Still Standing – The Stonewall Jackson Story

8 03 2008

 

acw_may_08.jpg still-standing.jpg

As discussed here, the version of my review of Still Standing – The Stonewall Jackson Story that appears in the May 2008 issue of America’s Civil War - on newsstands now – was edited about 35% for length.  To perhaps (though probably not) nip in the bud any questions regarding my opinion of the film, I’m posting the original text of the review below.  But don’t let this stop you from sending letters to the magazine.

Let me preface this by saying that I was predisposed to dislike the film prior to viewing, based on some things I had heard about it.  This to me was problematic, so before viewing it I posted a question to the Civil War Discussion Group (CWDG), a Yahoo email group to which I’ve belonged since its inception about seven years ago.  After discussing my problem with a few posters there, I determined that the proper course was to review the film on its own merits: what was the message it was trying to convey, and how well did it argue its case.  The review is not a simple reflection of my thoughts on the message, and has nothing to do with liking or disliking, but is rather an analysis of the presentation.  Note that each paragraph ends with an unexplored paradox.

Irony and paradox: those are the words used to characterize the life of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in the documentary “Still Standing – The Stonewall Jackson Story”.   They are used specifically to describe the story of Jackson as one of a very ordinary man, arising from ordinary, even humble circumstances to accomplish extraordinary things. Beautifully filmed, the DVD has a pleasant musical score and relies more on live action video of sites from the general’s life than on the Ken Burns trademark still photograph panning that has become S.O.P. for historical documentaries.  All in all, this is an attractive package.  But it is perhaps more rife with irony and paradox than the producers intended – paradoxes and ironies ultimately left unexplored or unconvincingly explained.

Focusing on Jackson’s spiritual life, and based on the book “Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend” by Richard Williams, the program features a number of “talking heads”, first and foremost Jackson biographer James I. Robertson.  Jackson’s story is broken down into chronological phases of his life, beginning with his traumatic separation from his mother at  age seven to be sent to live with his uncle Cummins at Jackson’s Mill in what is now West Virginia.    Robertson describes Jackson’s boyhood as one of solitude and loneliness, and tells us that he never got over the separation from his mother, that his uncle was an uncaring, selfish man and that, while he later said his uncle loved him, Jackson “did not know what love was.”  At the same time, his boyhood is also described as shaped by his close friendship with future Union general Joseph Lightburn who, along with Cummins’s slaves, influenced Jackson to accept the gospel.

Jackson’s time at West Point is covered briefly, described as spent engrossed in study, and discussion of his Mexican War service is limited to his three brevet promotions, his dalliance with Catholicism, and the influence on his religious development of his superior officer Francis Taylor.  As for his post-war career, we learn of his baptism while stationed at Ft. Hamilton and of his leaving the army to take a teaching job at VMI, but nothing of why he left or any role his ambition – later described by Dr. Hunter McGuire as “far beyond what ordinary men possess” – may have played in his decision.  At VMI, while Jackson continued his personal voyage of faith, he distinguished himself as possibly the worst teacher in the history of the school.  Despite that, evidence suggests that his students saw something special in “Tom Fool”.

While Jackson’s role at First Manassas and in the Valley Campaign is explored, there is really little analysis of his Civil War record.   In fact, the film jumps from the Valley Campaign straight to Chancellorsville and his mortal wounding, avoiding entirely the paradox of Jackson’s spotty performance during the Seven Days.

At the center of the documentary is Jackson as husband, father, and benefactor of a Sunday school for slaves and free blacks in Lexington, Va.  While establishing himself in the town, he joined the Presbyterian Church and married Eleanor Junkin.  Fourteen months later, his wife and new son were dead, and Jackson’s faith is said to be all that pulled him through a difficult time.  He toured Europe, and on his return quickly courted and married Mary Anna Morrison.  By all accounts Jackson, earlier described as not knowing what love was, deeply, even romantically, loved his wife.

Jackson, who believed that every human being was a child of God, helped to fund a Sunday school to teach slaves and free blacks to read, in order for them to more closely follow the teachings of the bible.  While in violation of Virginia law, he felt that God’s law trumped the law of man.  Committed to the project, he sent his monthly stipend for the school from the battlefield of Manassas.  This scenario presents perhaps the most significant paradox of Jackson’s life.  While Robertson asserts that Jackson did not, in fact could not, fight for slavery, the fact remains that his actions helped sustain a government dedicated to the preservation of that institution; that while the beneficiaries of Stonewall’s bible school would become the freedmen of post-war Lexington, his actions helped delay their attainment of that status; that while Jackson was traumatized by his separation as a child from his beloved mother, his actions helped to perpetuate a system that methodically separated mother from child.

