The film tells the story of a wounded deserter from the Confederate army close to the end of the American Civil War, who is on his way to return to the love of his life.
When North Carolina secedes from the Union on May 20, 1861, the young men of a rural North Carolina town on Cold Mountain hurry to enlist in the Confederate States Army. Among them is W.P. Inman, a carpenter who has fallen in love with Ada, a preacher's daughter, and their whirlwind courtship is interrupted by the war.
Three years later, Inman finds himself at the Battle of the Crater. Union soldiers tunnel beneath Confederate fortifications and detonate kegs of gunpowder prior to an ill-fated attack against the rebels. Oakley, Inman's acquaintance from Cold Mountain, is seriously wounded. Inman gets him to a field hospital, where Oakley dies with Inman beside him and friend Stobrod Thewes playing him a song on his fiddle.
Inman and his Cherokee friend Swimmer are sent, with other Cold Mountain men, to flush out surviving Union troops behind their lines. During the raid, friendly fire kills Swimmer and seriously wounds Inman. As Inman lies in the hospital near death, he reads a letter from Ada in which she pleads with him to stop fighting, stop marching, and come back to her. Inman recovers, and–with the war drawing ever closer to an inevitable Confederate defeat–deserts to return to Cold Mountain.
Inman meets the corrupt preacher Reverend Veasey, who is about to drown his pregnant slave lover. Inman stops Veasey, and leaves him tied up to face the town's justice. Exiled from his parish, Veasey later joins Inman on his journey.
They help a young man named Junior butcher his cow, and join him and his family for dinner. When Junior goes out to his trapline, the women in his family seduce Veasey, and Junior's wife, Lila, tries to seduce Inman. It is a ploy, as Junior soon returns with the Confederate Home Guard, and both Inman and Veasey are led away with other deserters. During a skirmish with Union cavalry, Veasey is killed and Inman left for dead. An elderly hermit living in the woods finds him and nurses him back to health.
Inman meets a grieving young widow named Sara, who is raising her infant child Ethan alone; he stays the night at her cabin. The next morning, a party of Union foragers arrive demanding food. Sara orders Inman away for his protection, but he hides close by. The leader, Nym, and his lieutenant harass Sara, steal her livestock, and leave Ethan in the cold, though the third soldier attempts to keep the baby warm. Nym tries to rape Sara but both he and the lieutenant are killed by Inman. Inman forces the kind forager to surrender and lets him go, but an enraged Sara fatally shoots him.
Interspersed with Inman's adventures, we see Ada's wartime experiences. A proper city girl, she and her father only recently moved to a Cold Mountain farm named Black Cove. She met Inman on her first day at Cold Mountain and had a brief, chaste romance with him the night before he left for the army. Shortly after Inman leaves, her father dies, leaving her with no money, no farming skills and little prospect for help with most able-bodied men off at war.
Ada survives on the kindness of her neighbors, one of whom eventually sends Stobrod's daughter, Ruby Thewes, to help. Ruby is a young woman who has lived a hard-scrabble life and is adept at the tasks needed to run the farm. Ruby moves in and together they bring the farm to working order. Meanwhile, Ada writes constant letters to Inman in hopes of meeting him again and renewing their romance.
The two women become close friends and confidantes. They are also friends with the Swangers, who live down the road from Black Cove. It is at the Swangers' well that Ada has a vision of Inman coming back to her in the snow, surrounded by crows.
Ada and Ruby as well as other members of their community, have several tense encounters with men of the Home Guard. Their branch is led by Captain Teague, whose grandfather once owned much of Cold Mountain. He and his deputies hunt deserters, partially with the goal of Teague's seizing their land. Teague also lusts after Ada. Meant to protect the South and its citizen population from the North, the Home Guard have become violent vigilantes, killing deserters and terrorizing citizens for helping the deserters. Teague and his men torture Mrs. Swanger to coax her deserter sons out of hiding, killing both boys and Mr. Swanger when they appear.
Stobrod Thewes, having deserted, arrives back at Cold Mountain with traveling companions Pangle, an intellectually challenged banjo player, and Georgia, a mandolin player to whom Ruby is attracted.
