Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Cold Mountain"


     “Cold Mountain” is a war romance set in rural North Carolina during the Civil War. It is closely based on the best-selling novel by Charles Frazier. The movie is a big budget film directed by Anthony Minghella with an all-star cast.

     The movie opens with a recreation of the famous Battle of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg in July, 1864. The horrors of war are accurately displayed as a huge explosion from a tunnel dug under the Confederate trenches creates a massive crater that Union troops pour into only to be trapped with the Rebels firing down upon them from the ramparts. Some Rebels are even throwing bayoneted rifles like spears. The carnage is hellish. There is hand-to-hand combat in the crater. It is a great battle scene. The trenches, uniforms, and equipment are authentic. However, there are some flaws in the battle itself. The battle is partly famous for the participation of black soldiers (some of whom were given no quarter) and yet the movie has only one brief glimpse of a black soldier. This is border line offensive and cannot be excused by the fact that the Romanian Army, which provided the extras, had no blacks in it. Other factual errors are that the battle lasted a lot longer and there was little hand-to-hand. It would have been foolish for the Rebels to give up the high ground to go into the Crater!

Ada and Inman
     After this dynamic opening, the movie leaves the war movie genre to become a modern version of the Odyssey. A Confederate soldier named Inman (Jude Law), after being wounded in a skirmish after his participation in the Crater, decides to heed the pleadings of his girlfriend Ada (Nicole Kidman) to return home. A flashback fills us in on the chaste beginnings of their relationship. They had barely met when secession fires the breasts of the men-folk of Cold Mountain. They part with a kiss and the unspoken understanding that they are meant for each other. The rest of the movie jumps back and forth to tell their separate stories.

     Inman’s trek home brings him into contact with a variety of memorable characters. He hooks up with a sinful preacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who he prevents from killing an impregnated slave. They help a dirt-farmer named Junior (Giovanni Ribisi) with a dead cow and then in his home are seduced by his sluttish women while he steps out. Junior returns with the Home Guard and Inman and the preacher are arrested. Later, Inman escapes when the Home Guard comes under attack from some Yankees. Later, he spends the night with a Confederate widow Sara (Natalie Portman) and her baby. She tells him, “Knock on just about any door – man dead, woman left.” A good summation of the effect of the war on Southern women. When three Yankee soldiers come to the farm house, Inman kills two of them before they can rape Sara and she murders the third who was actually watching over her baby. War is Hell, even away from the front.

     While Inman is on his odyssey, Ada is dealing with problems on the home front. Her father dies, leaving her with a farm to run. Being a cultured city girl, she is overwhelmed. To the rescue comes a salty, hardscrabble farm girl named Ruby (the scene-chewing Renee Zellwegger) who learns her bout farmin’. They develop a close relationship and make the farm productive. This is the least of their problems as they have encounters with the evil Home Guard led by Teague (Ray Winstone) and his psychopathic henchman Bosie (a chilling Charlie Hunman). The Home Guard uses its commission to hunt down deserters and conscription-avoiders to prey upon families. They kill a farmer friend of Ada’s and torture his wife to reveal her two deserter sons who they then kill.

     Things get more complicated when Ruby’s estranged father Stobrod (Brendan Gleason) returns and reconciles with the embittered Ruby. Stobord is hiding in the hills with two fellow deserters including Jack White of the White Stripes. They happen to be musicians which gives the filmmakers the excuse to include some live blue grass to go along with the background songs that are noteworthy for their excellent rendering of period music appropriate for the rural South of this time period. (The movie was nominated for its Original Score and two of its songs.) Unfortunately, Teague comes upon their camp site and Stobord is mortally wounded. Ruby and Ada are nursing him back to health when Inman comes walking up like an apparition. He and Ada do not embrace (?), but after some tentative reacquainting, they consummate their love and live happily ever after. Not! There has to be resolution of the fact that Teague/Bosie are still around. Watch the movie to find out what happens. Have some Kleenex handy, ladies (and some gentlemen).

     First let me dispense with the question of whether “Cold Mountain” deserves to crack the Greatest 100 list. No, because it is not a war movie. It is a romance and road picture set in a war. With that said, it does a good job bringing to light the situation on the home front in the South. This makes it a very good historical movie. It is the rural companion to the upper class “Gone with the Wind”.

      The movie does not claim to based on actual events. However, Frazier did have an ancestor named Inman who deserted and had a confrontation with the Home Guard. Desertions were certainly common by 1864. There was a Home Guard and there were some bad things that happened to innocent civilians who were just trying to survive. I must add here that although the Home Guard deserves its reputation of using its power to settle scores and terrorize some families, many of the deserters were far from saintly. There were numerous deserters who became backwoods outlaws and participated in guerrilla warfare. The rules of war were often blurred in rural areas especially in areas where secession may not have been popular. The movie tends to be one-sided in its depiction of good versus evil. For instance, the incident where the farm mother was tortured is based on an actual occurrence, but the Home Guard had reason to be riled because some of their children had been killed in a raid involving the deserter sons.

      The acting is stellar. The leads have been criticized for having no chemistry, but the characters, Inman and Ada, are not flighty teenagers. They are also not opposites who attract in a typical cinema cliché. They have spent little time together and yet feel a bond. Their's is not a passionate union, but it is mature and there are many strong marriages like this in the real world (but not in Hollywood movies). The supporting characters, including the villains, make the most of their screen time. Zellwegger won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, which tends to show if you want to stand out in an all-star cast, you have to ham it up. The scenery is excellent and the movie was nominated for Cinematography. The music is similar to “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” in its mix of folk and blue grass.

      Definitely a very good movie that has elements to entertain both males and females. 

Rating – 8/10


  1. I have a HUGE question mark in my mind. How can you not like The English Patient but like this? The cinematography is beautiful but that's about it. Chemistry? Zero. Acting? I do not like Jude Law and think Renee Zelllweger acts horrible. She was far better in Bridget Jones, White Oleander and probably even in Chicago, meaning she was already part of the all-star cast and not a nobody since those movies are older than Cold Mountain. And although I usually love Nicole Kidman she was really wrong in this. Why the heck did they make a Civil War romance and none of the leading actors is American? That is so wrong... I don't like it when they cast American actors as Irish (like in Michael Collins) but that goes both ways.
    I hope the novel is better than that. When I watched it I paused it at least 4 times...

  2. That is a good question. The answer is partly that I find the Civil War more interesting and I prefer parallel stories to flashbacks. It also is informative about life on the home front during the war. I learned little from TEP. The supporting roles are more interest.

    I agree about Zellwegger, but the rest of the actors are fine and I found the lack of chemistry between the leads to be appropriate for the story.

    I also agree with your criticism of not using American actors, but I doubt most viewers could care less.

  3. I thought it must have someting to do with it being a Civil War story. I need to watch it again. Movies like this are occasionally better the second time around. The chimstry thing is just something I noticed as well but I agree that it isn't necessarily a bad thing, it could have been an intentional choice. In any case I think I will not re-watch it before reading the book. I still hope that the book will bemuch better.

  4. I still haven't seen this movie, but I plan to read the book first. Your review will be featured on War Through the Generations on Aug. 17.



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