Perhaps a case can be made that for his time and community Jackson was in fact progressive in his views on and treatment of slaves and free blacks.  However, “Still Standing” does not attempt to view Jackson in the context of his circumstances, instead boldly proclaiming him a “champion of enslaved men and women”.  The glaring paradox is that he was at the same time on the battlefield a champion of slavery.   That’s a paradox worth exploring.

Thanks to Senior Editor Tobin Beck for his kind permission to post this.

(UPDATE:  Blogger Richard Williams, on whose book Still Standing is based, has “not commented” on this review here.  He suggests that I can find explorations of all the paradoxes in the film in his book.  As I said, I reviewed the film on its own merits.  Sweet cross-marketing pitch though!  I’m not sure what you found “curious” about my comments but no, I didn’t consider the review a “dreadful undertaking”, just a challenging one.  As for my comments speaking for themselves, I sure hope they do – that’s what I was going for!)

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13 responses

10 03 2008
David

Harry-

You have raised a number of key points, but still left us hanging. Ultimately, I believe it is the responsibility of the reviewer to render an opinion – is this worth my time or not?

David

10 03 2008
Kevin Levin

Harry, — You did an excellent job with the review and I agree with your main points. Ultimately, you must judge the film on its own merits regardless of what is contained in the book. I read the book and believe me it doesn’t help. I understand why you described sections of the film as a paradox; on the other hand, however, I have to wonder whether the problem has more to do with confusion over the issues involved. Hope you don’t mind if I link to my own review of _Still Standing_: http://civilwarmemory.typepad.com/civil_war_memory/2008/01/review-of-still.html

10 03 2008
Harry Smeltzer

David,

Whether or not it’s worth your time depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for an exploration of any of the issues the film raises, or even recognition that it raises them, I think you’ll be disappointed. If you’re looking for lots of new information about Jackson, or even a concise biography of him, again I think you won’t find it here. If you want a pleasant film with good cinematography, a nice score and a couple of factoids you may not have been aware of, this fits the bill. Jackson “fans” will no doubt like it. And that’s not an insignificant universe.

10 03 2008
Michael Aubrecht

Hi Harry. I’m actually surprised to see this film being reviewed in such a ‘secular publication.’ I am sure that presented a challenge to you. It is good to see everyone chatting about ‘Still Standing.’ HOWEVER, one issue that people are continuing to neglect in their discussions (and I made a point of putting in my review for the Free Lance-Star) is that this is a CHRISTIAN MOVIE made by a CHRISTIAN MOVIE COMPANY. Yes, it features familiar experts, but it’s ultimately created for a Christian audience to see the power of the Holy Spirit in a man’s heart and what that can do. This story (as presented in ‘SS’) is not about scholarship, or uncovering new ground-breaking factoids, it’s about witnessing for our Lord and Savior. I would bet that most (secular people) had never heard of the film company Franklin Springs Family Media or Director Ken Carpenter, yet they are the ‘DreamWorks’ of the Christian film realm and Ken has won more awards than Spielberg. So although I fully understand your comments, BUT I think everyone needs to keep the story and the movie in context. ‘SS’ tells of a fervently pious man who introduced those held in bondage to the pathway to eternal salvation. That’s it. Maybe they would have found it otherwise, but he did it and their souls were ultimately saved by it. It’s like “The Passion,’ you either ‘get it’ and its intent or you don’t. Still Standing teaches us about spreading the Good News of the Gospel to everyone, regardless of their status or social standing. I would never expect someone to analyze a lot of my work, including ‘The Southern Cross’ – which is a devotional’ as anything other than an inspirational testament for Christ using empowering stories from the Civil War. Education AND enlightenment is possible. There is a difference in context though when it comes to secular and religious films. If you are a believer, or searching for examples of how faith impacts people, ‘Still Standing’ will be just what you are looking for. If you’re looking for the Holy Grail on the complex and contradictive life of Thomas Jackson that will satisfy both the Christian and academic world… keep wishing…that movie will never be made.

