Rich man’s war; poor man’s fight6/29/2016
The two most historically accurate portrayals of the Civil War committed to film are Ronald Maxwell’s “Gods and Generals” and now Gary Ross’ “The Free State of Jones.” Coincidentally, both films focus upon the Confederacy. Not coincidentally, both are receiving poor reviews.
“Gods and Generals” was almost universally reviled for what many viewed as the fetishization of the South’s leaders and cause and for being an overly long, monologue-driven slog. “The Free State of Jones” doesn’t suffer from the first issue but is equally guilty of the second.
The film focuses on the story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Mississippi man who was conscripted into the Confederate army. At the film’s outset, at the First Battle of Corinth, Knight is serving as a medical aid for the Army of the West where he witnesses the wholesale meat grinder that was 1860s warfare. Coming from a family that owned no slaves and was lacking in any personal wealth, Knight views the war as one inflicted upon poor soldiers by rich plantation owners, an ideal that is driven home when the South enacts the Second Conscription Act, which increased the age range for draft-able southern men ages 17 to 50, but included an exemption for the sons of wealthy, slave-owning families. When Knight’s 17-year-old nephew Daniel is killed on the second day of the battle, Knight deserts in order to return the boy’s body home.
After deserting and returning to his own farm, Knight witnesses the secondary effects of the Second Conscription Act, as tax-collecting Confederate soldiers roam the countryside, taking corn, meal and pork from homesteads to further the war effort, leaving poor women and small children home with no food, no money and no husbands or sons. In response, Knight trains the local women on the use of firearms and helps them defend their farmland from the goods-stealing soldiers, an act of open treason for which Knight becomes a wanted man.
With a warrant out for his arrest and execution, Knight flees into the thick Mississippi swamps, hiding out with a small band of runaway slaves. As Confederate desertions continue to mount, more former troops find their way into the swamp, growing Knight’s numbers and emboldening him to carry out raids against Confederate supply lines to take back the food and goods the soldiers had taken from the surrounding farms.
What the film has in abundance is source material. The story of Jones County, Mississippi, during the Civil War, and Knight’s actions within, are compelling and worth telling and re-telling. However, where the execution falls flat is in the pacing. “The Free State of Jones” is a laborious film. Short on action and long on monologues, Ross’ screenplay does too much telling and not enough showing. McConaughey does as excellent a job as possible with the role of Knight, but there just is not enough meat on the bone.
As a lead-up to the film’s release, Ross released www.FreeStateofJones.info, a website that meticulously outlines the film’s historical accuracy, with dozens of footnotes and links to primary sources included. He also outlines where liberties were taken in the story for the sake of storytelling. The character of the nephew Daniel, for example, is complete fiction, and Ross explains why. But the major failing of the film is not how many of the details are real and true, but which details Ross has chosen to focus on and how they are presented. If you are a deep fan of Civil War history, you may find the film entertaining enough. But even the most hardcore of history fans will have a hard time not finding the finished product tedious. CV
“The Free State of Jones”
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali