Men Go to Battle and the Civil War’s Dark Turn by Cecily N. Zander

ABRUPT, adj. Sudden, without ceremony, like the arrival of a cannonshot and the departure of the soldier whose interests are most affected by it. Dr. Samuel Johnson beautifully said of another author’s ideas that they were “concatenated without abruption.”
                                                  – Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
Image of Henry Mellon (Tim Morton) in Men Go to Battle. A soldier with no real reason for going to war. Courtesy of FilmMovement.

In Zachary Treitz’s 2015 film Men Go to Battle, the Civil War becomes the site of a dark comedy. The film follows in a tradition of fictional accounts of the conflict that deal with the violence of war through humor. Just as Ambrose Bierce’s short fiction made the war seem comically ironic and disorienting, the film relies on a tone of dark humor to reconcile the violence of the era with the mundane lives of its central protagonists. In so doing, the film also speaks to the current scholarly focus on the war’s dark side. This places Men Go to Battle in a cinematic tradition of film as a critique of war, but updates that tradition for a twenty-first-century audience.

The film begins with brothers Henry and Francis Mellon, who eke out a living on their Kentucky farm, until the Civil War abruptly arrives. The film opens in November, 1861, in the fictional Small’s Corner, Kentucky. Francis and Henry struggle to manage their 200-acre farm. Low on resources, Francis begins making precarious financial decisions and taking out his frustrations in a series of escalating pranks on Henry, from buying two mules in the middle of winter (“I got a great deal!”) to throwing an ax at his brother in a drunken stupor. The ax throwing incident ends in a severe injury to Henry’s hand and the need for the town doctor’s services. Finding that the entire town has turned out for a party at the home of the Smalls, the towns wealthiest, slave-owning residents, the brothers seek the doctor there. Henry receives treatment for his hand and returns to the party, determined to speak with Betsy Small, for whom he clearly has amatory feelings. Following a fumbling and failed romantic gesture, an embarrassed Henry runs off into the night.

The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.