During the few months my home state of Illinois, as well as much of the nation, has been operating under a stay-at-home notice due to the terrible effects of the pandemic.
During that time my wife and I have found ourselves, like many Americans and people across the globe, with time on our hands. Like many other folks, we turned to various forms of binge-watching in order to keep from thinking about all the awful news that comes over various air waves every day. One choice we made was to watch a variety of Civil War films.
All of these films were ones that we had seen before but each of them offered both entertainment and distraction. What we found as we re-watched these films was that they each one offered something of value at a time of uncertainty.
By watching films set in a time when the nation was divided and bleeding it was possible, for at least a few hours, to realize that loss and sacrifice are part of life. The price we are willing to pay for a cause worthy of believing in is the measure of sacrifice that history demands. It is good to be reminded of that truth and films about our nation’s Civil War reinforce the fact that people may be called upon to act on behalf of the greater good in unexpected ways.
What follows are summaries of a dozen or so films we watched over the past few quarantine months. Each review and rating is personal opinion and certainly not to be taken as any sort of effort to define the film in question. If these reviews spur disagreement or interest then I welcome readers to watch them and form their own opinions. By no means an exhaustive listing of Civil War films, this piece is designed to discuss films actually watched during the quarantine.
Hopefully, these few words of review and summary will spur interest in a genre of filmmaking that helps bring to life the story of the American Civil War in ways that books alone cannot accomplish.
The story of the 54th Massachusetts is one that is both fascinating and inspiring. This infantry regiment was formed at the behest of the abolitionist leaning governor John Albion Andrew, and was among the first African-American regiments to take up arms for the Union cause.
The story of this redoubtable unit is the focus of this powerful film.
Starting with some of the backstory of the 54th’s first commander, Robert Gould Shaw, the film swiftly turns to the nature of the men who joined the regiment. Made up of freedmen and escaped slaves, the 54th was formed by men who had everything to fight for and much to lose.
The film, traces the difficulties the 54th faced in terms of prejudice, lack of confidence by army commanders, and their own inexperience.
Starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick, Glory tells a powerful story that culminates with the regiment’s ill-advised but brave-hearted assault on Battery Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina, in July of 1863.
Glory tells the story of men who were despised by their foes while simultaneously being distrusted, and even hated, by their own army.
Their bravery and loss at Battery Wagner established the 54th as a worthy combat unit and helped to at least shift some portions of public opinion enough to eventually allow more than 180,000 African-American men to serve in the Union army. Nominated for five Academy Awards, Glory won three Oscars including a Best Supporting Actor prize for Denzel Washington.
Filmed with care and supported by a beautiful score featuring the Boys Choir of Harlem crafted by the late, great composer James Horner, Glory is an outstanding film, The men of the 54th faced bitter defeat at Battery Wagner, but their sacrifice was an important element of the eventual emergence of African-American soldiers in the Civil War.
This movie is among the finest Civil War films ever made and it will cause viewers to reflect on the human cost of freedom paid by mankind down through the ages. (1989…122 minutes) 5 Stars
In 1999 Steven Spielberg discussed a potential film project focused on Abraham Lincoln with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Goodwin was in the process of researching and writing a book that would become the acclaimed Team of Rivals, a brilliant study of Lincoln and his cabinet.
Spielberg was determined to make a film about Lincoln, a man whose leadership continues to shape the United States.
For years, Spielberg pursued this project but other films took precedence and time passed. Originally, and for years, Spielberg worked with Liam Neeson who he planned to cast as Abraham Lincoln. When the time finally approached for Spielberg to tackle his Lincoln project, Neeson was no longer able to fill the lead role.
Neeson felt he was too old for the part even though he was roughly the age of Lincoln as he would be portrayed in the film. Grieving over the accidental death of his wife, Neeson passed on the role and in his place, Spielberg cast Daniel Day-Lewis.
That decision directly resulted in the film Lincoln becoming a deeply moving movie of ideas.
In Lincoln viewers will encounter a performance for the ages by Lewis. This tour de force rendering of the embattled and exhausted yet driven president, is one that will leave audiences both moved and changed.
The Lincoln that moves across the screen in this powerful historical film is one dogged by opposition even as the forces of the Union move steadily onward toward final victory. The core of the film revolves around Lincoln’s drive to pass the 13th Amendment making slavery unconstitutional in the United States and its territories during the lame duck session of Congress following his reelection.
