From Clio's Vault, April 2016

Cold Mountain : An American Odyssey

by Deborah Cole

I am sometimes asked the way to the Cold Mountain.

There is no path that goes all the way.

Even in summer the ice never melts;

Far into the morning the mists gather thick.

How, you may ask, did I manage to get here?

My heart is not like your heart.

If only your heart were like mine

You too would be living where I live now.

Translated by Arthur Waley

This poet, his poem, and even his mountain retreat refer to the term 'Cold Mountain.'   For instance, Han-shan's name translates as "The Master of Cold Mountain."   In addition, the poet retired to a place called Cold Mountain, located in the T'ien-t'ai mountain range, which extends along the coast of Chekiang Province, south of the Bay of Hangchow.   Scholars believe he lived during the late eighth and early ninth centuries. Movie Poster According to William Theodore de Bary, Han-shan wrote poems like the one quoted above during the "golden age of Chinese poetry", and during the "rise of Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism in the T'ang dynasty."  Arthur Waley wrote, in the introduction to his translated poems:   "In his poems the Cold Mountain is often the name of a state of mind rather than a locality.   It is on this conception, as well as on that of the 'hidden treasure,' the Buddha who is to be sought not somewhere outside us, but 'at home' in the heart, that the mysticism of the poems is based." Like Han-shan's poems, the film Cold Mountain consists of layers of meaning, which at first are concealed from the viewer. For example, Cold Mountain refers to the town, its people, and the events that take place there.   From a spiritual point of view, Cold Mountain is a state of mind, especially for the Jude Law's character, Inman, who is able to cope with the horrors of war by remembering his life in his hometown of Cold Mountain prior to the war, and remembering his sweetheart, Ada, who is waiting there for his return.   The poem also says, "There is no path that goes all the way."  This is true for Inman because the war prevents him from physically returning. However, he can still travel there in his mind. Understanding this 'state of mind' is important to understanding the film's subtle nuances.

Anthony Minghella, director and screenplay writer, based Cold Mountain roughly on Charles Frazier's novel of the same title, which won the National Book Award.   The film, released by Miramax Films in 2003, stars Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, and Jude Law. Nicole Kidman portrays Ada Monroe, a Southern belle from Charleston who moves to the town of Cold Mountain, North Carolina, with her preacher father, played by Donald Sutherland. Renée Zellweger depicts Ruby Thewes, a young mountain girl who helps Ada become self-reliant after the death of her father.   Other notable actors include Brendan Gleeson (Stobrod Thewes, Ruby's father), Natalie Portman (Sara), and Kathy Baker (Sally Swanger).

Following the success of the book, The Cold Mountain, the film version, won eight Golden Globe Awards® nominations.   Those nominations were in the Drama category for Best Motion Picture, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Nicole Kidman), Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Jude Law), Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Renée Zellweger), Best Director and Best Screenplay (Anthony Minghella), Best Original Score (Gabriel Yared), and Best Original Song (Music and Lyrics by Sting).   Renée Zellweger was the only winner. The film also won seven Academy Awards® nominations. Donald Sutherland and Nicole Kidman The actors receiving those nominations were Jude Law (Actor in a Leading Role), Renée Zellweger (Actress in a Supporting Role), John Seale (Cinematography), Walter Murch (Film Editing), Gabriel Yared (Music - Original Score), "Scarlet Tide," Music and Lyrics by T Bone Burnett and Elvis Costello (Music - Original Song), and "You Will Be My Ain True Love," Music and Lyrics by Sting (Music - Original Song).   Again, Renée Zellweger was the only winner.

Reflecting the multiple layers of Zen poetry, the film has several storylines, which interweave throughout the film. The main plot is the account of two people, W. P. Inman, a Confederate soldier, and his sweetheart, Ada Monroe. They scarcely become acquainted before Inman leaves to fight, but they write to each other while separated. After the infamous Battle of the Crater, Inman becomes disgusted with the war, and ashamed of his part in it.  He is wounded critically in a skirmish following the battle and recuperates in a military hospital for many months. Once he is well enough to travel, Inman deserts the army and makes his way home to Cold Mountain.   During his travels, Inman encounters both friends and foes. He must endure the trials he faces in these confrontations in order to return home.