While camping, Stobrod, Pangle, and Georgia are cornered by Teague and the Guard. Pangle unintentionally reveals the musicians are deserters, and the Home Guard shoot Pangle and Stobrod while Georgia watches from hiding. He escapes to Black Cove and returns with Ruby and Ada, who find Pangle dead and Stobrod badly wounded. Ada helps Ruby remove a bullet from Strobrod's back, and they decide to take shelter in some cabins in the woods to avoid Teague and his men.
At this point the two story lines come together. Inman, half-dead from starvation, finally reaches Cold Mountain and is almost killed by Ada before she recognizes him. They later consummate their love and spend the night together.
The Home Guard soon find them, having captured and tortured Georgia for information. In the ensuing gunfight Inman ambushes and kills Teague and most of his band, but Teague's violent young lieutenant Boise escapes up the mountain. Cornering him near the top, Inman urges him to surrender peacefully, but Boise draws, forcing Inman to fire; Inman shoots Bosie dead, but is mortally wounded. Ada reaches Inman, finding him just as she saw him in her vision at the well: coming back to her in the snow surrounded by crows. He dies in her arms.
A few years later, Ada and Ruby are celebrating Easter. Ruby has married Georgia, and the two have a young daughter and an infant child. It is revealed that Ada's night with Inman has produced a child, Grace Inman.
Cold Mountain, where the film is set, is a real mountain located within the Pisgah National Forest, Haywood County, North Carolina. However, it was filmed mostly in Romania, with numerous scenes filmed in Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. The film was one of an increasing number of Hollywood productions made in eastern Europe. This is occurring as a result of much lower costs in the region; and in this specific instance, Transylvania was less marked by modern life than the Appalachians (fewer power lines, electric poles, paved roads and so on). Musician Ryan Adams was approached for the role of Georgia but declined.Carpathian Mountains, Romania
Carter's Grove - 8797 Pocahontas Trail, Williamsburg, Virginia, United States
Charleston, South Carolina, USA
College of Charleston - 66 George Street, Charleston, South Carolina, USA
North Carolina, USA
Richmond, Virginia, USA
South Carolina, USA
The film also marked a technological and industry turnaround in editing. Walter Murch edited Cold Mountain on Apple's sub-$1000 Final Cut Pro software using off-the-shelf G4s. This was a leap for such a big budgeted film, where expensive Avid systems are usually the standard editing system. His efforts on the film were documented in the 2005 book Behind the Seen: How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain Using Apple's Final Cut Pro and What This Means for Cinema.
Cold Mountain was met with overall positive reviews from critics, with Zellweger's performance receiving wide acclaim. On Rotten Tomatoes the film has a grade of 71% "Fresh" from critics, 87% among top critics, with the consensus "The well-crafted Cold Mountain has an epic sweep and captures the horror and brutal hardship of war". On Metacritic, the film received a grade of 73 out of 100 points possible based on 41 generally favorable reviews.
Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four, noting that "It evokes a backwater of the Civil War with rare beauty, and lights up with an assortment of colorful supporting characters." Richard Corliss, film critic for Time, went even further, giving the film 100 points out of 100 possible; he called it "A grand and poignant movie epic about what is lost in war and what's worth saving in life. It is also a rare blend of purity and maturity—the year's most rapturous love story." In his movie guide, Leonard Maltin gave the film 3 1/2 stars out of 4, writing "Minghella's adaptation of the Charles Frazier best-seller captures both the grimness of battle and the starkness of life on the home front in the South," and concluded the film was "Meticulously crafted" with "First-rate performances all around."
Cold Mountain: Music from the Motion Picture shares producer T Bone Burnett with the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a largely old-time and folk album with limited radio play that still enjoyed commercial success, and garnered a Grammy. As a result, comparisons were drawn between the two albums. The soundtrack, however, also employs many folk and blues elements.
