(This is Part IV in a series on The Ephemeral Real, a meditation on cinema and history)
THE LOST CAUSE AT THE WINDSOR RUINS:
Raintree County and Ghosts of Mississippi
SOMETIMES A FRAGMENT of the real lasts long enough to make it into more than one film.
In 1890, a grand Corinthian-columned mansion a little less than an hour from Natchez, Mississippi, caught fire. The house had survived the Civil War and had even been used as a Union headquarters. In fact, the only known image of the house un-burnt is a sketch in the diary of a Union officer. Rather than the war, the fire began with a cigarette or a cigar, left by a worker or a guest — the stories are not really clear — and burnt for hours. House and contents were a total loss.
But not quite. Standing there still today are 23 columns that ringed round the whole house. Most of them retain their elaborate capitals and at least some of their facing. In other places, you can see patches of cylindrical brick — like a factory smokestack — peeking through. Once, there were wrought-iron stairs up the front to the main entrance. But those are now the stairs for the chapel at the historically black Alcorn State University, just down the road.
Oddly, in life, the house didn’t look so very typical, more like a New Orleans antebellum construction than a clichéd North Mississippi planter’s palace. As just the columns, the ruins seem ridiculously universal: the Old South burnt down, laid to waste, et cetera, only no — it was just a house fire in the 1890s. But that hasn’t stopped the ruins from appearing on film as near, antebellum cousins.
If you get the chance, swing by the Windsor Ruins. They just sit there, like ruins in some other, unexplored country. There’s no park ranger or even a park. They just rise out of the trees and the grass and the weeds. Eudora Welty wrote some version of them into her story “Asphodel,” and there’s a famous photograph of the South’s finest short story writer standing rather ethereally among them.
Perhaps it is not insignificant, then, that Welty also wrote a story in response to the assassination of Medgar Evers. Perhaps it is no accident that a movie that treats the belated prosecution of Byron De La Beckwith — more than 30 years after the event — also finds itself at the Windsor Ruins. Ghosts of Mississippi is an earnest depiction, but not a great movie. Whoopi Goldberg plays Evers’s widow and Alec Baldwin stars as Bobby DeLaughter, prosecuting the case. Against all odds, as they say.
But the Windsor Ruins are there and make as strange an appearance as possible. DeLaughter and his two companions arrange a meeting with a Klansman turned FBI informant. At the informant’s request, they drive deep, deep into the backwoods (several establishing shots, exclamations of where are we from these Mississippi natives) before arriving at the ruins. It’s worth mentioning that the ruins are really only a straight 10 miles off Highway 61 — and half that from the front gates of Alcorn State University. But no, we are deep, deep into the heart of the matter.
Despite the fact that they are marching into this antebellum Stonehenge, no one mentions the columns. And no one will mention them throughout the scene. No justification is ever offered. No one tells their story or how they came to be burned. Apparently, there is no need. They just loom. And, oddly, despite the progressive intentions of the film — made by an earnest Rob Reiner — this treatment makes everything seem written out as legend, not a matter of real people at all. Civil Rights, Mississippi? These were ordained long, long ago, somewhere back between Genesis and Deuteronomy. Using these artifacts as mute myth — an almost religious usage — is perhaps the weakest instance of the ephemeral real I’ll discuss in this series.
But, fortunately for us, the Windsor Ruins appear elsewhere, in Raintree County, a plodding, mid-century, Technicolor epic, which I find fascinating because it depicts the Civil War earnestly from the North. The South, so often lionized, eulogized, and celebrated with various forms of nostalgia in American film, is here unequivocally the illness that besets a more innocent America, like the titular county of our Johnny Shawnessy’s Indiana. That’s problematic, too, but at least it’s different.
Johnny is Montgomery Clift, and this film is now perhaps chiefly remembered as the movie during which the actor destroyed his face in a car accident — there’s footage of both before and after incorporated into the film.
Yet the movie has its moments, despite long, dull conversations between Clift and the two women he loves: hometown Indiana girl Eva Marie Saint and an exotic, dark-haired Southerner, emblematic of the conflict that will engulf our hero’s life as well as the nation. That second lady is played by Elizabeth Taylor. Her accent is unfortunate and her character is more or less insane. There’s a lot to do and the movie piles up to three hours.
Suffice it to say that Clift marries Taylor — they’d appeared together before in A Place in the Sun, which ended badly, too — and she takes him down South to live near her extended family. Her own parents died in a fire when she was a little girl. One day, they take a horse and buggy out to the ruins of the family home. Those ruins are the Windsor Ruins. They’re shaggier in the 1950s than they will be for Alec Baldwin. Indeed, Clift and Taylor filmed their Windsor scene fewer than 10 years before Medgar Evers was murdered, and just shy of a century after the Civil War. There are saplings growing out of the Corinthian capitals, and undergrowth all through the open space between the columns. There’s also a grand metal staircase, which Clift and Taylor ascend. By the time of Ghosts of Mississippi, this staircase had moved down the road to Alcorn State’s chapel.
Standing on the steps, Taylor relates her story, coos it out in her Southern accent to Clift’s incomprehension. For us, her story makes the ruins into a backdrop to American hypocrisy on race and the danger the film says that presents. Taylor tells us her father lived openly with his black concubine while Taylor’s mother was forced to live in the same house. One night, when Taylor was still a child, her mother murdered the lovers in their bed, and burnt the house down, killing herself. Taylor and a few slaves were the only survivors. The backstory is curiously familiar: a double–Jane Eyre structure emerges. Not only is Taylor herself the madwoman in the attic and will become more so as the film goes on (Eva Marie Saint is a bit of a sidelined Jane), but her mother was a madwoman, too.
She tells him all this as they stand before the columns. The story laid over the columns tells of false grandeur built on an evil and corrupting system. While the ruins aren’t appearing quite in their truest light — they were burnt years after the Civil War rather than years before — the true story isn’t so far off. The bricks for the columns were built on-site by slave labor and the money that built the mansion was from cotton. The ephemeral real holds, I think, in this instance, and the ephemeral real is still there, off Highway 61 — the history of which it is part is ongoing and feels uncertain. Ruins change in the elements and the open air makes them feel, in person as well as onscreen, a focal point for the passage of time. If Ghosts is a story about how old injustices can be remedied, Raintree is a story about how deeply rooted our errors remain. Go there someday and look at them and see which seems truer to you.
But in 1850-something or 1956, Liz Taylor and Monty Clift leave, go back to Indiana and Raintree County to pursue their characters’ disastrous Technicolor marriage.
Later, the Civil War happens.