Over the past month I have had some time on my hands due to ongoing social distancing that my family and many other people I know in this part of northern Illinois are maintaining.
While I certainly grieve over the interpersonal, economic, and human suffering created by our ongoing pandemic, it has forced me to become comfortable with alone time.
In part, I have filled those more isolated moments with films of various types inclusive of America’s Civil War.
In Part II of my series of Civil War film reviews I present thoughts about films for the 1950’s up to 2019. What follows are summaries, reviews, and production notes about fourteen films that tried to recreate some aspects of America’s costliest war.
In some cases, these films did an excellent job of storytelling, recreating history in an accurate fashion, and engaging the viewer. In other instances, the films missed the mark in ways that rendered them poor viewing choices.
In all cases I have attempted to be clear and objective in my reviews but, of course, a person’s assessment of any work of art is subjective and based upon personal preferences.
Hopefully, readers will find these reviews helpful and a motivation to take some time and look back at how the Civil War has been portrayed in films.
Filmed in 1956 and released the following year, Raintree County was based on author Ross Lockridge’s 1948 best-selling novel. Lockridge, who committed suicide before his book was transformed into MGM’s most expensive feature film to date, wrote an epic story that focused on love and relationships set against the backdrop of the Civil War.
To bring this film to the screen, MGM executives turned to director Edward Dmytryk a man whose screen credits would eventually include films such as Crossfire, The Caine Mutiny, and The Young Lions. Dmytryk was an unexpected choice as he had been part of the Hollywood Ten, a primary focus of Joe McCarthy and his House Unamerican Activities Committee. Dmytryk had served time in prison for refusing to answer questions about his, and colleagues, alleged “communist” activities.
Dmytryk eventually did agree to testify and thereby ended his blacklisting in time to take on this project.
In this lovely film viewers enter into the pre-war world of Freehaven, a small town located in Raintree County, Indiana.
John Shawnessy, played by Montgomery Clift, is the son of a local minister and a shining star as a student.
His beloved Nell Gaither, played by Eva Marie Saint, has been his companion in school and appears to be destined to be his companion for life.
Then, Johnny happens to meet Susanna, a dark-haired beauty who is up from Georgia to take care of a home she has inherited in Freehaven.
Played by Elizabeth Taylor, Susanna hits Johnny like a thunderbolt and their sudden romance leads to a marriage and the birth of a son.
With the coming of the war, Susanna’s childhood traumas and mental illness become apparent and leads to her irrational flight back to Georgia along with her son.
Johnny enlists in the Union Army in hopes of finding Susanna.
This seemingly forlorn hope becomes a reality when Johnny and one of his friends from Freehaven cross paths with his son and discover that Susanna has been committed to an asylum.
Johnny escapes Confederate militiamen, is wounded, and returns home as the war comes to its conclusion.
Johnny returns to Georgia to recover his wife from the asylum and attempts to restart his life as a teacher back in Indiana.
However, Susanna’s illness leads to disaster as she flees from home in a vain attempt to locate a legendary raintree in a nearby swamp in hopes of achieving happiness promised to anyone who discovers this tree. By the film’s end Susanna is at peace and Johnny has found his greatest treasure in the swamp where the actual raintree flourishes.
Filmed at great expense, Raintree County received mixed reviews and ended up losing approximately $400,000. The film was awarded four Oscar nominations inclusive of a Best Actress nomination for Elizabeth Taylor.
Composer Johnny Green’s beautiful score was also nominated inclusive of the two songs one of which was performed by the honey-throated Nat King Cole. Raintree County featured excellent performances by its lead cast as well as supporting actors such as Lee Marvin, Rod Taylor, and DeForest Kelly.
This was a very difficult production as Montgomery Clift suffered a terrible motorcycle accident during the filming.
Clift was still recovering from facial injuries and a broken jaw when he completed primary filming. In order to cope with his pain, and due to ongoing addiction issues, Clift was a frequent user of drugs and alcohol which sometimes disrupted production schedules.
Elizabeth Taylor collapsed during filming due to hyperventilation and tachycardia in part linked to her tight-fitting period costumes and extreme heat on set. Despite these production difficulties, and the uneven reviews, Raintree County remains a moving film that weaves together a tragic love story, the coming of the Civil War, and human interest. The end result is an epic film that stands the test of time and is worth viewing. (1957…182 minutes) 4 Stars
Set against the backdrop of the closing days of the Civil War, Shenandoah tells the story of the Anderson family as it tries to skirt the terrible effects of the conflict.
The patriarch of the family is Charles Anderson, played by James Stewart. Charles is a widower who has six sons, a daughter, and a daughter-in-law who is expecting.
The Anderson’s have been relatively unscathed by the war as none of the sons have been in service and Union and Confederate troops have not damaged their property.
But this good fortune cannot last. A new son-in-law is a Confederate officer who is taken prisoner by the Federals.
The youngest Anderson son, played by Philip Alford whose most noteworthy film role was that of Jem Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is mistaken for a Confederate soldier and is also imprisoned.
Charlie Anderson, five of his sons, and his determined daughter, played by Rosemary Forsyth, set out to find their missing family members. Left behind are one of Anderson’s sons, his baby granddaughter, and his daughter-in-law, played by Katherine Ross in her screen debut. The Andersons travel far and wide in search of their missing kinfolk.
At one point they stop a Federal train carrying prisoners and find the missing son-in-law, played by Doug McClure. However, the youngest Anderson has been swept up by the tides of war that include imprisonment, escape, and then combat. While returning home disappointed by their failure to locate the boy, another son his shot to death by an over-anxious Confederate picket.
Once home, Charlie Anderson discovers that his son and daughter-in-law have been murdered by deserters leaving behind the granddaughter. The film ends with a church service where the youngest Anderson boy and his fate play a prominent role.
Directed by Andrew McLaglen, Shenandoah feels like more of a television program than a feature film.
McLaglen was a successful director who specialized in westerns and who had a close relationship with John Wayne.
In fact, Patrick Wayne, “The Duke’s” son, plays one of the Anderson boys in this film as do many character actors who were featured in westerns of that era.
McLaglen is best remembered for his work in television where he directed over 200 episodes of programs such as Gunsmoke, Rawhide, and Have Gun Will Travel. Shenandoah was a successful film that received generally positive reviews.
The film garnered one Oscar nomination for Best Sound but otherwise, received little attention in terms of awards.
The film achieved its greatest financial success in Virginia, where its local story resonated. However, the film has not aged well. Its overarching anti-war message rings true but in all too many instances the acting and storyline seem melodramatic.
Stewart gives a solid performance as the grieving widower who faces terrible losses during the film.
The supporting cast is adequate but no single performance stands out. The presence of so many actors who made their living primarily on television programs like The Andy Griffith Show, Bonanza, or Wagon Train lessens the impact of the storyline. While there certainly are poignant moments in the film, there are also all too many unbelievable combat scenes, overacted fist-fights, and dated monologues that lessen the movie’s impact.
