Independent Films Go to Battle With New Civil War-Centric Features

By  · Published on April 18th, 2015

Tribeca Film Festival

History makes for great cinema. Awards season loves true stories. Prestige pictures are usually period pictures. We’re never really done with the past until we make a few films about it, its biggest heroes, its greatest stories, and the horses they rode in on, but that doesn’t mean that every film about the past has to look like every other film about the past (or that said films have to look, ahem, dated). War-centric films typically make for good drama, but a recent uptick in films about the American Civil War has allowed the subject and the genre to embrace something beyond its ascribed genre: creativity.

This year’s Toronto International Film Festival played home to the debut of Daniel Barber’s unabashedly feminist The Keeping Room, a Civil War-set drama about a trio of Southern women – a pair of white sisters and their black slave – who are left behind to tend to their crumbling home and farm while the war rages just off-screen. This week’s Tribeca Film Festival has a similar feature to show off: Zachary Treitz’s impressively DIY-tinged Men Go to Battle, which instead focuses on a pair of brothers who are trying to keep their lives and livelihoods going as war moves ever closer. Neither film boasts a big budget or an all-star cast (though The Keeping Room does feature Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, and Sam Worthington in its leading roles), but each approach their material with the kind of gusto and daring so frequently absent from studio-made films about similar subjects.

Of course, the Civil War hasn’t been totally appropriated by the indie sphere – we’ll soon see the Matthew McConaughey starring in the fact-based The Free State of Jones, which looks to be taking the usual period film route: historical setting, minor figure, neat story. The casting of McConaughey in the lead role signals the film’s awards season ambitions, and while Jones’ story is compelling as hell, the feature itself will likely not attempt anything wildly out of the box to tell its story. (One ambitious thing to look forward to: the casting of Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Knight’s wife, Rachel).

12 Years a Slave wasn’t made entirely outside of the studio system – this is, after all, a film that was produced by Brad Pitt and his own shingle, and eventually distributed by Fox Searchlight Picture – but it still boasted a much larger budget (around $22 million) than films like Men Go to Battle and The Keeping Room. Similarly, The Free State of Jones is being produced by non-studio production companies, though it’s got the backing of a major star in McConaughey and a well-known director in Gary Ross (hi, The Hunger Games). It’s also got an estimated budget of $65 million, which places it firmly in big guns territory. (Is this thing going to sell to a big studio when it inevitably hits the festival circuit? You bet it will.)

While most larger, studio-backed features are compelled to use true stories – particularly striking ones that have yet to get the big screen treatment, as was the case with 12 Years a Slave and now The Free State of Jones – these new indie movies are more interested in more intimate personal stories that pull from the tapestry of life during the Civil War, instead of documented and precise stories. Both Men Go to Battle and The Keeping Room possess an admirable homespun appeal that is punctuated by an outstanding attention to detail – Men Go to Battle notably used real Civil War reenactors to help make its battle scenes feel frighteningly real – that is reflected in their smaller-scale stories. Although both films feel real, unlike 12 Years a Slave and The Free State of Jones, neither is based on well-known stories and characters. Treitz’s film is loosely based on the experiences of his own family during the war, but that’s the kind of element that adds texture to a story, not literal truth.

Instead of pulling from historical records to craft characters and plots, The Keeping Room and Men Go to Battle emphasize the period, especially how difficult even everyday life was before the war broke out. Although both films are about characters whose lives are colored by the war (in the case of The Keeping Room, one that has been raging for years, while Men Go to Battle is interested in the time just before war breaks out), they are more precisely about the people of that period. They’re intimate and atmospheric, and a testament to the different ways in which a seemingly well-known historical era can be brought – in lively manner – to the big screen.

We’re not done with the past just yet, and if these new features are any indication of the quality of work they can inspire, we shouldn’t be any time soon.