Meanwhile, a second storyline emerges when Ada's father dies and his death leaves her alone when all their slaves leave the farm. Ruby and Ada Ada is incapable of taking care of herself.   Even though she has been "educated beyond the point considered wise for females," she does not know how to survive off the land. Her salvation is Ruby Thewes, a mountain girl with little formal education, who teaches Ada how to stay alive by using resources found on the farm.   In exchange, Ada teaches Ruby the joy of reading for pleasure's sake.   Each of the major characters in the film makes a life-changing journey in a physical or emotional sense.   On the surface, Cold Mountain appears to be a film about the American Civil War but in actuality, it is about a soldier returning from war, the aftermath of the war, and the effects of the war on society in general.

At first, Cold Mountain appears to be difficult to review from a historical perspective because the Battle of the Crater is the only Civil War battle scene depicted.   However, upon closer inspection, viewers can also analyze the film from a historical viewpoint by examining settings, costumes, and music.   In addition, the audience can study Cold Mountain by investigating the historical accuracy of the story and its characters.   Lastly, spectators can scrutinize the film from a historical literary angle.

The opening scenes of Cold Mountain reflect the actions of both Confederate and Union soldiers prior to the Battle of the Crater in July 1864 during the waning days of the war, the battle itself, and its aftermath. Jude Law as Inman The movie shows "Northern soldiers laying explosives under Confederate defenses." The film jumps to the Confederate side showing men stripping the clothes off the bodies of dead soldiers before placing them in coffins. A young boy distributes the clothes. Next, the audience sees Inman for the first time. As Inman and his best friend, watch the young boy pass out the clothes, they recognize him as being the boy of a neighbor from Cold Mountain. They cannot believe that "Ma Oakley's boy" is there and think he is not old enough to fight. The movie jumps back to the Northern soldiers as they finish placing the explosives and light the fuse. Viewers see hundreds of Northern soldiers face down waiting for the detonation. The explosion creates a massive hole, which traps the advancing Federal soldiers.   The Confederate soldiers start shooting the Union soldiers caught in the crater. One Confederate soldier says, "It's a turkey shoot." At this point, movie watchers glimpse Inman's disgust, anger, and sadness with the war.

Cold Mountain authentically illustrates the Battle of the Crater.   On July 30 at 4:45 pm, Union troops detonated a mine located under Confederate lines.   The explosion killed 300 Confederate soldiers and created a crater 170 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 30 feet deep.   The poorly-led Union troops rushed into the hole instead of going around it.   As the crater became packed, Confederate soldiers began firing at the trapped Federals.   This Civil War battle, which lasted ten hours, killed nearly 6,000 men.

Production designer Dante Ferretti, six-time Academy Award nominee, contributes significantly to the historical accuracy of Cold Mountain.   The movie was filmed on location in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Romania.   Film executives chose Romania because it most represented 19th century America.  Scene from Cold Mountain filmed in Romania More importantly, the landscape has not been disfigured.   Farmers still harvest crops by hand and use carts for transportation.   In addition, the Carpathian Mountains resemble the North Carolina landscape.   Ferretti researched towns in the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains and then, constructed buildings based on that information using logs, as they would have in the 19th century.   Ferretti built the crater outside of Bucharest.   They found that the original battlefield landscape had changed drastically since the Civil War.   It had actually once been a golf course.

The costumes also reflect Cold Mountain 's historical authenticity.   Ann Roth, one of the most sought-after costume designers in the entertainment industry, created a realistic 19th century wardrobe for the film.   The buttons and buckles of costumes reflected her attention to detail.   Roth also consulted advisors who specialized in Civil War uniforms and equipage.   In addition, Inman carries an 1860 Beauregard LeMat, a favored weapon of Confederate cavalry troops.   The gun featured awesome firepower with its nine .41 caliber bullets and one 20 gauge single barrel that fired a slug or buckshot .   This was the type of pistol carried by Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart.