Overall, this is a period piece that certainly has some things to say about the human cost of war but does so in a dated manner. (1965…106 minutes) 2.5 Stars
In 1966 Thomas Cullinan published his Civil War gothic novel titled A Painted Devil. Five years later a film version of that book was released under the title The Beguiled. Starring Clint Eastwood as wounded Union Corporal John McBurney, the film tells a story of lies, deceit, sexual exploitation, and ultimate punishment. Set in Mississippi during Grant’s overland move on Vicksburg, The Beguiled is a film that is rich on atmosphere while sometimes wandering into the darker areas of the human psyche. McBurney is found in the woods by a thirteen-year-old girl who brings him back to the boarding school where she resides. There, McBurney’s wounds are tended to by the school owner, played by Geraldine Page. In short order several of the students as well as the head teacher Edwina, played by Mary Hartman, take a growing interest in the wounded Yankee. McBurney uses his powers of seduction to win over and manipulate the women and girls as he slowly recovers. The women hide McBurney from passing Confederate soldiers and patrollers and slowly become more and more attached to him. In reality, McBurney is an exploitive man who uses his charm to gain the confidence of the female inhabitants of the school. McBurney generates sexual sparks with the head teacher, property owner, and a seventeen-year-old student. In a critical scene, McBurney seduces the 17-year-old but is caught in the act by Edwina. The enraged virginal teacher beats McBurney with a candlestick and knocks him down a steep staircase. The fall shatters one of McBurney’s legs which results in it having to be amputated by Geraldine Page’s character. When McBurney awakens he is enraged and blames the women for crippling him. After a recovery period, McBurney finds a pistol and takes charge of the school. At this point McBurney’s true colors become obvious to all as he threatens to take over the property and abuse the women and girls whenever he wishes to. The women strike back by serving McBurney a sumptuous meal at dinner inclusive of mushrooms specially picked for him. Of course, these mushrooms are not healthy to eat and their consumption leads to McBurney’s downfall. Directed by Don Siegel, The Beguiled was one of several films in which he collaborated with Eastwood including Dirty Harry, Two Mules for Sister Sara, Coogan’s Bluff, and The Shootist. Unfortunately, The Beguiled was neither a commercial nor critical success. Filmed on location at Ashland-Belle Helene Plantation in Ascension Parish near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, The Beguiled took only ten weeks to complete. Known as an action director, Siegel showed a mixed bag of results in filming this gothic romance movie. In many ways, this film is quite watchable as the story itself is interesting. However, viewers should be aware that there are scenes that feature racial epithets, sex, a three-some that includes a shot that fades to a painting of Christ being taken from the cross, and an amputation. The Beguiled is also a somewhat “artsy” film that incorporates dream sequences and flashbacks to move the narrative along. However, even though this is a flawed film it is one that keeps the viewer engaged and wanting to know just how things are going to work out for the characters involved. (1971…105 minutes) 3 Stars
The Outlaw Josie Wales
The Outlaw Josie Wales tells the story of a Missouri farmer whose family was murdered by Union Jayhawkers. Wales, played by Clint Eastwood, joins the guerrilla band of Bloody Bill Anderson and becomes a very capable killer during the war years. At the end of the war Josie’s band is given the opportunity to surrender and take the loyalty oath before going home. Josie refuses to surrender and watches while his comrades-in-arms are butchered by Union cavalry led by the same murderous officer who killed his family. In one of the more unbelievable scenes in the film, Wales seizes a Gatling Gun, which seemingly has infinite ammunition, in the Union camp and devastates a Federal battalion before escaping with a young wounded Confederate. What then ensues is a two-hour chase film with Wales falling in with a cadre of companions while he avoids trailing Federals, bounty hunters, and generally scrofulous people. Among Wales companions are a group of outstanding character actors that viewers will recognize. Among these companions is Chief Dan George who does an outstanding job of bringing his low-key humor and presence to the film. At one point Josie takes on a dozen violent Comancheros who have taken pioneers prisoner. Among those freed prisoners is a young Kansas girl played by Sandra Locke who blossoms into Josie’s love interest. All through the movie the Federals led by Josie’s nemesis continue to chase him until there is a final confrontation in Indian Territory. At the climactic fight Josie is no longer alone as he has loyal friends who help him to clear the way to the future. At the film’s end, Wales is assumed dead by authorities but really is moving towards a new dawn of hope. The Outlaw Josie Wales has a very interesting production history. Based on a 1972 novel titled The Rebel Outlaw: Josie Wales written by Forest Carter, the film stays true to the original story. Interestingly enough, the author’s actual name was Asa Earl Carter but he chose to write a series of western novels and an alleged biographical book titled The Education of Little Tree which