While, on the surface, these deep politics could be a rather tenuous reed to build a 150-minute movie around, Lewis’ Lincoln brings it all to life. In Spielberg’s Lincoln we meet a man whose life has been filled with pain in many forms.
Whether it was the loss of two beloved sons, the deeply trying marriage he was part of, or the daily dose of death and pain that the war he oversaw bred; Lincoln’s innate tendency toward melancholia had an abundance of reasons for existence.
Yet, despite the grinding cost of being the nation’s leader at its darkest moments, Lincoln strove to bring decency and justice to governance. In Lincoln viewers will see the behind-the-scenes machinations that are part of politics and leadership. But they will also see and feel the deep and abiding connection Mr. Lincoln had with morality as he saw it.
This is a deeply powerful and moving film and one that is clearly made with love. With strong performances throughout the cast and a wonderous score by John Williams reminiscent of his work in Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln is an outstanding production.
Both financially and critically successful, Lincoln was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won 2 including a well deserved Best Actor Oscar for Daniel Day-Lewis. Lewis’ performance was one for the ages and it alone makes this film a must see for anyone interested in America’s Civil War. (2012…150 minutes) 5 Stars
Based on a true story, Pharaoh’s Army tells the tale of a foraging mission gone wrong. In this excellent film the story of Sarah Anders, a farm wife living along Meshack Creek in Kentucky’s Cumberland Mountains near the Tennessee boarder, takes center stage.
With her husband serving in the Confederate Army of Tennessee, Sarah, played by Patricia Clarkson, must deal with both keeping her farm going and dealing with grief.
Ander’s daughter has died and after her burial, Union sympathizers dig up her body and leave it lying in the mud. Sarah and her young son bring the girl’s body home where they rebury her on their property.
Shortly thereafter, a small group of five Union foragers arrive led by Captain John Albion, portrayed by Chris Cooper.
The Union soldiers take chickens, the Anders’ cow, and other provisions and are about to leave when a terrible accident occurs leaving one of the soldiers severely injured.
The foragers are forced to stay at the Anders’ farm while their comrade mends. During this time period, Captain Albion, who is a widower from Ohio, becomes attracted to Sarah and takes on the job of preparing her fields for the year’s crop. Sadly, there is no future for Albion’s affections as a Confederate sniper strikes, killing one of the soldiers before Albion kills him.
This attack hardens the heart of the foragers and they leave, taking the Anders’ mule and most of their provisions. Sarah’s son chases down the soldiers as they ride down the creek. In a brief gunfight, the boy kills the injured soldier and runs home.
Trailed by Captain Albion, the climactic scene involves a choice made by the Federal officer to either take revenge against the Anders’ family or let the both go. Featuring outstanding performances, beautiful photography of the Kentucky mountains, and a compelling story well told, Pharaoh’s Army is a gem of a film.
In 1941 an aging Kentucky mountaineer took authorities to a filled in sinkhole where he claimed to have buried the body of a Union soldier killed during a foraging raid on, he and his mother’s farm. Remains were found and the story was passed on generation to generation of his family.
That true story was the basis for Pharaoh’s Army and is one that represents the darker side of the Civil War. In places like Missouri, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Kentucky-Tennessee border, the Civil War was an ugly affair indeed. Pharaoh’s Army tells the story of one such dark incident and it does so in a compelling and thoughtful way.
This remains a personal favorite among Civil War films and is a movie that any viewer interested in this period in American history will appreciate. (1995…90 minutes) 4.5 Stars
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Filmed as the third chapter in director Sergio Leone’s western trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly tells the story of three men bent on finding riches hidden by Confederate soldiers in the middle of perhaps the most significant campaign of the Civil War in the American southwest.
Searching for a hidden treasure, three men played by Eastwood, Lee van Cleef, and Eli Wallach bend or break every rule imaginable to find wealth. Shot with wide panning techniques that emphasize the desolate beauty of the dessert and long scenes with short cuts of faces in closeup,
Leone’s epic tale help pave the way for a number of other films which made up a genre known as Spaghetti Westerns. Shot primarily in Spain, financed in part by Germans, directed by an Italian, and featuring the memorable music of composer Ennio Morricone,
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was a financial success that received positive reviews despite being part of a type of western film that all too often sacrificed storytelling and character development for gore.
While there is enough shooting and killing to satisfy fans of action movies, there is also a storyline that draws the viewer in and holds their attention until the final climactic scenes. Set during the unsuccessful campaign led by Confederate General Sibley which culminated in defeat at Glorieta Pass in March of 1862, this entertaining film does touch on a number of interesting Civil War themes.
