Cold Mountain adds significance to its shopworn narrative with several brilliant scenes that have only marginal relationship to the story line. That is not an altogether damning comment. Jean Renoir, the great French director, once expressed his admiration for American Westerns: “They’re all the same. You can do anything with them.” The success of a film frequently depends on how well the director assembles the parts to put a fresh face on a predictable story line. The British-Italian director Anthony Minghella has mined American film history and its elder first cousin, American mythology, for the gems that encrust his story of accidental lovers separated by war.
As though looking over his shoulder at John Ford, one of the great curators of American myth, Minghella borrows from “My Darling Clementine” (1946) to illustrate the building of a nation by showing a half-built chapel out in the wilderness of Cold Mountain, N.C. Clementine’s cinematic granddaughter is Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), daughter of the preacher (Donald Sutherland), who leaves Charleston and comes out to the frontier for his health. In the Westerns, pioneers always move from the corruption back East to new unspoiled lands of opportunity in the interior. Ford had Henry Fonda dance with Kathy Downs and fall in love in the partially finished church in the center of Tombstone. Minghella has Ada give Inman (Jude Law) a glass of cider as he nails boards into the roof of her father’s chapel. In both instances, the love and the establishment of civilization will be tested through bloodshed.
In this case, however, the nation being built is the Confederate States of America. When the chapel opens for services, its all-white congregation sits in rigid, gender-segregated rows, singing energetically, one hand holding the hymnal and the other keeping time with a motion that resembles pumping water. A lone rider enters the back door and spreads the news of secession; the men stream out of the church, dancing and hugging one another in joy: “Whoopee! We got our war.” The congregation, like its world, will be tested in the crucible of war and death, never to reassemble as it was before “our war.” Since we look back from the perspective of a century and more, this exuberance produces a sickening stench of the tragedy that will be the context for the love story.
The tragedy is misdirected, however. In the tradition of “Gone With the Wind” (1939) and “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), the two films that more than any others established the Hollywood version of the Civil War, the Old South was a larger version of the congregation in Mr. Monroe’s new chapel. It was an orderly, genteel, regimented, God-fearing land, expanding through its pioneer spirit, yet maintaining its traditional values. Spanish moss spills from the trees, while ladies with parasols and hoopskirts promenade in front of colonnaded porches. This was a myth worth dying for, as the menfolk did, by the tens of thousands. The tragedy, according to the myth, was that they lost, and their way of life was destroyed forever. The movies revere Scarlett O’Hara for her gumption in surviving the Union invasion, not for having grown wealthy by presiding over a concentration camp of slave laborers. In “Cold Mountain” Ada leaves a reception for her neighbors to bring root beer to “the Negroes,” who live in a cabin some distance from the preacher’s house, and who, she assumes, will be grateful for her thoughtfulness.
In fairness to both Minghella and Charles Frazier, author of the National Book Award-winning novel of 1997, slavery surely played a less prominent role in the mountain country of North Carolina than it did among the rice and cotton plantations of the coastal plateaus. But the story moves beyond Cold Mountain to situate its characters within the larger currents of history, where slavery certainly did count a great deal. Again the movie tradition provides precedents. In “The Birth of a Nation” a ruined family, mother and children alone, cringe behind a thicket. The camera pans slowly from them to a shot of Sherman’s army in the distance hacking its deadly path to the sea, and then back to the innocent victims of war. Both films balance personal loss with cosmic dislocation. D. W. Griffith, however, for all his obnoxious racist distortions, at least moved the issue of slavery into the foreground of the wider conflict between cultures.
For Frazier and Minghella, slavery seems an afterthought. When Inman leaves the military hospital and begins his long walk from Petersburg, Va., back to Cold Mountain, he stumbles upon a band of refugee slaves in a corn field. They stare at the wounded deserter but say nothing. Inman is more attentive to the basket of eggs they carry, and offers to buy one for a Confederate dollar. They say nothing and walk away, content to leave him with his hunger. Minghella used egg-imagery as a sign of lost hopes in “The English Patient,” when a character without thumbs drops one. Utilizing the Easter-egg imagery of new life, Minghella showed that the character had no future. In “Cold Mountain” he suggests that the slaves continue their journey with hope, but Inman, despite his dollar and his pistol, can expect little at the end of his travels.
The fighters and their abandoned families of Cold Mountain are not pro-slavery. They appear not to have given the issues of the war much thought, beyond their determination to keep the North from destroying their way of life, as loosely defined as it is. This lack of purpose diminishes the tragedy. In a terrifying early sequence, the Union army tunnels under Confederate fortifications at Petersburg, fills them with barrels of gunpowder and sets off a horrific blast intended to end the war. The carnage rivals the opening of “Saving Private Ryan.” The blast produces an earthquake that literally tears away the very ground upon which the Confederates stand. Union forces charge, but become trapped later when the walls of the crater collapse, barring their advance, while secondary waves block their retreat. The surviving Confederates pour down their fire on their helpless enemy. The image stirs both reminders of Vietnam and portents of Iraq. Why are they doing this to one another? For men on both sides, there is no reason. It seems but a terrible accident of history.
The strain of war brings out the worst and the best in those who survive beyond the margins of battle. A self-appointed band of vigilantes takes control of the countryside, menacing the citizens and hunting down deserters, whose numbers swell after the blood-soaked stalemates around Richmond during the autumn of 1864. The war is lost, but it cannot end. Inman faces more danger from the bounty hunters than he ever did from the Union army, and at one point they put him in chains like a runaway slave, the ultimate degradation for a Confederate soldier. The Cold Spring Home Guard crushes an older woman’s hands between fence railings to exact information about her deserter sons. They are no better than the Yankee raiders who expose a sick infant to the cold to force its mother to give them all her hidden food supplies before they rape her.
While war brutalizes the men, it ennobles the women. Ada arrived in town a misfit, which Minghella establishes by having her ride to her father’s house, facing backward and playing a piano placed sideways across the wagon. It is a surreal image worthy of Fellini, but it provides a perfect image of her dislocation. With Inman away at war and her father dead, Ada sheds her delicate Charleston ways, sells the piano, puts on boots and trousers and learns to run her farm with the help of Ruby (Renée Zellweger), a dynamo who provides both common sense and know-how. She will work like a slave, but as she makes clear from their first meeting, she will not be treated like one. She provides humor in an overly solemn film, but she is not a clown. To Ada, an ill-tempered rooster is a menace; to Ruby, he’s dinner.
Both book and film end with an epilogue, set in 1874, nine years after the war. Ada hosts an outdoor meal for the survivors. Frazier sets the scene in October, a time of harvest after the toil of planting and reaping; Minghella makes it an Easter dinner, a celebration of the new life that rises from death. Both make it a happy ending, a Hollywood ending to a mythical story. It’s too bad that history couldn’t have resolved the plot as quickly as the myth.