Cold Mountain is a movie that engages the senses and emotions. Just as a painting compels, reveals, and opens windows to truths beyond the framed canvas, so the sequences of events and cameos take us into the heart and horror of war on American soil — a war that ripped and scarred the face of a nation — the Civil War.
Like a glass that cuts out extraneous views and narrows the focus, Cold Mountain hones in on the lives of a small community, both soldier and civilian. Throughout it all, the lens widens and contracts, widens and contracts, beginning with the quietly peaceful lives of Cold Mountain neighbors with their simple joys, to the pinched and hard-scrabble existence of a seemingly endless war, death, and privation.
Like a flower on a battlefield, the awkwardly budding romance between Inman (Jude Law), and Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), is trampled beneath booted heels. But its essence cannot be crushed or killed. Through the beautifully poignant letters Ada writes to Inman, in the soft and captivating voice of Nicole Kidman, we feel the depth and longing of her heart as she waits without answers and without hope, except it is all that keeps her going on.
Through Inman and his haunted eyes, we feel the soul-shriveling shock of fear and blood and screams and dying of war. The youthful anticipation of guts and glory go down in the first engagement with reality, until, a seasoned veteran, he leads us to the eve of The Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864. The end was a little less than a year away, but even one day, one hour, one moment, makes an eternity of difference in war.
Inman sits apart in the trenches, a book rolled up with all of Ada’s letters, and a picture of her inside. The book and picture were last-minute gifts from Ada before Inman joined his brothers-in-arms on the street. He had already given her a tintype of himself in uniform. The final gift was a long and passionate first kiss on the balcony as other soldiers dashed past. “Give her one for me,” quipped a young man rushing by.
But that sunny day was many miles away in distance and time, and Inman could not bring himself to share anything of his living nightmare with the dream that was Ada Monroe. She was kept apart like a shrine, a light that no darkness could touch. And the darkness was deepening. Federal troops were tunneling under the Confederate trenches, setting gunpowder. When they blew it, the shock hit me as if I was there. The cinematography made it so real in the first unbelievable seconds. As the ground begins to tilt, and bodies fly, a running youth’s clothes are literally blown off as the impact punches him forward.
Through the trauma of the explosion, Inman claws his way out of the dirt, grasping for the picture of Ada Monroe, all to the haunting words and melody of “I’ve Gone to Find My Ain True Love”, sung by the equally haunting voice of Alison Krauss. Nearby, the boy whose clothes were blown off, stands at the edge of the crater, looking off in the distance. Bloodied and barely able to stand, he watches another horror emerge from the false darkness and fire and smoke — wave upon wave of screaming bluecoats, running across the open field, bayonets fixed and at the ready.
But, as it really happened, the Federal troops were caught in a trap of their own making. As line after line piled into the crater, they found there was no way out, the front lines falling back upon those coming after as they tried desperately to scramble up the other side. The Confederates stood on the rim, calling it a turkey shoot as they fired on the men packed below. When the boy, Oakley, struggling with a soldier, falls in among them, Inman goes after him through the packed and heaving, writhing bodies of friend and foe. Trampled face down into the mud and muck, the blood and water pool and ooze past his mouth and eyes. All the while, the shaped-note harmony of the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers flowed like a dirge over it all. The scene is a cinematic masterpiece.
As the war wanes, Inman can no longer take the human slaughter, and makes his way home to Cold Mountain. As a deserter, he can be shot by blue or gray, and traveling through the ravaged land, he hides and starves. Like Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, Inman’s homeward journey is rife with unusual characters who help or hinder him along his way, including, unfortunately, the sirens who lured men to their deaths. (Much too graphic).
Later, in a downpour, Inman comes across the cabin of Sara (Natalie Portman), a widow with a sick baby. This sequence shows us the heart of unrelenting loneliness and grief in such a delicately beautiful way, it is unforgettable. But right on its heels come the gargoyle twists of life in the midst of lawlessness.
Meanwhile, Ada is battling grief, loneliness, and starvation. She must also hold the Home Guard at arm’s length, men who hover like vultures over property and lives, seeking out deserters and holding all who harbor them accountable. Raised in the charmed society of Charleston before coming with her minister father (Donald Sutherland) to Cold Mountain for his health, she knows nothing of harsh living and real life. A mountain girl , Ruby Thewes (Rene Zellweger) is sent to her by her neighbor, Sally (Kathy Baker), to help with the farm.
The difference between Ada and Ruby is definitively gotten across by the rooster scene. Ada, who is starving, still has a rooster because she’s scared to death of it. He flogs her if she gets anywhere near. (Roosters have painful spurs and can really do some damage). So Ada tries hard to stay out of its way. “He’s the devil,” she told Ruby. To which Ruby declares “I hate a floggin’ rooster.” Then she walks over, grabs the feathered demon, and rips its head off. The moral? When life sends you something painful, don’t hide, just rip its floggin’ head off.
Another difference between these two exceptional characters is that Ada reads books, plays piano, and wears her heart on her sleeve. Ruby’s heart is just as soft as Ada’s but she hides it under a gruff, tough, and growling exterior. The scenes where Ruby jousts with overwhelming emotion and skewers it quickly with fierce abruptness, are some of the most emotionally evocative scenes in the movie. Not to mention she has some of the most memorable lines. About her father, with whom she carries on a love/hate relationship, she said, “He’d walk forty miles for liquor, but not forty inches for kindness.” And through it all, Ada and Ruby teach each other about life, the side that feeds the soul, and the side that puts food on the table. And all the while, Ada Monroe writes and waits, and Inman puts one weary foot in front of the other.
Cold Mountain is an exceptional movie for many reasons. The Appalachian Mountain music stirs the soul and evokes the majesty and loneliness of the mountains. The song during the battle scene was “Idumea” written by Charles Wesley in 1707. I was surprised to learn that Sting wrote the main song, “I’ve Gone to Find My Ain True Love.”
Singers included Jack White (who played the role of Georgia, and wrote some of the songs), Sting, Alison Krauss, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Anthony Minghella, T-Bone Burnett, and the Sacred Harp singers (Wikipedia).
The Alabama Sacred Harp Singers of Liberty Baptist Church in Henagar, AL, are mentioned often in the credits, but whether they actually sang, or were referred to as the inspiration for the singing, is confusing. I live just over an hour from Henagar and hope to hear them in person one day. Sacred Harp singing has no instruments and is sometimes known as “shaped note singing”. It is sung a capella in four-part harmony. Just the music and the cinematography alone makes Cold Mountain well worth watching. Add to that a truly awesome cast and story, and it’s one you’ll want to watch again and mull over.
NOTE: Just be aware of the flagrant “adult” scenes, which fortunately do not take up much of the film and can be fast-forwarded. There’s one in the middle of the movie and one toward the end. I’m like one reviewer who longed for the days when they would just close the door and . . . oh, well, I can’t recall who said it or all of what he said, but you catch the drift. We could wish for at least something a lot more palatable that would have kept the wretched flies out of this cinematic ointment.