The fate of prisoners, the futility of war, and the cost of battle all play out in ways that go beyond the cartoonish nature of Spaghetti Westerns into true storytelling. The performances of each of the three stars are all excellent and leave the audience wondering just who “the good” member of the triumvirate actually is.
The film is beautifully supported by Morricone’s music which remains memorable.
Of particular interest are some of the pyrotechnical elements of the movie, especially the blowing up of a bridge which must have kept the director up at night worrying about a shot that could only be made once without derailing the entire production schedule.
The end result is a film that is not designed to have deep and abiding meaning but rather to tell an entertaining adventure story set in the Civil War and populated by shady figures who will do almost anything to get ahead. (1966…177 minutes) 4 Stars
The Civil War
Although not a feature film, this documentary mini-series stands as one of the finest Civil War filmmaking projects ever undertaken. Using period photographs, director Ken Burns and his staff brought the Civil War to life through filming techniques that utilized slowly developing closeups and careful panning to bring motion to otherwise unmoving imagery.
Burns used 9 episodes and 11.5 hours to tell the story of America’s bloodiest war. By the conclusion of the series, viewers are drawn into the world of long departed Americans whose sacrifices shaped the entire future of the United States.
The use of period writings read by talented voice actors brings the suffering, loss, and emotion of men and women who actually experienced the Civil War back to life.
The incorporation of period music and songs augments the storytelling and helps viewers to have a deeply moving experience. Original music, especially in the form of Jay Unger’s haunting Ashokan Farewell is unforgettable and will move viewers to tears when they hear it.
Burns tells the story of great leaders, significant battles, and famous people but also delves into the cost of the war exacted from the common folk who did almost all of the sacrificing.
Throughout the series, Burns keeps his lens and art focused on how the war affected everyday people. Some of the most poignant moments of this long series are those which showcase the pain and loss that regular people experienced in this terrible war.
For example, the reading of a letter written by Rhode Island officer, Sullivan Ballou, to his wife just before a battle that would claim his life remains a haunting and tearful conclusion to one episode and one that will move even the most stoic of viewers.
The narration by historian David McCullough is perfect and not only connects the diverse elements of the story but also draws the viewer in with his pacing and tonality. The inclusion of historians and other Civil war experts works and helps place each event or personage in context.
Most memorable of all these experts is the writer Shelby Foote whose every appearance leaves the viewer wanting more of his fine bourbon smooth southern accent and cunning storytelling abilities. Throughout the series the dignity of common folk who fought the war is emphasized while also telling the story of the destructive nature of the conflict and the horrendous aspects of its primary cause…slavery.
As with other great documentary series done by Ken Burns, The Civil War dedicates time to the downtrodden people whose pain was a vital part of the historical events depicted. In this instance it is the fate of African-Americans whose slavery and emancipation rested at the heart of the war.
Burns does an excellent job of telling the story of slavery and how it was at the heart of the Civil War. Burns also does justice to some of the keynote personalities who shaped the war’s outcome.
People such as Lincoln, Lee, Grant, and Sherman all stand out as living beings and not just historical icons. Likewise, common soldiers such as Rhode Islander Elisha Hunt Rhodes, and Tennessean Sam Watkins step to the forefront and help the viewing audience better understand just what Civil War service entailed. The end result of all this work and hours of footage is an American classic and a documentary series that should be revisited every few years to remind folks just what the Civil War was about and the cost it exacted from the people of the United States. (1990…690 Minutes) 5 Stars
The battle of Gettysburg remains the pivotal turning point of the American Civil War. In three days, from July 1-3, 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia led by Robert E. Lee, and the Army of the Potomac under the command of newly promoted General George Gordon Meade clashed in a battle that shaped the ultimate end result of the war.
In those three days over 51,000 American soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured in a battle that remains the bloodiest in American history.
The human cost of Gettysburg can be measured in many ways but one that is quite striking is that when General Lee withdrew from the region, his hospital train stretched out for more than 25 miles.
In 1993, Ted Turner released Gettysburg, one of the longest feature films in modern American film history.
At 254 minutes, Gettysburg exhaustively tells the story of this climactic battle. The film is presented from primarily a Confederate perspective although one of its centerpieces is the story of the 20th Maine and its commander Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.