It features songs written by Jack White of The White Stripes (who also appeared in the film in the role of Georgia), Elvis Costello and Sting. Costello and Sting's contributions, "The Scarlet Tide" and "You Will Be My Ain True Love", were both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song and featured vocals by bluegrass singer Alison Krauss. Gabriel Yared's Oscar-nominated score is represented by four tracks amounting to approximately fifteen minutes of music.
The film was nominated for more than seventy awards, including seven Academy Award nominations. Renée Zellweger won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in the film.
In addition, the film was nominated for the following Academy Awards:Best Actor (Jude Law)
Best Cinematography (John Seale)
Best Editing (Walter Murch)
Best Original Score (Gabriel Yared)
Best Original Song (T-Bone Burnett and Elvis Costello for the song "The Scarlet Tide")
Best Original Song (Sting for the song "You Will Be My Ain True Love")
The most obvious inaccuracy occurs early in the film with the giant explosion that kicked off the Battle of the Crater, during the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia. The scene was filmed in broad daylight, although the actual explosion occurred in pre-dawn darkness at 4:44 a.m.
Several scholars of historical studies reviewed the movie for its representation of North Carolina during the Civil War, especially the state's mountainous western region. Their justification is the effect popular media has on national and worldwide perceptions of Appalachian people, particularly southern Appalachians in this case. The opinions vary, but the consensus among them is the historical context of the movie is close to the scholarship. Although these scholars disagree about the accuracy of particular elements of the movie, they agree that the story gets at least some things right.
These scholars admit that the film misrepresents some aspects of the region during the time. “Neither slavery nor slaves play much part in the film, with only fleeting references to both,” says John Inscoe. However, Margaret Redwood pointed out that the film takes place in a mountain region, not suitable for plantations, and therefore inhabited mainly by white farmers, and that "Though the issue of slavery loomed large in the war as a whole, it was not necessarily crucial for these specific people". John Crutchfield notes that “we see a thoroughly contemporary understanding at work … that views slavery in decidedly moral terms.” Another negative criticism is that it is nowhere close to a faithful representation of the geography of North Carolina, especially the town in Cold Mountain, which plays a major role in the story. Silas House claims that, “For a story that relies so much on sense of place, it was obvious throughout that the majority of the film had been shot in Europe.” A native of the area, Anna Creadick, says, “… the film’s geography was annoyingly off-kilter. True, the Carpathians are somebody’s mountains, but they’re not mine.” Lastly, Martin Crawford claims, “the novel’s underlying sentimentality limits its value as historical fiction and thereby undercuts its representational authority.” For Crawford, the story is far too romantic and emotional for the historical context.
On the other hand, they praise the film for its conformity to the historical scholarship in other subjects. Inscoe asserts his astonishment that “the final product should … provide so unflinching a portrayal of the bleak and unsettling realities of a far less familiar version of the Civil War, but one that would be all too recognizable to thousands of hardscrabble southern men and women who lived through it.” Focusing on the impact of the war on women, he adds, “Even more powerful – and more historically based – are other incidents that convey the brutal toll taken on mountain women, who as mothers, wives, and widows are forced to protect their families, sometimes by violently retaliating against their tormentors.” Silas House says, “for the most part I thought director Anthony Minghella did an honorable job of portraying our region.” He agrees with Inscoe on the subject of the area’s population, stating, “most of all the characters are dignified, determined, and intelligent human beings, like the vast majority of Appalachians, and I am glad that this movie exists.” For House, the film goes beyond the people of western North Carolina to include all Appalachian communities.
As for the music, House states that “most of the songs in the film were written specifically for the movie,” but traditional forms of singing in the region make up for it. Jack Wright, not to be confused with "Jack White" (John Anthony Gillis), who plays a musician in the film, expresses that the film honestly represents the music of the region, even with a couple of non-regional additions, like “Sitting on Top of the World” and “Great High Mountain.” In contrast to House’s remark, Wright says, “some of the best of the soundtrack was not composed for the movie but garnered from the body of time-tested and proven masterpieces of an earlier rural American culture.” Such selections were not necessarily performed authentically in the film: the two Sacred Harp songs, although generally authentic to the period and region, contained vocal parts not yet written at that time.