Among the movies being removed from Netflix for the end of the decade was Class of ’61. With a running time of only a hour-and-a-half it was something I could commit to finishing before the New Year rang in. My watching it spurred me to try out a game I’d acquired but had yet to play. I’ll save that, though, for another post.
This film was created in 1993 and stars an impossibly-young Clive Owen. It was a follow-up of sorts to Ken Burns’ The Civil War, riffing on some of the themes from that series as only a dramatization can do. The project brought together Steven Spielberg, in the role of producer, and his soon-to-be regular cinematographer Janusz Kamiński. Historical oversight was provided by Civil War author Shelby Foote with contribution from Ken Burns. The project, like Burns’ The Civil War, was envisioned as a series, but the show was not picked up and what we are left with is the pilot episode as a “film.”
The key historical plot element is the loyalty oath that West Point cadets were made to swear after Fort Sumter surrendered. Students were from both North and South and the Army thought it prudent to try to lock in those Southerners who might be considering returning to their home states to join the rebel cause. I gather that the oath was modified somewhat to require allegiance to the “National Government,” a clear reference to the budding rebellion.
I will support the Constitution of the United States, and bear true allegiance to the National Government; that I will maintain and defend the sovereignty of the United States, paramount to any and all allegiance, sovereignty, or fealty I may owe to any State or Country whatsoever.
-from the 1861 West Point cadet oath.
The drama begins as many of the Southerners refuse to take the new oath and instead depart West Point (Seniors only a few weeks shy of graduation) to return to their home states. In particular we follow three cadets. The first and, as far as the movie goes, least important, is George Armstrong Custer who really was, as portrayed, the last in the class of June 1861. The distinction of the month is necessary. The “real” Class of ’61 graduated in May. What was originally the Class of ’62 had their graduation accelerated due to the surrender of Fort Sumter in April. The West Point program was five years of study but the June class of 1961 as well as the subsequent wartime class were all graduated after four years. Custer’s two classmates and close friends from the series are fictional, cast as a top and a middling student who also happen to be a future infantry and a future artillery officer (to offset Custer’s attraction to the Cavalry). Of course, they represent the divided country as well. Custer was from Ohio and of German (aka Pennsylvania Dutch) descent, a cultural background that is as “North” as they come. Another friend hails from a Virginia plantation where his family owns slaves. The third is an Irishman from the violently-divided city of Baltimore, representing those caught, geographically, between North and South.
As the friends part, various subplots involving love that spans the Mason-Dixon divide, some runaway slaves, and an artillery duel between teacher and student seem to fall into typical mini-series ground. There are also some battle scenes from Bull Run (First Manassas). These look like performances by reenactors, which I can appreciate. The results are rather scant looking battle scenes, apparently limited by the number of reenactors available.
All-in-all, its not great but its not terrible either. If the “movie” seems like too much build up and not enough substance, we had better chalk that up to the fact that this was supposed to be just the first episode in a series. This is all the more glaring at the end when the titles announce that pretty much everyone died.
I had a funny thought while watching the movie. There are a series of scenes where the welfare of slaves is questioned. Were they are being well-treated; are they in fact well off? The film poses several answers. It suggests that the subtle racism of Washington and Baltimore, while not enshrined in law, can feel as bad or worse than the laws of the South. It also suggests that one’s answer depends on one’s audience. That is, just because one doesn’t advocate for one’s freedom doesn’t mean one doesn’t want to be free.
My thought, however, is the in the portrayal of this on-screen. This was 26 years ago. Twenty-six-years-on would it still be possible to portray fictional situations involving slaves and slavery? Especially on the small screen, where this was intended to air? Portray the lives of slaves as too “nice” and you might be accused of being an apologist for slavery and a racist. Portray the treatment of slaves too harshly and you might be accused of being a sadist, trying to create entertainment out of torture and suffering. Perhaps even some form of cultural appropriation. These days, it would seem that the safe route is to try to stick to non-fictional situations and base your drama only on what happened or, at least what plausibly might have happened. Unless you are Quentin Tarantino.
One other interesting little fact associated with this movie. Among its characters, one of the star-crossed love interests is Lily Mackall (or perhaps Magraw), a courier for the socialite Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow. Lily is played by Laura Linney in her first top-billed role. Following the airing of the show, the women’s auxiliary of the Sons of Confederate Veterans was inspired to change its name. They became the Order of the Confederate Rose, naming themselves in honor of Rose Greenhow and her wartime deeds of daring. That seems like something else that you can’t do in today’s America.