Among the most memorable elements of this sweeping historical epic are the large-scale battle reenactments, the story of the struggle on Little Round Top, the relationships between officers in both armies, and the breathtaking recreation of Pickett’s Charge.
The cast is excellent and many of them render outstanding performances as they recreate some of the men who were in leadership roles during the battle. Actors such as Tom Berenger (Longstreet), Martin Sheen (Lee), Richard Jordan (Armistead), Sam Elliott (Buford), and Stephen Lang (Pickett) each did an excellent job of representing generals whose efforts directly impacted the results of the battle.
Also of interest are cameo appearances by Ted Turner as Colonel Walter Patton who was killed during Pickett’s Charge, Ken Burns as an aide to General Hancock, and the late Brian Pohanka as General Webb of the Union 2nd Corps.
However, the penultimate performance in this film is that of Jeff Daniels as Colonel Chamberlain. Every scene that Daniels is in is one that his energy drives forward and in which he produces memorable moments.
Originally, Ted Turner wanted to release this film as a TV mini-series on his network. However, after viewing the first rushes, Turner determined that Gettysburg would be released as a feature film. In theaters, Gettysburg was financially successful but was limited in terms of number of showings because of the film’s length.
The film received no Academy Award nominations but, in 2011, it was shown on television as part of the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the commencement of the Civil War.
That television release earned the film 8 Emmy nominations and 4 Emmys. Of particular note was the score crafted by Randy Edelman which remains a critically acclaimed movie soundtrack. Within the Civil War reenactment community, Gettysburg was a touchstone film at the time of its release and beyond. Thousands of living historians took part in the original production.
The contributions of Living Historians to the success of the movie is clear and it remains a film that will move viewers in particular those who have ever taken the field to recreate history and honor the men and women who made it. For the general public, Gettysburg may be a bit lengthy with some of the longer conversations between officers in the Second Act dragging in places. But, despite some of its flaws, Gettysburg remains a fine recounting of a moment in American history that shaped all that was to come. (1993…254 minutes) 4.5 Stars
Red Badge of Courage
Based upon Stephen Crane’s novel published in 1894, Red Badge of Courage tells the story of Henry Fleming, a young boy who is part of a fictional Ohio infantry regiment. Fleming is fearful that he will fail to show bravery when the time comes for him to face battle for the first time.
When that opportunity comes, Fleming is able to initially withstand the terror he feels until a Confederate counterattack causes part of his unit to crumble and flee. Fleming runs away and almost immediately feels an overwhelming sense of shame. After wandering around in the rear, Fleming falls in with a caravan of Union wounded men.
There, Fleming meets Conklin, one of his friends from the regiment who is badly wounded. Fleming stays with Conklin until his death, which is a powerful scene in both the book and this film version of it. Fleming then begins to feel his courage restored and he tries to find his way back to his regiment.
Along the way he is clubbed in the head by a panicked Union soldier but eventually finds his unit.
Fleming’s desertion is unnoticed and he is welcomed back by his comrades who tend to his injury. Eventually, Fleming sees combat again and discovers that he is a brave man and one who can face the arithmetic of war no matter how terrifying “seeing the elephant” may be.
The story of Henry Fleming was brought to the screen by Director John Huston in a way that modern viewers will appreciate more than those who first saw the film in 1951.
Originally filmed as a two-hour Civil War epic, Houston’s film was not well received by screening audiences or the studio heads who viewed it. Those early bad reviews caused the studio to cut 51 minutes of Houston’s film and market the remainder as a “B” level second feature.
However, even though Houston hated the end result of this sharp editing, Red Badge of Courage has withstood the test of time and is a very well thought of period piece. One portion of the film’s value that is evident is the quality of the performances of both lead and supporting actors.
Audie Murphy, one of America’s most highly decorated World War II veterans, plays young Fleming and brings his prior battlefield experiences to bear on this central role.
Bill Mauldin, a wartime cartoonist who unflinchingly told the story of frontline GI’s fighting in World War II, plays Fleming’s friend, Wilson, and does so with dignity. Narration is thoughtfully provided by James Whitmore, a former Marine who served in the Pacific.
