June 19, 1910 [In the Border States]

Americans have a brief past: Aside from the Mayflower (which seems lost in a kind of dim fairy-tale, co-existing somehow with King Arthur and the Arabian Nights, more ephemeral than historical), all that's left is the Colonial-Revolutionary and the Western—at least in the cinema. But what of the Civil War? Is it a mere hybrid of 1776 and the Western, or does it stand like a bloody bridge between the Founding Fathers and the cowboys?

In the Border States seems to take this ambiguity seriously, with a tale that seems suspended between Colonial gentility and the smoky eruptions of frontier life. The locales are vibrant: the outdoors take on a depth that is distinctly "cinematic"—not painterly and sedate, but a moving part of the foreground. A foraging Confederate soldier passes through this landscape, assisted begrudgingly by a child—while her Union father ventures his perilous mission, past mountains and water and woods. Wounded, hunted by men with torches, he staggers to the same well as his Confederate counterpart. Marked for death, the girl's father is spared by the Confederate soldier. All shake hands, as the little girl assumes precocious command, even joining in a salute.

The unbearable tensions of that period are simplified to personal contacts and common courtesies—which has a kind of legendary quality itself, an American myth in which the individual conscience supersedes all other considerations. Henry David Thoreau exhorted us to be governed by nothing else; for him, the "wise minority" is to be cherished—and the individual who chooses wisely becomes "a higher and independent power." In the Border States also cherishes this myth, and with enviable optimism passes it down, even to the little girl, who hugs her sister and oversees her father's recuperation. Ah, the certainties of cinema, as seductive as sudden good weather—and, I admit, as susceptible to change.


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