This is one of the best Civil War movies out there. Which is not saying much since most Civil War movies are so full of ridiculous pathos, syrupy sentiment and plagued by the flimsiest of plots that they are hardly watchable even for the most ardent Civil War buffs.
This movie doesn’t focus on any big battle. There is not much heroism to be found here. No stirring images of grand armies marching into position to leave you awestruck.
It serves a stark portrayal of how the Civil War affected people off the battlefield. The little conflicts that didn’t make the history books, but were no less bitter. And often more confusing than a pitched battle between two opposing armies.
In this movie five Union soldiers ride up to a farm to forage. A nice word for confiscating anything edible they can find. On the farm live a woman and her young son. Her husband is off soldiering for the Confederacy. Leaving the family almost entirely defenseless. Their sympathies are clearly with the Confederates.
The Union soldiers take whatever they can find. That’s bad enough, but while they are robbing the family blind one of the soldiers has an accident. He’s badly wounded and the soldiers can’t travel until he recuperates. Am not sure if they would have made a similar decision in reality. I think the army would be expecting them back. Maybe they could have left the wounded soldier there with only one guy to protect him. They are there to find food for the rest of the army so I reckon that’s the task they should focus on. But anyway, they decide to stay.
The captain in charge of the little band of foragers tries to act as ethically as possible in this rotten situation. To make up for stealing all their food he starts plowing their field. The woman prefers to stay enemies though. What the captain tries to do, is an admirable act of kindness, but it doesn’t win him the respect of his women. Nor of the pro-Confederate family.
It all gets even more morally complicated when a civilian sharpshooter turns up who tries to kill the men. To the men’s surprise this attacker turns out to be someone entirely different than they were expecting.
Without giving too much away: this movie gives a good idea of the tough decisions hundreds of thousands of people had to make during the war, especially in the border states where loyalties were very divided.
When looking at the general picture it’s tempting to blame certain people for the war. I agree with those historians who have proven at great length that the slave owning class of the south and its allies were primarily responsible for this conflict.
Yet when five ‘good guys’ go and steal the food of a woman and a child it’s hard to see them as the ones fighting the good fight. They themselves frequently lament that they have been reduced to chicken thieves. As it turns out none of them have been in an actual battle. They haven’t ‘seen the elephant’ as soldiers back then described the experience of combat.
In the end you have to conclude that all the characters are victims of a dynamic they had very little control over. A conclusion one also quickly reaches when reading about the tragic wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Hotheads on both sides stoke the fire, some crucial boiling point is reached that forces everyone to pick a side and from then on there is a tidal wave of violence that only peters out when one side has finally had enough.
This movie won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. There are no romantic moments. In the first scenes the woman digs up the body of her daughter for reburial. The character that offers a glimmer of hope is the captain. His humane behavior lessens the burden of war at least a little bit. Bravest of all is the young boy. Although the determined mother also bears her hardships surprisingly well.
The band of soldiers doesn’t come across as all that professional. And that’s a good thing because the Civil War was mostly fought by volunteers who for the most part had no idea what they had got themselves into. This movie is definitely not the Rambo version of the Civil War.
When it comes to historically accuracy I think this movie comes very close to showing what it was really like. The movie Cold Mountain did the same, but it added romance to help viewers stomach all the brutality. The brutality in Cold Mountain is shown more explicitly than in Pharao’s army. I have never understood those machos who have to dismiss this movie as mere ‘chick flick’. What a silly concept to begin it. Cold Mountain contains plenty of gut wrenching scenes that I doubt are to be found in a ‘chick flick’.
Pharao’s army doesn’t have the most suspenseful plot, but it’s a brave plot. Things could have easily taken a very unrealistic turn, but everything that happens is plausible. In a Civil War there is no clear cut frontline and the border between friend and enemy can get very blurry.
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