The backstories of these performers bring a ring of authenticity to the storytelling of this film. It is regrettable that the director’s cut version of Houston’s film is unavailable but viewers will be moved by this concise gem of a film. (1951…69 Minutes) 4 Stars
In 1997 Charles Frazier published Cold Mountain, his award-winning novel about a star-crossed love set within the confines of the Civil War. Frazier’s epic story was brought to the silver screen in 2003 when director Anthony Minghella adapted the author’s powerful story into a compelling historical film. In telling the story of W.P. Inman and Ada Monroe, two lovers who are separated by the clash of war, Minghella gathered a wonderful cast of actors and actresses who brought Frazier’s words to life.
Lead performances by Jude Law and Nicole Kidman as the separated lovers were ably complemented by Renee Zellweger, Jack White, Natalie Portman, and a number of other talented actors. The storyline begins in the North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains where in the small hamlet of Cold Mountain war fever is in the air. As the Civil War commences, Inman and Ada fall in love only to be severed from one another by the drum taps of war. Inman serves with Lee in Virginia and is terribly wounded after the Battle of the Crater. Ada struggles back home to cope with the death of her preacher father and financial ruin.
While recovering from his wounds, Inman receives a letter from Ada which contains her plea that he return home. Inman deserts from his hospital and begins a long and torturous journey back to Cold Mountain.
On the home front, the brutal Home Guard led by the merciless Captain Teague bully the local population, execute deserters, and otherwise plague the region. During his epic journey Inman sees more violence and pain which convinces him that he was, “Like every fool sent off to fight with a flag and a lie.”
Ada, supported by young Ruby, a capable and energetic helpmate played to a tee by Zellweger, pines for Inman and sees her world steadily more brutalized by Teague’s men. When Inman finally does reach Cold Mountain his sweet reunion with Ada is tempered by a climactic confrontation with Teague’s men that shapes not only his fate but that of his beloved and her friends and family. At one point earlier in the film one character sings out a traditional song that sums up the fate of many of the characters in this beautiful film, “I ain’t ahead, nor never will be—Till the sweet apple grows, on the sour apple tree.”
Cold Mountain was critically acclaimed and received seven Academy Award nominations with Renee Zellweger winning the Supporting Actress Oscar.
The music in the film is exceptional and garnered an Oscar nomination for Gabriel Yared’s original score. Additional music included traditional tunes and songs and pieces written by musicians such as Jack White, Sting, Elvis Costello, and T-Bone Burnett. Alison Krauss’ renditions of two beautiful songs, Scarlet Tide & I’ve Gone to Find My Ain True Love, are also exceptional.
While the real Cold Mountain is in the Pisgah National Forrest, primary filming of much of the movie was in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains.
The end result of the work that went into Cold Mountain is self-evident with the result being a powerful film that tells a memorable story. (2003…154 Minutes) 4 Stars
Gone with the Wind
It could be argued that no other American film has had the staying power of Gone with the Wind. Released in 1939, Gone with the Wind was the pride and joy of film mogul David O. Selznick.
From the 1936 publication of Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel it became Selznick’s obsession to produce it as a film. After purchasing the rights to Mitchell’s best seller, Selznick set about casting and producing what was to become one of the most financially successful and critically acclaimed films of its era and beyond.
The film itself told the story of Scarlett O’Hara and her star-crossed pursuit of love. Set in the Civil War and Reconstruction age, Gone with the Wind took its viewers into a sweeping story that featured star-crossed love, wartime suffering, the burning of Atlanta, and the futility of Scarlet’s pursuit of happiness with any of her husbands.
At the heart of Selznick’s film and its success was a cast that brought to life the story that Mitchell had written.
From the outset, Selznick wanted Clark Gable to play Rhett Butler, the dashing and sometimes scandalous male lead whose pursuit of Scarlett rests at the center of the narrative.
Since Gable was under contract to MGM, Selznick had to delay filming for two years until a contractual arrangement could be established with him.
Finding the right actress to play Scarlett was complicated and initially involved the interviewing of over 1,400 known and unknown actresses for the role. Ultimately 31 proven actresses were screen-tested for the role with the two finalists being Paulette Goddard and Vivian Leigh. Vivian Leigh got the role and brought Scarlett to life in a memorable way.
After release, Gone with the Wind set financial records that remained unbroken for over a quarter century.
The film was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and won 10 including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress. This last award was historic as the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress went to Hattie McDaniel, who was the first African-American performer to win and Academy Award.
Interestingly, McDaniel was required to sit at a segregated, “Blacks Only” table at the rear of the award’s ceremony where she received the news of her victory. In terms of plotting, Gone with the Wind tells a vivid and moving story that takes its characters through the highs and lows of war and peace from a Confederate perspective.
