Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain posterRated: R
Running Time: 155 minutes
Directed by Anthony Minghella.
Screenplay by Anthony Minghella. Based on the book by Charles Frazier.


If you’ve seen The English Patient, you’ve a good idea of the type of material and the style which Minghella is known for. He’s partial to sweeping romances, but he’s a wonderful director. The cinematography, pacing, and editing are all great in this film.

I am a huge fan of the novel by Charles Frazier and the film does a good job of keeping the epic scope of the novel intact, although it does compact the plot and combine characters and stories along the way. More on this in the SUMMARY below. I’m sure that Frazier doesn’t begrudge a few changes to his story, since, after all, he made a liberal adaptation of the original family stories handed down to him by his father. This film is actually an adaptation of an adaptation!

I was a bit uncertain when I heard that one of the best novels about the American Civil War was going to be adapted to film with an English leading man and an Australian beauty against the Romanian countryside. However, it works.

The casting in this film is terrific. Jude Law is one of our generation’s best actors and makes a great Inman. Nicole Kidman is beautiful as Ada. Renée Zellweger gets a chance to break out of the glamorous niche she carved for herself in Chicago by playing the wily and indomitable Ruby. The rest of the supporting cast is also superb, including Philip Seymour Hoffman as Reverend Veasey, Natalie Portman as Sara, and Giovanni Ribisi as Junior.

I’ve been a fan of the Civil War genre for a long time. To me, Cold Mountain can be seen as sort of a companion piece to The Outlaw Josey Wales. Josey Wales loses hope when his love is killed, and he then turns into a killing machine after having successfully avoided the war for so long. In Cold Mountain, Inman was a killing machine from the earliest years of the war, then finds hope and his lost humanity by leaving the war to search for the love he left behind. Both men are ex confederates. Both are hardworking farmers who never owned a slave in their life. And, although Wales is from Missouri, he comes from the same “hill people” stock as Inman, and has a similar stoicism about him.

My next big writing project, Thieves Road is going to follow closely in the tradition of both Cold Mountain & The Outlaw Josey Wales. It’s a fascinating period in our nation’s history.
If you’re a Civil War buff or just want to see a good love story, put Cold Mountain at the top of your list.


Although the novel doesn’t even mention the opening scene of the film until much later, and then much more briefly (pages 123-124), Minghella picked it to exemplify the Hell that the main character, Inman, had been going through during the war. Great special effects in this scene!

*Petersburg, Virginia, became the setting for the longest siege in American history when General Ulysses S. Grant failed to capture Richmond in the spring of 1864. Grant settled in to subdue the Confederacy by surrounding Petersburg and cutting off General Robert E. Lee’s supply lines into Petersburg and Richmond. On April 2, 1865, nine-and-one-half months after the siege began, Lee evacuated Petersburg.

In this scene, we watch young Inman receive the vicious neck wound that sends him to a hospital, nearly killing him.

Several of the locals from Cold Mountain also die in this battle and one, a young boy, requests a fiddle tune to remind him of his hometown and a young girl’s love. The fiddler, Stobrod Thewes, comes to play an important part later in the film. The book has him fiddling to a dying girl much later on and in a separate context, but this is a good example of compressing the storyline into the script. It’s good to set up the importance of the music, and the soundtrack really works well throughout.

Inman then receives a message to come home from Ada, the woman he had barely fallen in love with before marching off to war. In the book, the letters are written but never physically received. Hollywood could never get their jaws around that, however.

The film then flashes back to before the war and shows us the love relationship between Inman and his love. There were several liberties taken with the novel here, but most seem to be in keeping with the tone of the book. Here are a couple of changes:

The film emphasizes Ada’s father coming to town just as the church he is to preach in is being built. Inman’s help on the project was only briefly mentioned in the book, but the film shows it and even has Ada serve him cider at one point while he’s working. In the book, it is Inman who first approaches Ada, and only well after the church is built.

There is a scene of a white pigeon that gets stuck in the church and which Inman releases. This slow motion bird fluttering is supposed to be tremendously symbolic (as with John Woo films) but I found it a bit annoying. The Demi Moore adaptation of The Scarlet Letter had a redbird fly into her house at one point during her first fling with Reverend Dimmesdale. The use of birds in period films is getting a little too cliché for my taste.

Soon after the war begins, Ada, falls into dire straits. Her father dies and his investments out East become worthless. So, Ada finds herself with three choices. First, she can return back to her hometown of Charleston and become an old maid tutor, earning her living, but reducing her social status and suffering the humiliating pity of her former friends. Second, she can return to Charleston and land an old man who’s not at war as a husband, thus maintaining status and income, but subjecting herself to years of a loveless marriage and social condescension for “whoring herself to the highest bidder”. Or lastly, as she eventually decides, she can stay at Cold Mountain and eke out a living as best she can manage till possibly Inman returns.

However, the fates are kind and one of the friendly townsfolk, Sally Swanger, sends a young mountain woman to help her. This woman, the sassy Ruby (played by Zellweger) refuses to be a servant, but agrees to pitch in and help Ada run the farm. In the book, Ruby is described as:

“A dark thing, corded through the neck and arms. Frail-chested. Her hair was black and coarse as a horse’s tail. Broad across the bridge of her nose. Big dark eyes, virtually pupil-less, the whites of them startling in their clarity” (Frazier 54).

This hints that Ruby is of mixed race. According to one passage, Ruby claims to be the illegitimate child of a blue heron. This is hardly conclusive evidence, but it is certainly made clear that she is not the biological offspring of Stobrod. In any case, none of the passages evoke a blonde-haired Zellweger type. Ethnicity is changed by casting in a couple of other places in the film:

At one point in the novel, a dark skinned girl who is part Native American, paddles Inman across a river. In the film, she becomes a red-haired, pale skinned girl, and gets shot –something that wasn’t in the text.

At another point, when the Reverend Veasey is met, he is about to throw a girl over a cliff for daring to become pregnant with his child. Inman stops him and ties the Reverend up with a note to tell his crime. In the book, the girl is white and Veasey fears her pregnancy will ruin his impending marriage and get him “churched”, but in the film, the girl is made black and Veasey is already married. In the South, in all likelihood, a black girl’s word against a white preacher’s would have carried little weight and Veasey could have gotten away with only some light gossip to mar his reputation, despite Inman’s posted note that told his guilt. This change in ethnicity damaged the story’s credibility somewhat.

Other big changes were made in the film to strengthen the villainous characters of the Home Guard. The Home Guard is made up of shifty types who pulled a political appointment to stay home from the war and act as guardians of the peace. Among their vague duties is the task of rounding up any deserters and sending them back to the front line. The leader of these, General Teague, is complicated in the film to be lusting after both Ada’s land and her body. Also, one of his gang, a young albino who’s barely focused on in the book, is more developed in the film and usurps the role of another character who had a final shoot out with Inman at the end of the story. Something about albino characters in films lately…both in the Matrix trilogy, and here, albinos get cast as evil villains. Someday soon, now that Lord of the Rings has done so well, someone should do a film version of Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone with its captivating albino anti-hero. That would do very well! But I digress…

Over the course of the film, Ada and Ruby bring the farm back to life, and become close friends. Inman resists sexual temptations from a number of women, escapes deadly encounters, and deals with fatigue and hunger to reach his love. However, when they meet again, the Home Guard is waiting…

I’ll let you watch the film for yourself to see what happens.