Music is an integral part of Cold Mountain. The music of Cold Mountain Background music interweaves the dialogue throughout the film.   Known for his work on the movie soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, T-Bone Burnett, executive music producer for the film, gathers artists from folk and blue grass to assemble an awe-inspiring soundtrack.   Jack White of the White Stripes, who plays the character of Georgia, performs traditional folk music from the period. "Wayfaring Stranger" and "Great High Mountain" are among the songs that he sings.   Sacred Harp singing is another type of music used in the film.   Singers sit facing inward in a hollow square.   Each person can lead the singers by standing in the center, selecting a song, and beating time with their hand. No instruments accompany the singers.   Sacred Harp singing (also known as fasola singing or shape note singing) is a community social event.   The Sacred Harp is a songbook containing psalm tunes, odes and anthems from late 18th century and early 19th century American composers, and folk songs and revival hymns from the beginning of the 19th century until the Civil War.   B. F. White and E. J. King published the first Sacred Harp songbook in 1844.  The Sacred Harp Singers from the Liberty Church in Alabama provide the shape note singing in the movie.  Two songs they sing are "I'm Going Home" and "Idumea."   As a side note, Nicole Kidman did her own piano playing.

Anthony Minghella based his screenplay of the movie firmly on the novel by Charles Frazier.   Frazier's inspiration for the book was the stories told to him by his father about his great-great-uncle, W. P. Inman, who like the character in the movie, walked away from the Civil War back to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.   Although there is a mountain in North Carolina called Cold Mountain, there is no town by the same name.   Cold Mountain is located in the Shining Rock Wilderness, part of the Pisgah National Forest. Strong women Frazier also utilizes journals and letters of women to develop his female characters.   These women are not the stereotypical women of the 19th century about which most people think.   They are intelligent, headstrong, and opinionated women.   Like Ada's character in the movie, these women, over the course of the Civil War, grow stronger and more confident.   Another area the film depicts accurately comes in the form of a book, which Inman carries throughout his travels.   Ada gives him the book, written by William Bartram, before he leaves to fight.   An early American nature writer, Bartram, who traveled throughout Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas, wrote about the beautiful landscape he encountered.   Therefore, a soldier from this area very well could have carried with him a Bartram book.

The movie resembles Homer's Odyssey in that both are epic stories, but more importantly the characters make the same types of journeys and have similar encounters.   Wearied by war like Odysseus, Inman searches for his Penelope (Ada) who lives at the base of "Cold Mountain," (Ithaca).  Similarly, in his travels home, Inman faces obstacles (sirens, strange forest people), which he must overcome to get back to his sweetheart.   Both men also return home to find a situation more dangerous than they have encountered either in the war or during their voyage home.   Ada faces her own dilemmas.  Like Penelope, she must fend off the advances of an unwanted suitor.   Additionally, upon Inman's return home, Ada does not recognize him at first.   

Confederate soldierPreview audiences criticized Cold Mountain for not delving deeply enough into the historical context of the war.   However, not only are the characters splendidly developed, the landscape portrays the 19th century beautifully, and the film depicts how the Civil War changed the life of ordinary citizens. Besides the characters and setting, the costumes and story also supply a historical element, which does justice to the era. Viewers must realize that history encompasses not only the large picture, such as the Civil War, but also details, people, places, and things.


Suggestions for further reading:

Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain; John Ele, The Winter People; Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War; Homer, The Odyssey; Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel; C. Vann Woodward, ed., Mary Chesnut's Civil War; John Jakes, Savannah, or A Gift for Mr. Lincoln; Michael Shaara, Killer Angels; Jeff and Michael Shaara, Gods & Generals: A Novel of the Civil War; Jeff Shaara, Last Full Measure.