Supported by a brilliant score crafted by Max Steiner, Gone with the Wind is classic American epic that stands out in its time while remaining relevant to this day.
Of course, the film is a product of its time and is a representation of Mitchell’s romanticized version of the antebellum south.
African-Americans are stereotypically passive and grateful to their owners and often act in ridiculous ways.
A product of its times, Gone with the Wind is not without flaws but it is a classic film and one that has been identified by the American Film Institute as one of the ten best all-time American films. (1939…238 minutes) 5 Stars
The Horse Soldiers
Directed by John Ford, The Horse Soldiers is loosely based on Union General Benjamin Grierson’s raid that took place in April/May of 1863.
Grierson, a pre-war music teacher from Jacksonville, Illinois, led a daring cavalry expedition that took his 1,700 men on a 600-mile ride through Confederate territory in southern Tennessee and Mississippi.
Along the way, Grierson’s men destroyed lines of communication, disrupted supply lines, and generally destabilized an area as part of Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign.
In this film adaptation loosely based on a portion of Grierson’s Raid, John Wayne stars as Colonel John Marlowe, who has been tasked with going behind enemy lines to destroy a Confederate railway center.
Colonel Marlowe is at odds with his chief medical officer, Major Henry Kendall, played by William Holden.
Throughout the film these two characters are at odds although they eventually develop a grudging respect for one another. In the early stages of the mission the Union troopers must take a southern belle and her servant who is a slave prisoner because they have spied on the unit and are aware of their tactical objectives.
This southern belle, played by Constance Towers, whose performance in this film is consistently cringe-worthy, becomes a source of constant friction and trouble until she finally realizes that John Wayne is a good soldier who has fallen in love with her.
Interestingly, the slave named “Lukey” is played by Althea Gibson, the first African-American women to win several major tennis titles in the 1950s including the French and US Opens. Along the way, the Union troopers fight a number of skirmishes, destroy a Confederate regiment at Newton Center railway station, and make their escape to Baton Rouge.
Like many John Ford cavalry films, this one features lots of action, some interesting shots of cavalry on the move, plenty of drinking, a fist fight, and a core group of supporting actors who will be familiar to fans of this director.
What is missing in this film is the sense of historical accuracy that is typical of most of Ford’s westerns like Rio Grande, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, or Fort Apache.
Numerous errors in terms of historical accuracy, the dress, age, and equipment of the fighting men, civilian hairstyles and decorum, and basic facts will be irritating to some viewers.
For example, the 6th Alabama is mentioned as guarding the Mississippi train station that is the main objective while that unit served exclusively in the east.
Likewise, Andersonville Prison is mentioned numerous times even though it would not exist for nearly a year from the date of this expedition.
Similarly, a scene depicting children attending a military school for boys attacking the Union troopers is played as a comedy event in a way that leaves a terrible taste.
Overall, The Horse Soldiers may appeal to John Wayne fans as a typical action film from that era, but otherwise is a rather dated movie with a limited audience. (1959…120 minutes) 2 Stars
Dances with Wolves
In the mid-1980s writer Michael Blake was working on a screen play about a Federal soldier who went west during the Civil War, encountered Sioux Indians, and became a part of their culture.
Unsuccessful in marketing his screenplay, Blake consulted with a friend of his who he felt could give him good advice on next steps with his writing project.
That friend was Kevin Costner and he advised Blake to turn his screenplay into a novel. Blake took that advice to heart and recrafted his work into a novel which was published with some commercial success in 1988. Kostner, who was interested in taking on a film project with a western theme, bought the movie rights to Blake’s book titled Dances with Wolves. Two years later Kostner brought Blake’s story to the screen in a film version which he both starred in and directed.
In Dances with Wolves Kostner tells the story of Lieutenant John Dunbar, a Union soldier who was wounded in 1863 while bravely fighting in Tennessee. As a reward for his courage in battle, Dunbar is given a voluntary transfer to the western frontier.
At Fort Hays, Kansas, Dunbar is directed by an unbalanced superior officer to head out to Fort Sedgwick in northeastern Colorado. Unbeknownst to Dunbar, this mad officer commits suicide shortly after his departure.
Accompanied by a rather crude teamster named Timmons, Dunbar is taken by the vast beauty of the western plains. Upon arrival at Fort Sedgwick, Dunbar is confronted by a vacant and decaying outpost with only the detritus of the vanished garrison remaining. Dunbar decides to stay at Fort Sedgwick while Timmons heads back to Fort Hayes, pledging to alert authorities to Dunbar’s circumstances.
