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The Civil War redefined how America viewed itself, reshaped the economy in large portions of the country, freed the slaves in the South, and created cultural divides that have not settled. The HollywoodCivil War versions depict brutal battles, Southern belles in rags, little women waiting home for their father, a depressed and stressed president, and movies about bravery and cowardice in the face of killing fields.
The U.S. Civil War was the bloodiest, deadliest war in American history. More than 620,000 soldiers died, as did a considerable number of civilians. The post-war conflict still goes on in some ways today. So it is interesting in retrospect to look at how movies over the past century depicted the battles and era.
While no Civil War film captures the breadth and depth of the experience in the South, North, West or District of Columbia (clearly the midpoint), there are some notable Civil War films that teach about the war, not enough to ace most essay tests for those hoping two hours erases a semester of not reading. Others are noteworthy for sugar-coating reality. There were a series of films set in the period featuring studio system products starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, John Wayne, Shirley Temple and others. Many of them were mostly notable for the stars not the plots (the factual inaccuracies on some are ridiculous).
With the hindsight of 150 years since the surrender at Appomatox ended the bloodshed, here are some of the more remarkable films that capture different perspectives about the Civil War period in the U.S.:
Lincoln – Steven Spielberg’s biopic, which earned Daniel Day-Lewis another Oscar in the lead role, focused on the effect of the war in Washington. The 2012 movie shows the president’s struggles, personally and professionally, over the bloodshed (and gory amputations) as well as the politics involved in the emancipation declaration.
Cold Mountain – This 2003 movie takes place in the last days of the war, when a wounded Confederate soldier (Jude Law) tries to make his way home to his love, played by Nicole Kidman, in North Carolina. The film includes spectacular battle scenes and a sense of the desperation back home. Renee Zellweger won an Oscar for her supporting performance.
Little Women – While many Civil War movies about women left before focus on the South, this one deals with life in the North where the March girls try to get by while their father is off at war. The Louisa May Alcott novel has been made into a flick or TV movie at least six times. A personal favorite is the 1994 Gillian Armstrong-directed one with a stellar cast that included Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst and Christian Bale. The 1933 version directed by George Cukor featured a feisty Katharine Hepburn as Jo, but seems dated. The 1949 Mervyn LeRoy version also featured a great cast with Janet Leigh, June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor and Margaret O’Brien as the four March girls. One thing that distinguishes Little Women as a Civil War book and movie is that the Massachusetts native Alcott herself went and served as a nurse in D.C. during the war (at a hospital like the gory one in Lincoln) and knew firsthand what the war and homefronts were like.
Glory – Arguably one of the very best Civil War movies ever made, this 1989 film gives a stirring account of the little known 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American unit in the army. The film is historically accurate and rich in detail about the prejudice the men faces on both sides. They were unsuccessful in the battle at Fort Wagner but the effort is considered to be pivotal in the war. The film had a great cast, including Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick, Cary Elwes and in his first Oscar-winning role Denzel Washington.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – Considered to be a classic spaghetti Western, many forget this 1966 Sergio Leone film is a Civil War movie. The titled trio – the good Clint Eastwood, bad Lee Van Cleef and ugly Eli Wallach – were searching for Confederate gold during the war. It offers memorable performances, an engrossing story and Leone’s distinctive style.
The Red Badge of Courage – The 1951 adaptation of the classic Stephen Crane novel about young soldiers struggling with cowardice featured World War II’s most decorated veterans of combat is the lead role – Audie Murphy. The battle scenes directed by John Huston are notable and Murphy is perfect depicting a situation he knew personally – going into battle when the odds are against the soldier.
Santa Fe Trail – This is one of the Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland films chronicling the period. Santa Fe Trail is about Jeb Stuart’s romance with Kit Carson Holliday and pursuit of John Brown prior to the start of the Civil War. While not historically accurate, the 1940 film is entertaining and notable partly for Ronald Reagan as George Custer.
Gone With The Wind — No list can be without this 1939 soap opera overlaying a compelling look at the effect of the war, Sherman’s march and what Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) terms “the waste.” The scene in the Atlanta railway yard with Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) stepping between rows of dead and wounded soldiers as far as the eye can see captures the horrors of the war, which is described in far more detail in Margaret Mitchell’s novel. Hattie McDaniel won the first Oscar awarded to a Black actor for her portrayal of Mammy; she attended the Oscars but was not allowed in the film’s Georgia premiere.
The Birth of a Nation – The D.W. Griffith film is a classic for its pro-Klansman racist view of the era, particularly the difficult after war period in the South. Made in 1915 (yes, a 100-year-old Civil War film), it is classic also for its film work, staging, pacing and other craftsmanship that influenced filmmakers ever since.
These are just some of the countless Hollywood versions of the Civil War captured on-screen. There are many others that are notable over the last century, but this diverse group looks at all sides and many different aspects of the antebellum period, the Civil War and its aftermath.
By Dyanne Weiss