10 03 2008
Harry Smeltzer

Michael,

Thanks for taking the time to coment, and I hope your post-op is progressing well.

I guess I’ll have to take your word for the filmakers’ intent. Other than a statement on the DVD case – “Now, his legacy as a man of resolute Christian character is captured in this revealing documentary” – I didn’t find a clear definition of the “non-secular” focus. Your statement “If you are a believer, or searching for examples of how faith impacts people, ‘Still Standing’ will be just what you are looking for” seems to imply that if you don’t find this film to be what you are looking for, you are either a non-believer, or not searching for those examples, or both.

With the exception of the paradox of Jackson in the Valley vs. Jackson in the Seven Days, the other paradoxes introduced but unexplored in the film all seem to be of a non-secular or moral nature. (I didn’t manufacture these, BTW, all I did was connect the dots between the evidence presented in the film.) Did Jackson “know what love was”, or didn’t he? Was he abnormally motivated by personal ambition? Was he a lonely loner, or was his childhood shaped by friendships? Why was he willfully disobedient to the laws of Virginia when it came to educating blacks, but subservient when it came to the legality of slavery? Is the exploration of these contradictions somehow the domain of either the secular world, or the non-secular world? Is there absolutely no overlap?

As I said in the review, “[p]erhaps a case can be made that for his time and community Jackson was in fact progressive in his views on and treatment of slaves and free blacks.” This film does not really try to make that case. If such an attempt was not in accordance with the film makers’ vision, I think maybe it should have been. Perhaps how Jackson’s faith, as he practiced it, and how it affected his views on slavery, and how it differed or was similar to how others in the wide world practiced their faith, would have been instructive for believers and non-believers as well. I don’t think this is a case of “either/or”.

While the review of this DVD did present challenges to me, its non-secular nature, as you describe it, was not one of them. And I’ll repeat, whether or not this film is “for you” depends on what you’re looking for.

10 03 2008
Kevin Levin

I am so sick and tired of this secular/religious dichotomy that gets floated around in this context. Regardless of whether the film was intended for a secular or religious audience does not negate the fact that claims are made about the past. Those claims could be analyzed in terms of how well they inspire or whether they are historically sound. Your response to Aubrecht hits the nail on the head. It’s ashame that they couldn’t publish your review in its entirety.

10 03 2008
Harry Smeltzer

Let’s nip this in the bud. Michael has posted his repsonse to my review here:

http://www.angelfire.com/ny5/pinstripepress/PPBlog/

If anyone wants to address his comments, please do so on his site.

I appreciate your sentiments regarding my response, Kevin. While I’m sure it’s not your intent, I don’t want to see this turn into one of those ugly comments feature arguments that flare up in the blogosphere. It has never happened on Bull Runnings, and I want to keep it that way.

10 03 2008
Michael Aubrecht

I see your points Harry. I just thought the Christian-angle was missing. I think that I represent a demographic that ‘knew’ what I was going to get out of the film before I even saw it. And Kevin, the ONLY good thing about being laid up is that I won’t have to listen to you at the Round Table meeting tonight (oops… did I type that out loud. Sorry I’ll await your reply over at my blog :)

10 03 2008
Harry Smeltzer

You both got your shots in, NOW THAT’S IT! I’ve never deleted any non-spam comments from this blog, but I will if the tone doesn’t change. Nobody will know (I hope) when I do it.

This has turned into a fine example of why some bloggers don’t enable comments.

10 03 2008
Michael Aubrecht

Whoa Harry, did not think you’d think that a serious tone. My apologies. I added the smiley face to reinforce the jest. Did not mean to sink to that level. Mr. Levine knows my feelings on the matter. It’s all good my friend.

10 03 2008
Kevin Levin

Thanks for the warning Harry (LOL), but I was simply responding to a point that was made in response to your post. I thought that is what the comments section was for. If my comment sounds like a flare-up then I sincerely apologize.

10 03 2008
Harry Smeltzer

Sorry for my heavy handedness, but I hope you see the reason for it. As I said, I don’t think it’s either of your intents, but these things have a way of getting out of hand. I want the comments feature here to be more like Switzerland and less like Belgium.

10 03 2008
Michael Aubrecht

“I want the comments feature here to be more like Switzerland and less like Belgium.” = So there will be chocolate… but no waffles. Got it. :)

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