Unfortunately, Timmons does not make it back to Hays as he is ambushed by Pawnees who slay him. At Sedgwick, Dunbar tidies up the post and remains alert for the potential arrival of relief forces or Indians.
Over time, Dunbar does make contact with the Sioux people who live in the area. At first there is distrust and language barriers but, as time passes, Dunbar is accepted by the Lakota people and becomes a friend.
The film shows aspects of Lakota culture inclusive of family life, buffalo hunting, celebrations, and the native people’s apprehension about the arrival of more Whites. Dunbar also falls in love with Stands with a Fist who is a white woman who was found as an orphan by the tribe and adopted into their ranks.
This love blossoms and becomes a marriage after Dunbar has been accepted as a brother to the tribe. Sadly, the return of soldiers to Fort Sedgwick sets off a tragic set of circumstances that endanger not only Dunbar, or Dances with Wolves as the Lakota people rename him, but also the Sioux people in general. Dances with Wolves was filmed with a fifteen-million-dollar budget and seemed like a risky investment for Kostner. However, Dances with Wolves struck a resonant chord with viewers and became a smash hit both financially and critically.
The film earned twelve Academy Award nominations and garnered seven Oscars inclusive of Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Soundtrack.
The musical score for the film was composed by John Barry, a highly successful composer, and remains a hauntingly beautiful work.
The cast featured an excellent ensemble of Native American performers inclusive of Rodney Grant, Graham Greene, Tantoo Cardinal, Floyd Red Crow, and Wes Studi. The actors were coached in Lakota language and significant portions of the film are spoken in that native dialect. Costner and Mary McDonnell are both excellent as the lovers who meet on the plains. Filming took place in a number of locations in South Dakota and Wyoming including Badlands National Park, the Black Hills, Spearfish Canyon, Sage Creek Wilderness Area, Belle Fourche River Area, and the Triple-U Buffalo Ranch outside Ft. Pierre.
For his efforts, Costner was awarded the status of “Honorary Lakota” by Sioux leadership. Dances with Wolves is a film that draws its audience into not only the engaging story it tells but also the landscape and native people whose culture was devastated by the tidal wave of destruction that swept into them after the Civil War. Thirteen years after the events depicted in the film conclude the Lakota people were defeated and consigned to reservations.
Dances with Wolves tells the story of what was, what might have been, and what was lost as American history overwhelmed the Lakota people in its way. This is not a perfect film as there are some scenes or moments that may seem a bit overdone, but it is a film that transports its audience to a world that is thoroughly engaging. (1990…181 minutes) 4 Stars
Produced by Turner Broadcasting as a television film/mini-series, Andersonville is loosely based upon the published diary of John Ransom, a Union soldier who was imprisoned at the notorious Confederate prison camp. In Andersonville the story of a group of Union soldiers captured during Grant’s Overland Campaign and subsequently imprisoned at Andersonville, is told with a high degree of historical accuracy.
Structured by award winning director John Frankenheimer, Andersonville features a cast made up of veteran character actors and generally unknown performers. The actors generally do an excellent job of bringing this grim story to the screen. Of particular note are the performances of Frederick Forrest as Sgt. McSpadden and Pvt. Jarrod Emick both of the 19th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
The musical soundtrack that solidly conveys the drama and loss inherent in the story of Andersonville is well crafted by composer Gary Chang, better known for his score for The Breakfast Club.
Throughout the film viewers will experience all the horrors that were typical of Andersonville and other Civil War prison camps. Prisoners at Andersonville experienced pain, deprivation, and death at a level that defies description.
Opened in February, 1864, Andersonville existed for approximately fourteen months.
Designed for approximately 8,000 prisoners, Andersonville eventually held 45,000 Union soldiers. In just more than a year nearly 13,000 Union soldiers perished at Andersonville due to illness, hunger, and execution.
The camps sole water source, save for rain water, came from a polluted creek that was poisoned by human waste and which killed people who drank from it. Guards manned the sixteen-foot high stockade walls and strictly enforced a “dead line” which, if crossed, resulted in the execution of any prisoners who dared do so. Once the prison shut down, the remaining prisoners were redistributed to other southern camps and about 1,000 of those who survived the war perished on the ill-fated steamboat Sultana.
