-- Seymour Dolnick

Is Stephanie Zacharek trying to be funny? Or is she really that stupid? If "Cold Mountain" takes place in the mountains of North Carolina, then there's good reason for the fact that so few "Negroes" appear in the movie. Slavery was more common in the lowland (and more heavily populated) areas. Among the proto-trailer-trash, who were poor, it was rare. Free blacks left as quickly as possible.

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And yes, white Southerners did suffer a lot during the war. One man in three was killed or dismembered. Artificial limbs were a major state expense for a generation.

If hacks like Zacharek want to know why the South will vote overwhelmingly for Bush, it's because of the condescending, ignorant "we're so much better than you rednecks" horseshit they get from pseudo-liberal writers in "blue country."

Since Zacharek knows nothing about history or geography and has wretched taste in movies, "Cold Mountain" will get my eight bucks as soon as possible.

-- Lance Peppers

I am now making a habit of avoiding your movie reviews until after I see the movies. If I had read this review I would never have seen the best picture of 2003. I was leaning toward "Seabiscuit" and "Mystic River" until this one.

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"Cold Mountain" was a perfectly timed message about the poor fighting a rich man's war, the futility of war, and the importance of believing in something to keep one going. It reminded me of "The Wizard of Oz," where Dorothy had to believe in something greater than herself -- if only a fantasy to survive and become everything she was meant to be and get home on her own. Nicole Kidman played a typical American middle-class woman who looks pretty, can function and be charming, but is basically useless -- housekeepers clean their houses, nannies raise their children, and they go to jobs.

I loved that "Cold Mountain" did not have a Hollywood ending where boy and girl live happily ever after. Most of all, I kept thinking, "Bring our boys home from Iraq -- from this rich man's war."

-- Nancy Firestone

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As a resident of western North Carolina who lives a 20-minute drive from the real Cold Mountain, I have to take issue with Stephanie Zacharek's condescending disregard for the suffering endured by mountain people during the Civil War. It displays an ignorance of the complex history of that conflict, as well as cultural realities that persist even today.

Though the small landed gentry did own slaves, the vast majority of residents, mostly poor Scots-Irish immigrants, eked out an isolated, hardscrabble existence off the land in the face of abject poverty. For them, the Civil War was a rich man's fight that had little to do with the reality of their day-to-day lives. Many joined the Union Army, which nevertheless razed their homes and communities. Others, like Inman, fled the malicious Home Guard. Loyalties grew complicated, but then as now, Blue Ridge residents identified with Dixie about as much as they did with the Yankees: Not at all. If they'd had their way, they would have just been left well enough alone.

Does anyone really benefit from Zacharek's victimhood one-upmanship? I thought the movie was lame, too, but rather than resorting to astonishingly passé stereotypes (those toothless yokels sure talk funny, don't they?), Zacharek ought to recognize that even though a group of white people lives below the Mason-Dixon line, they too might actually have a rich culture and history worth portraying and remembering.

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-- Marcus Wohlsen

Though I haven't seen the movie, I have read Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain." One thing I did enjoy about the novel, maybe as much as its focus on mountain folkways, music and traditions, is its exposure of the politics surrounding the war and the southern Appalachians (pronounced "app-a-latch-shuns," not "app-a-lay-shuns"). Zacharek wonders why only few blacks are portrayed in the film. Well, a big reason is that few lived in the southern Appalachians, the terrain being too steep and craggy for plantation farming. Most people lived on small, self-sustaining farms that required no slaves. They were also a fiercely independent people who preferred not to fight another man's war so that man could have his "state's rights."

Until the southern Appalachians' natural resources were needed and exploited, most Southern states neglected the region physically and politically. Hence West Virginia's secession from Virginia, a move as much about having fair political representation as it was about anything else. It's commonly known that the Appalachian region, deep into Alabama and Georgia (same with the Arkansas/Missouri Ozarks) was politically divided over the war and many stayed neutral (or tried to) or sympathized with the North (Knoxville, Tenn., was known as the southernmost town of Northern sympathy), especially when it became known that England was supporting the South. Supposedly, those in the southern Appalachians maintained a long-standing grudge against England, which sent their Scots-Irish ancestors over as indentured servants. During and after the war, the region was decimated by marauders such as the Home Guard and, yes, southern Appalachian whites did have it rough. Many still do. They also continue to have a difficult time being understood in a world in which simplistic views such as Zacharek's categorize everything in easy black-and-white terms.

-- Kevin Stewart

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In Stephanie Zacharek's review of "Cold Mountain," her biggest quibble with the movie is the lack of African-American characters. She may have fallen victim to her own stereotype of the South. I haven't seen the movie yet, nor am I rushing to do so (in large part because of poor reviews like Zacharek's), but I do live in the mountains of western North Carolina, not far from the real Cold Mountain, and I can assure Zacharek that there truly are not many African-Americans in this part of the country, which had few (if any) plantations. Southern Appalachia is populated primarily by descendants of the Scots-Irish as well as the native Cherokee, and the racial tensions ubiquitous in neighboring areas is here more relevant to the conflicts between Native Americans and European settlers.

The local reaction here in the mountains has nothing to do with the lack of realism, but with frustration that this multimillion-dollar film was filmed in Eastern Europe instead of at the real Cold Mountain. Local folks would be surprised to see large numbers of African-Americans populating the film when today we're more likely to see African-Americans as tourists and not residents.

