A small-budget film dramatizes the passive motives of Civil War enlistees.
The following are reasons that Henry Mellon, the protagonist of the film Men Go to Battle, volunteers to leave his home and fight for the Union in the Civil War: his brother, Francis, has thrown an ax at him in a spirit of fun; one of his mules has run into the woods; the local rich girl has spurned his advances; his arable land is choked with weeds; Francis is taller and more confident than he is; a rainstorm has drowned six of his chickens.
The following are not evident reasons for his enlistment: patriotism, abolitionism. Henry can neither read nor write, and he shows no interest in the world beyond his town, Small’s Corner, Kentucky. The rich girl he likes is waited on by enslaved maids.
He slips off to the army on a winter night. Weeks later, he composes a letter home, dictating to a literate comrade: “I have all the beef and salted pork I want.”
Men Go to Battle, currently playing in a small number of theaters, is unusual among Civil War movies in that it dares to dramatize the established truth that the war was fought largely by people who harbored no particular ideology whatsoever. Civil War movies are typically about people like Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln), Robert Gould Shaw (Glory), Robert E. Lee (Gettysburg), the founders of the Ku Klux Klan (Birth of a Nation), and principled Southern defectors (this summer’s pedantic Free State of Jones), that is, people who cherish strong beliefs of one kind or another and take a stand. Henry Mellon stands for nothing. But he fights in the Battle of Perryville, at once panicked and sleepy-eyed, marching into artillery fire, shooting his rifle at Braxton Bragg’s line of gray, which must be somewhere out there on the far side of the cloudy explosions..
The Perryville scene represents a feat of generalship on the part of the director, Zachary Treitz. Working around a meager budget of five hundred thousand dollars, he persuaded Civil War buffs reenacting the battle to let him come and film them, with his actors infiltrated into their ranks. To secure the buffs’ cooperation in his vision, he cooperated in theirs; he dressed himself and his crew in period costume and cloaked his cameras in canvas sacks so that they looked like bags of potatoes, leaving the reenactment unsullied by modernity. And he found a way to shoot the columns of infantry almost entirely from the back, so that you’re barely ever aware that you’re looking at fat, sporting middle-aged men rather than emaciated, frightened teens. When the camera draws close to individual grunts, their faces are boyish, blank, dirty, and worn. Dust and smoke complicate the texture of the autumn sun. The green Kentucky hills are fringed pink with impure firelight. Whenever a soldier drops and lies on his face, you have no idea who has killed or wounded him or by what means. Like Henry, you never know what’s going on.
“We had this sock of dirt,” Treitz says in an interview with BOMB, “that we would just beat people with to put dirt on their faces.” The grime and haze are not only visual; there is grime and haze in the way the Mellon brothers speak. They talk with wonder and hesitation, as if they are perpetually rubbing grit from their eyes, trying to see what’s right in front of them:
“You don’t typically buy mules in pairs,” says Francis, in one scene, explaining why a recent purchase was a wise one.
“You get ’em two for one?” asks a friend.
“Well, no,” says Francis. “But I got two of them.”
Treitz’s approach to war is not new to cinema, of course. Altman, Coppola, Kubrick and many others have foregrounded chaos and meaninglessness in great films about World War I (Paths of Glory), Korea (MASH), and Vietnam (Apocalypse Now). But those films are about bad wars. What is distinctive about the feeling of meaninglessness in Men Go to Battle is that the war that appears to have no clear meaning for the characters is in fact the most meaningful of all wars, the most justified, the best, the one we reenact and obsess over the most. Even a war that had a great purpose was sound and fury to the mass of its participants. (And in fact most white Americans alive in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries looked back on the Civil War as a terrible shame. In their version of history, fanatical abolitionists had pitted brother against brother and imposed an unreasonably negro-friendly regime on the South.)
Abolitionists, Lincoln, and other thinkers and leaders are conspicuously absent from Men Go to Battle, unmentioned. But Henry’s seat-of-the-pants decision making, and bearded opacity of countenance, reminded me of another unsuccessful farmer, Ulysses S. Grant. Grant grew up in southern Ohio, not far from where the film takes place, and married a Missouri slaveholder’s daughter. Grant, like Henry, became a soldier for unwarlike reasons. He accepted an appointment to West Point, he wrote in his Personal Memoirs, in part because his father told him to and in part because the trip to the military academy gave him an excuse to travel to Philadelphia and New York, cities he’d never seen. He hoped to become a math professor at West Point after graduation, but the army sent him to the Mexican-American War, which he regarded as a vile slaveholders’ conspiracy. He rejoined the army when the Civil War broke out in part because he was a failure, reduced to working as a clerk in his father’s tannery. He became, of course, the Union’s greatest general, a savior of the Republic, hailed by Frederick Douglass as the “wise protector of my race.” Just not by his own design. Even Grant’s literary career was unintentional; he wrote his memoirs in the final year of his life, dying of throat cancer, on contract with Mark Twain’s publishing house, in order to save his family from financial ruin. Men Go to Battle has much in common with Grant’s memoirs: a total abjuration of romantic sentiment, a foregrounding of contingency and minor physical detail (the way guns are loaded, the way animals are corralled), plainspokenness, an aversion to speeches, and a candor about the mundane reasons that men join armies.
In the final scene of Men Go to Battle, Henry has returned home to find Francis married to the rich girl, whose attendants have been freed by Henry’s army, Kentucky being a border state. Francis and his bride are polite to Henry, and there is no confrontation of any kind between the brothers. But Francis falls asleep when Henry tells his war stories—this nodding off is the closest any character in the film comes to issuing a political statement—and Henry senses that there is no place for him in Small’s Corner anymore. While his brother dreams, he steals a few biscuits from his kitchen and creeps out into the night. Will he rejoin the fight to emancipate the oppressed? Probably. How else will he get beef and salted pork?