A low-budget Civil War movie? Seems hard to believe that kind of film is out there. When we picture the United States Civil War on film, we think of Glory, Gettysburg, Cold Mountain, and even Gone With the Wind. We picture big budgets, casts of thousands, and sweeping sagas.
Not so with the independently made Civil War movie War Flowers, which stars Christina Ricci and Tom Berenger. Indeed, Berenger appeared in the aforementioned Gettysburg as General Longstreet. In War Flowers, however, he has more of a cameo role (though again a general), and the movie itself highlights the perils of trying to take on large historic times in small ways.
This is not to say every movie which uses history as a backdrop needs to be epic. For instance, The Madness of King George could have told the man’s whole life story, which was chock full of important events and momentous occasions. Instead, it chooses to focus on a short period in his life, and it should be on everyone’s top ten historic movie lists.
The plot of War Flowers is not all that original. A wounded Union soldier is cared for by a Confederate war widow. They fall in love and struggle with the reality that the relationship might be impossible to maintain. For those a little older, War Flowers might most closely be compared to The Beguiled, which stars Clint Eastwood in a somewhat similar role. The Beguiled also proves one can use the Civil War as backdrop without needing set pieces and large casts.
Unfortunately, War Flowers doesn’t entirely work in either a big or small context. The few battle scenes shown are impressively done despite the film’s small budget, but since the battle scenes only set up the movie and aren’t integral to the story –in the way battles were crucial in Glory and Gettysburg—they come off as not particularly interesting. On the other hand, the drama that is at the core of the story (the small story within the larger one of the Civil War) has a shopworn feel, and the dialogue is at times woodenly delivered. Perhaps this is because the child actors used in the film aren’t that good or perhaps it’s because the script itself is sluggish: either way, the story never really hooked me and came off as clunky at times.
It’s not entirely clear where in the South War Flowers is supposed to take place, which is fine on its face, but press materials note the movie was made in Michigan (generous tax credits). The landscape and architecture does not seem to be distinctly southern, which may throw some people off. More importantly, it doesn’t really address slavery. In fact, it tiptoes around it. There are a few African-American characters, and the Confederate war widow naturally treats them kindly. The filmmakers want us to like her, so we could never see her as racist or cruel, which rings falsely.
Despite my reservations about War Flowers, I salute all independent films that offer an authentic vision. The movie may not succeed –as noted, for a variety of reasons—but it is earnest and will likely draw some interest on DVD and VOD (available July 30) and down the road on simpatico cable networks.