-- Joan Petit

I am particularly interested in Civil War dramas because of my great-grandfather. He was a "free person of color" who served as a captain in the Louisiana Guard, the black infantry unit in that state. At the beginning of the war his unit was part of the Confederate forces but as the Union began to prevail, the Guard was absorbed into the Union Army.

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Stephanie Zacharek's one-dimensional review of "Cold Mountain" is indefensibly ideological. Stephanie, it's a story! Everyone knows it was tragically unfortunate that the South persisted in the war, so it's OK to make a movie without preachily re-explaining the ethical deficiency of the Confederacy's rationale. It's too bad there are not enough black characters to satisfy Zacharek's quota requirement, but the focus of the story is elsewhere. Unfortunately, her preoccupation with the racial aspect of the screenplay results in a snotty, sour-grapes analysis of almost everything else in the movie.

-- William R. Snaer

Your reviewer, Stephanie Zacharek, seems to have some issues with Southern white people. Apparently she feels there are no stories worth telling about the Civil War that don't involve black people, because her first two paragraphs are devoted to sneering at the lack of blacks in prominent roles in the picture. Then she moves on to sneering at the way Southern whites talk ("This waw-ah -- this awful waw-ah -- will have changed us both beyond our reckoning") before finishing up with a sneer about the sufferings of white Southerners during the war.

Why do you even bother to send an anti-white bigot to review a movie about white Southerners? Or is a cultured contempt for "juiceless" whites -- especially Southern whites -- a prerequisite? It's like asking a member of the Council of Conservative Citizens to review "Malcolm X."

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Yes, I realize she's probably white herself, and no, I'm not a Southern white.

-- Mark Jankus

Stephanie Zacharek betrays a profound ignorance of Southern culture and history. Charles Frazier's novel (and by extension, Anthony Minghella's film) are based in part on historical fact. Cold Mountain is an actual place in western North Carolina, which is part of a larger geographic region called Appalachia.

Zacharek faults the film for its near conspicuous absence of black slaves, as if Minghella has locked them all up in their slave quarters for the duration of his story. Obviously, there were slaves in North Carolina as elsewhere in the South, but slavery simply wasn't a fundamental, entrenched institution among the mountain people.

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The fact is that Appalachia has never had a large black population, nor were its social structure and economy built upon the huge plantations like the ones found in the Deep South. (It's hard to set up a plantation on the side of a mountain.) In the mountain regions, most farms were small, run by "yeoman" farmers.

Some areas of the region sided with the Union. Sometimes the Civil War caused families much grief, with brother pitted against brother. And war is most certainly hell for everyone involved. I recommend to Zacharek that she do her research next time -- Frazier spent about 10 years on his novel -- rather than reiterating mere caricature that she picked up from watching "Gone With the Wind" too many times.

-- Lee Ehlers

I've read several reviews of "Cold Mountain," and each one laments the fact that African-Americans are nowhere to be seen. I don't understand why no one has mentioned that, in Frazier's book, the character Ruby is indeed a true sparkplug and the relationship is so interesting because Ruby is a former slave. She had nitty-gritty farm experience that Ada could easily recognize as her salvation. Black woman saves white woman -- what a great little detail. What happened?

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I cannot understand why, with all the great African-American actors who could no doubt play this role so well, Hollywood has changed a fundamental drama of the story and opened itself to the criticism of an all-white party.

I will buy my ticket and enjoy "Cold Mountain" because I enjoy Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renée Zellweger, but I will wonder through the whole movie how good it could have been if the filmmakers had stayed true to the basic storyline.

-- Gary McCaslin

Is the plot a thin veneer for an ahistorical pacifist message? Is the story a soggy, boring melodrama? Is the whole production just more Miramax Oscar bait? Those are valid criticisms of "Cold Mountain" -- as opposed to some of the bizarre criticisms offered by Stephanie Zacharek.

For instance, Zacharek complains that few blacks get screen time in the movie, and then only in background roles. This is not unrealistic, considering that the action of the film occurs in Petersburg, Va., and western North Carolina in 1864-65. At the time of the Battle of the Crater (July 30, 1864), all the officers and enlisted men of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia were white. So obviously in the army scenes Inman would be surrounded by other whites. And the mountains of western North Carolina did not lend themselves to plantation agriculture, so the region had few slaves. Therefore, it is not at all unrealistic that there would be few, if any, blacks in the home-front scenes of "Cold Mountain." Slavery simply was not a significant institution in the Appalachian South.

As for Zacharek's complaint about the movie's "bland, sepia-toned posing" -- a shadow she sees brightened by a "pleasantly disreputable" and "randy" clergyman -- does she not understand that the American Civil War transpired during the very apex of the Victorian era? That Americans then were a century closer to their British roots ("stiff upper lip" and all) and a century away from radio, television, the birth-control pill and every other modern innovation that has affected our nation's manners and morals? Believe it or not, ordinary Americans once spoke in complete sentences, and were equally capable of quiet contemplation and sober reflection. The "stately pace" of which Zacharek complains might be ill-suited for the contemporary cineplex, but is an accurate reflection of slow-moving life in the rural 19th century South.

There are historical inaccuracies in "Cold Mountain," to say nothing of genuine sources of cinephilic discontent. But Zacharek ought not be faulting the movie for the things its makers got right. And yes, Stephanie, there are still Southerners who manage to find two syllables in "war."

-- R.S. McCain


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