The Blue. The Gray. The Gold.

Cold Mountain has the Civil War (and Oscars) in its sights.

Looking for the spoils of war

In this year of invasion and occupation when, on our screens, tens of thousands of men in battle have died gloriously, even romantically (c.f., the climactic clinch of The Last Samurai), it’s bracing to be reminded, in Cold Mountain (Miramax), that war is, um, hell. There is nothing romantic about the Yankee troops who, in the film’s first sequence, plant explosives under the encampment of the sleeping Confederates, chuckling about the “Yankee good morning” they’re about to deliver. And there is nothing glorious about the bloodied Confederates who, discovering that the Yankee troops are running straight into the crater made by their own explosives, whoop, “It’s a turkey shoot!” and fire indiscriminately into the pile-up of humanity. Men stagger around the field in raw agony, their uniforms burned off, while others sink into pools of mud and gore. “I am afeard there are few die well that die in battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing when blood is their argument?” says the soldier Michael Williams in Henry V—and that’s the view in Cold Mountain, without contradiction from a kingly Shakespearean orator. War brings out the worst and most savage in humans, against their adversaries and kinsmen alike. And a “holy war” is oxymoronic, God having long ago departed the field.

The work of the English director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) is so firm in its pacifism and so mythic in its cruelty that it’s tempting to overpraise Cold Mountain. The movie, based on a best-selling novel by Charles Frazier, is good, sometimes thrilling, but it’s less a war epic than an evocative romantic melodrama with a patchy first hour. After that epic opening battle it splinters into several different films, lashed together by one overriding objective: Win the Oscar. Win the Oscar. Win the Oscar. It features lustrous movie stars (Nicole Kidman, Jude Law) who retain their ardor (and their luster) in the throes of poverty and starvation, and a whole raft of Miramax guest hillbillies (Renée Zellweger, Brendan Gleeson, Ray Winstone, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Giovanni Ribisi, Melora Walters, Jenna Malone) to remind you that everyone in Hollywood (and Britain) wanted to be a part of this prestige package. Given the hands-on management of Harvey Weinstein, I’m surprised there isn’t a simultaneous publication of a David O. Selznick-style book of memos: “You cut that f—ing first hour or I’ll rip your f—ing head off. This better be a f—ing masterpiece, you f—-head. Cordially, Harvey.”

That first part does appear to have been butchered—at least, that’s the only theory I have for how rhythmless and distant it seems. The movie opens with the Siege of Petersburg in July 1864, in the course of which the Confederate hero, Inman (Law), is wounded. Over the next hour, the native of Cold Mountain, N.C., thinks back over his meeting of Ada (Kidman), the elegant daughter of the town’s minister (Donald Sutherland), newly arrived from high-society Charleston, S.C. Their courtship is shy and purposely stilted, but as written and shot and acted (and edited?), the connection doesn’t fully take hold in our imaginations. Everything that follows—Ada’s struggle to survive on her farm, Inman’s Homeric odyssey to return to her after deserting the army—hinges on our longing to see them back together; yet all I saw between them was the uneasy regard of one impossibly pretty movie star for another. (That’s enough to carry some films, but not one with a body count this high.) The high-flown epistolary declarations (“Come back to me,” says Ada, in voice-over. “Come back to me is not a request. Come back to me.”) ought to give us goose bumps instead of making us wonder whether the projectionist dropped a reel. And the addition of cheap mysticism—a well in which Ada sees a vision of her imperiled beloved amid a swirl of crows—doesn’t compensate.

Two things kick Cold Mountain into gear. Zellweger’s Ruby troops onto the screen to aid the city-girl Ada in saving her rundown farm, and a hiss-worthy villain emerges in Teague (Winstone), who courts Ada while tracking and executing Confederate deserters. Zellweger is at least a decade too old for the part (Ruby seems much younger in the novel), and there were times I thought I was watching a biopic called Young Granny Clampitt. But her round face, puttyish features, and musical-comedy gutsiness are a good foil for Kidman’s cover-girl cheekbones and willowy poise; and when she unceremoniously rips the head off a rooster that’s been spooking our heroine for the last half-hour, the movie jumps to different plane of energy. Winstone’s Teague is a shoot-the-dog kind of villain. He doesn’t shoot any dogs, but he kills plenty of other helpless things, including a mother’s two sons and a backward man-boy, and for most of the film’s second half you’re waiting to see him die in agony. It’s a far cruder hook than you expect after that fog-of-war opening, but it sinks in and tears all the same—maybe more efficiently.

The novel is basically pulp, too—lofty pulp, with arty dashes in place of quotation marks. But it’s a rattling good read, and it has its share of pained ambiguities. One of my favorite scenes is softened in its journey to the screen. (Don’t read the rest of this paragraph if you want to be surprised.) In the book, Inman spends a tender, non-sexual night beside a young war widow with an infant in a remote cabin, before the arrival of three Yankee soldiers sends him scurrying out the back door. In the movie, the Yankees torture the baby to get the widow (Portman) to turn over her livestock, then they try to assault her sexually—until Inman bursts in and kills two of them. (He allows the third, a nicer guy, to leave, but the vengeful widow shoots the soldier in the back.) In Frazier’s novel, the soldiers take the livestock and head off without molesting anyone further—and Inman trails them, listens to their reminiscences of home, and then murders them. The action can be defended on moral grounds: The widow needs that food to survive, and letting them go might result in their return with a posse of Northerners to hunt him down. But the book shows its hero to be a colder and more ruthless man, a participant in the cruelty instead of a chivalric bystander.

Law doesn’t click in this role, maybe because Inman (at least in Minghella’s script) is so passive and blandly upstanding. And with Kidman I never forgot (not for a millisecond) that I was watching a movie star: She’s so beautiful and skinny that she doesn’t seem equipped for the 19th century. Among the guest hillbillies, Hoffman has a moment or two as a preacher who sorrowfully decides to drown the slave he has knocked up, and Ribisi has fun as some kind of backwoods Judas pimp. But the only fully realized performance is by Brendan Gleeson as Ruby’s luckless, ne’er-do-well dad—the second time this year that he has taken a relatively small part (the other was the taxi-driver dad in 28 Days Later) and turned it into the movie’s humanist center.

I have caviled about Cold Mountain, but Minghella is a terrific filmmaker, and he and his cinematographer, John Searle, make a character of the landscape (Romania posing as North Carolina), densely forested but spiritually barren, the bare branches of trees etched cruelly against the gray sky. It’s the right setting for Ruby’s bitter “This world won’t stand long”—a world in which the men have to blow one another away so that the women can restore civilization.