Within the camp, as Frankenheimer effectively recreates, a group of prisoners known as the “raiders” served as a criminal gang which robbed, looted, and murdered fellow prisoners. Eventually, a counter group known as the “regulators” overwhelmed the “raiders” in a pitched battle.
The “regulators” then sought and received permission from Captain William Wirtz, the camp commandant and the only Civil War soldier to be executed for war crimes after the conflict ended, to put the “raiders” on trial.
After a full trial many of the “raiders” were sentenced to running a gauntlet manned by fellow prisoners while a core group of six leaders were hung.
All of these historical factors are brought to the screen in this solid film. At the conclusion of the film one of the featured Union soldiers dies and is brought to the dead house.
The shot then transitions to the actual grave and headstone #7624 of Pennsylvanian Martin Blackburn at the present-day Andersonville National Historical Park. Months after this shot was originally broadcast, my family and I visited Andersonville as part of a vacation in the South.
My two oldest children had watched the film along with my wife and me. As we approached Andersonville, I asked the kids if they thought they could find Pvt. Blackburn’s grave.
Both of my middle-school age children said it would be easy to locate the grave because we had its number. Once in the park my children quickly realized the scope of trying to find one grave among the upwards of 15,000 that were on the grounds.
As we walked up and down aisle after isle of graves my kids started asking questions like, “Why are there so many graves,” “Why are the graves so close together,” and “Why are so many marked Unknown?”
By the end of our journey what had started like a scavenger hunt had morphed into a somber teachable moment that I will never forget. Dedicated to all prisoners of war, Andersonville tells a terribly sad story but one that must be remembered.
On a personal level, I had the opportunity to participate as an extra during portions of the trial segment of the movie and realize the sacrifices many reenactors made to support this film.
The fate of prisoners during the Civil War is one of that conflict’s darkest chapters. Andersonville does justice to those sufferings and was worthy of the seven Emmy nominations and one award it received in 1996. (1996…167 minutes) 4 Stars
How the West Was Won
Though not strictly a Civil War film, How the West Was Won does feature a family saga that crosses four generations that experience the war and the aftereffects of it.
The Prescott family is determined to head west and settle in what we now refer to as the Midwest. Along the way they encounter river pirates, frontier trappers, and eventually raging rapids that kill many family members.
These tragic events lead one of the women in the Prescott family to wed and settle on the Ohio land where her parents are buried. Her husband and one of her sons are swept up in the Civil War where they both meet their destiny at Shiloh.
While his father, Linus, is killed at that bloody battle the son, Zeb, experiences the human cost of war inclusive of his own killing another man in hand-to-hand combat. After the war, Zeb decides that staying on the family farm with his brother just will not work.
Like so many young men who returned from the war, Zeb cannot settle down and decides to reenlist and head west. Over time, Zeb Rawlins discovers what being in the “Indian Fighting Army” truly means inclusive of uprooting native people and supporting the willy-nilly expansionism that will drown the rights of people who had lived on the plains for hundreds of years.
Discouraged by his military experiences, Zeb turns to law enforcement and becomes a marshal. In this role Zeb faces a crisis that threatens not only his own life but also the lives of his wife and two sons. Filmed in Cinerama, How the West Was Won used a complicated three-camera system that required modified screens be used in theaters that played it. Even though the film was an American epic, it’s opening night was in London, England.
The Cinerama process, which was only used with a handful of feature films, produced stunning visual clarity when projected onto curved screens, but loses some focus when viewed on traditional screens or lower grade televisions.
The film was commercially successful and received 8 Academy Award nominations with three Oscars won for technical work and screenwriting. Interestingly, no actors or actresses received nominations which is not surprising because the film is typical for the epic movies produced in that era.
The ensemble cast is made up of numerous stars some of which do an excellent job while others are rather ordinary.
Performers like Jimmy Stewart, George Peppard, Richard Widmark, and Henry Fonda do an excellent job while others such as Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, and John Wayne all seem slightly wooden on screen.
The musical score crafted by Alfred Newman is excellent and was identified by the American Film Institute as one of the top 25 scores in film history.
The film also used multiple directors to tell the story of the frontier years, the migration west, the Civil War, and the wild west. The Civil War portion of the film was directed by John Ford, and film enthusiasts will see several familiar faces in those scenes as Ford tended to use a cadre of supporting actors in his work.
Overall, How the West Was Won is a solid historical epic that tells its story not with historical exactitude but rather as Hollywood sees the past. (1966…164 minutes) 3.5 Stars