Cold Mountain (2003)

Directed by Anthony Minghella

If the director of Cold Mountain, the late Anthony Minghella, had given his movie a subtitle, he might well have chosen “An Examination of the Transformation of Social and Political Roles of Various Classes of Southern Women During the Civil War.”

Upon its 2003 release, the film received critical reviews running the gamut from “a movie that wins some of its skirmishes but can’t escape battle fatigue” to “an exquisitely crafted Civil War epic.”

Unfortunately these critics, and many others, understood the film primarily as either a 21st century corrective to Gone With the Wind or an episodic Civil War rendition of The Odyssey. But Civil War historian Gary Gallagher astutely understood the movie’s deeper message, observing that “Cold Mountain can best be understood as a feminist antiwar film that turns almost every Lost Cause convention on its head.” Seen in this light, Cold Mountain becomes a celluloid corrective to a time-honored public memory intoxicated by Southern moonlight and magnolias.

Two story lines move through the film. One follows Inman, an honorable Confederate soldier who is severely wounded at the Crater during the Petersburg Campaign. Inman, played by Jude Law, leaves the blood and death of war behind him by escaping from his military hospital bed and deserting. His goal is to return home to Ada Monroe, the love of his life, who resides amid the stark rural beauty of the Appalachian highlands of North Carolina.

On his journey home, a sadder and wiser Inman encounters both earthy, virtuous women and evil, vicious men—serving both blue and gray—who are determined to return him to the killing fields one way or another. The vilest of the male characters is Robert Teague (Ray Winstone), captain of the Confederate Home Guard, who has designs on Ada (Nicole Kidman).

As the movie develops she no longer remains the easy target she once was. That’s because paralleling Inman’s story is the saga of the women of Cold Mountain, who serve twin roles as both this era’s victims and heroines. It is the women who must preserve, protect and redeem a world turned upside down by forces they cannot control.

All of Cold Mountain’s women pull together to help the upper-class Ada and to help each other. Sally Swanger (Kathy Baker), wife and later widow of a subsistence farmer killed trying to hide his deserter sons from Home Guards, perceives that Ada is out of her element and, despite the class distinctions that separate them, befriends her and dispatches an unlikely savior: the ultra-profane and dirt poor Ruby Thewes, who is more than equal to any man with gun or plow.

Renée Zellweger, in a brilliant casting coup, becomes Ruby more than she portrays her. Minghella empowers the Cold Mountain women to defend themselves and to design the new society that will emerge from the wreckage left by the men and the war they fight.

As local historian John C. Inscoe recently wrote, “Cold Mountain indeed depicts a war and a people that [Robert E.] Lee would probably not have recognized; neither gods nor generals play much of a role here.”


Originally published in the May 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here