In the story of an epic wartime journey whose source lies in the intimacy of a profound love, the novelist Candida Clark finds both humanity and wisdom.
Anthony Minghellas latest cinematic epic is a great love story. As such, it is also a great anti-war story.
The film is set during the American Civil War of 1861-65, but apart from early scenes which vie with Saving Private Ryan for sheer realism there are no battles, few explosions, no sense of war-plan or stratagem. Nor are there martyrs or heroes. Southern Honour barely makes an appearance and theres little question of a Lost Cause. Theres only the sorrow of death, the fact of love.
This is of course deliberate, and the effect is to have created a potent argument against the impulse to war. Hold a magnifying-glass up to two people, torn apart against their will, as happens in this film, and you dont find much in the way of idealism or abstract theory. Theres just the pain of not being together, and the anger at unwilling separation. Cut them and they only bleed. History is not written or revealed in individual lives. Life is always personal, before and after everything else.
Cotton pickers, photographed by Ben Shahn
Accordingly, it would be simple enough to criticise the film for being ahistorical. This film is not about the politics of race that were central to the civil war. There are no black characters, only types, and those are voiceless: a drugged black woman, bearing a white pastors child; cotton-pickers, their backs turned with industry; unseen workers living in a shack, hidden by a scree of rain.
But while it would be foolish to expect a history lesson from this film, nor will you find any attempt to rewrite what is already known, still less to gloss the facts with Southern glamour. Apparently more than 60,000 books have already been published on the civil war. Charles Fraziers novel, on which the film is based, isnt, strictly speaking, one of them. Neither Confederates nor Yankees are romanticised. Beyond good wardrobe, there are few Southern belle frocks and the uniforms are ill-fitting, dirty and dull, borrowed most often from dead men.
This is not to say the film is altogether apolitical far from it. The political sense underwrites the intention of every frame, the camera lingering in close-up on hands and faces, catching the edge and finish of a smile, the poignant mobility of expressiveness. Its an old technique, but a good one: focus sufficiently on the individual, observe them closely, flaws and all, and it becomes harder to group them under the umbrella of a single identity or cause. Were all born equal, but its the fact and freedom of being individual that carries the day. Honour is a dubious luxury, and a dangerous goal, flattening as it does so much personal experience and desire.
While Minghellas film is in the mould of grand tragedy, executed on a human scale, its delicacy is heart-breaking, its commitment to the individual relentless. By the end, theres little sense of what might have been won and lost, theres only a shattering intimation of the cost in human grief and in time laid waste by suffering. This effect would hardly have been possible without the superb performances Minghella draws from his actors, all of whom seemed to have entered the roles of their lives. For a film so rich with a sense of landscape, its the faces and bodies that lodge in the mind.
In fact, the landscape of Cold Mountain has an unreal quality. Characters move in close-up against a mythic backdrop of forests and far blue hills, a blank extravagance of snow. Or suddenly, lush with high summer, were in a meadow that could be almost anywhere an Arcadian idyll, with the hero, Inman, resting on his plough, the heroine, Ada, passing by, playing the piano on the back of a cart.
When war breaks out, Inman joins up as a Confederate soldier. Its bad timing: hes only just fallen in love. Often wounded, in the end a deserter, he sets out alone and on foot to get back to Cold Mountain and Ada, his beloved. Asked where hes bound, meaning also, what are his allegiances, he responds: Shes a place and Im heading to her. His desire to preserve himself, to stay alive, is on her account only. The question of returning to regain a land is barely asked. Theirs is the only union he cares for, or for which he is prepared to perish.
Its not so much Gone with the Wind as the Odyssey, and from the start theres one transfixing tension: will Inman find his way back home? His journey is starred with deception and delay. Weather interrupts and scuppers. Footsteps in the snow lead villains to the kill. But dig deeper, the film seems to say, and there are benign guides with native wisdom willing to help. The ancient myths will save you in the end, if youll only listen to them.
Nature, too, is friendly once you get to know it. Left alone, with no knowledge of how to farm, Ada goes hungry. She has to learn about the land in order to live. Otherwise, the seasons endlessly conceal, outplaying the drama and violence of human action. Battles are fought in mud, the bodies heaped and cleared away, much like autumn leaves.
This underlines the impression that to my mind is the key to the film: it is often unclear who is fighting whom, and to what end. There are no visible battle-lines. The so-called Home Guard, their remit local and specific, are more of a menace by far than the Yankee army. Any cry of victory is hearsay. The sense of there being a cause on either side is obscured by the physical fact of what being prepared to die for a cause amounts to: only death, banal and terrible.
This all goes to re-emphasise the impression created by Anthony Minghellas earlier film of a book, Michael Ondaatjes The English Patient. In a way, Cold Mountain might almost be a companion-piece to the earlier film a kind of ice to that films fire. The result is something Joseph Conrad hit upon a century earlier: travel to the heart of things and you dont find much in the way of heroism or ideals, only an ever-greater collection of shadows and ethical questions to which there can be no sole answer or solution.
For both Cold Mountain and The English Patient eschew the notion of moral clarity. Theres only an ever-greater ambivalence the receding sense that decisions and lives are by no means perfectible, nor are they moving towards anything like an ideal. Progress is merely a belief of the ill-informed. Was The English Patients hero, Count Almásy, a good man? Who knows, who can tell? It hardly matters. In both films, love is suddenness and necessity, an articulation of its power to disassemble. And running through both, is the anguish that comes of having a fully-functional moral sensibility, with neither rule book nor code of law, and not even a whiff of Honour to hide behind which is just one of the things that makes both films so humane.
Lateness is the hex under which Minghellas characters labour. If only Almásy had been able to return to the cave in time. If only Inman returned a day earlier or later. Its a very modern hex: to have the ability to execute an idea almost before its fully realised, and yet still to miss the moment when it counts. Each wound equals a delay. The human body only heals so fast. You cant step into the same river twice, after all.
In a world where so much happens at one remove, this film is a powerful reminder of the foolishness at play in the modern fantasy of death as abstract, and human life as a symptom of the hi-tech or precision-guided when in fact, the same as ever, it is muddy, full of mistakes, liable to be brutal, never enough.