detailed his Cherokee heritage under a pen name. In reality, Asa Earl Carter was a former KKK leader who later ran for governmental office and worked for Governor George Wallace. In fact, it is reported that Carter generated Wallace’s famous platform statement, “Segregation now; Segregation tomorrow; Segregation forever.” Carter was later proven to have no Cherokee roots, a fact which came to light after his false biography was more closely investigated. In terms of the production, the film was initially to be directed by Philip Kaufman, who also worked on the screenplay. Unfortunately, Kaufman and Eastwood were no in synch and eventually the star of the film fired the director and assumed those duties himself. What resulted was a sprawling Civil War western that is very similar to many of Clint Eastwood’s films. Fans of Eastwood will relish the many gunfights, beautiful southwestern landscape, and gritty violence that permeate the movie. Viewers who are not huge Eastwood fans will question the level of violence, the treatment of animals in the film, the interrupted gang rape scene, and the portrayal of all Federal soldiers as butchers. The film received generally positive critical reviews and one Academy Award nomination for composer Jerry Fielding’s original score. Viewer’s who listen closely will hear musical themes and elements very similar to the composer’s work in other westerns such as The Wild Bunch and Chato’s Land. In the end, The Outlaw Josie Wales is a creditable albeit flawed movie and one that tells a story that is very familiar to fans of Clint Eastwood action films. (1976…135 minutes) 3 Stars
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Ambrose Bierce was an enigmatic yet extremely talented nineteenth century American author. During the Civil War, Bierce experienced warfare first hand and his injuries and memories shaped both his life and his writing. Bierce entered Union service in 1861 as a member of the 9th Indiana Volunteer Infantry. As a Hoosier soldier he fought at the battle of Philippi in the early months of the war. In April, 1862, Bierce took part in the bloody two-day battle of Shiloh where he was noted for acts of gallantry. In 1863, Bierce was brevetted to the rank of first lieutenant and became a topographical engineer on the staff of General William Hazen. As a staff officer, Bierce was primarily responsible for the development of maps. In this capacity, Bierce was in regular contact with generals such as George Thomas and Oliver O. Howard. Bierce’s performance was seen as excellent and his superiors successfully negotiated his admission to West Point to be enacted at the end of the war. Bierce was badly injured in June, 1864 at Kennesaw Mountain when an artillery round inflicted a traumatic brain injury on him. Bierce was on medical furlough until September, 1864 and served for the remainder of the war. After the war, Bierce remained in service for one year and accompanied Union officers making inspection visits of Federal forts on the Great Plains. Years later, Bierce took pen in hand and began to write short stories about his wartime experiences. One story, titled An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge was published in The San Francisco Examiner in 1890. One year later, that same story was included in Bierce’s published volume of short stories titled Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. That story is the source material for this short film. In this film a Tennessee civilian has been captured and sentenced to death for bridge burning. The young man is walked out onto a plank projecting from a bridge over Owl Creek. When the plank drops, the man plummets downwards but is saved from hanging when the rope breaks. In agonizingly slow motion, the man struggles to free his bound hands to survive. Successful in shedding his ropes, the man surfaces only to see rows of Union soldiers taking aim and firing at him. A canon on the river bank fires at him as he passes but miraculously, he survives. The man is swept downstream by the fast-flowing river and is battered and bruised by the white water covered rocks. Far enough downstream to safely leave the river, the man sets out across country to reach his home. Another perilous journey faces him but he is successful at reaching home. The man runs down the lane leading to his home and sees his beloved wife waiting for him with open arms. The man reaches to embrace and kiss his wife only to discover that his entire escape was a fantastic wish he played out in his mind. The rope did not break, there was no miraculous escape, and all that he thought had transpired was merely his personal dream just before he dropped and his neck broke. Typical of Bierce’s fatalistic writing, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge was filmed overseas by a French production company. The film received the 1962 Cannes Film Festival Award for best short subject. The film also netted the Academy Award in 1863 for best live action short. In 1964 the producers of the television program The Twilight Zone purchased the rights to air the film twice. The movie first aired on American TV in February, 1964 as episode 22 of season 5 of that classic television program. Interestingly, the episode does not appear in most digital or disc collections of this program but it is available via Netflix. One final note, Ambrose Bierce who wrote stories that never had a happy ending, saw his own life concluded in a mysterious manner. After completing a tour of Civil War battle fields in 1913, Bierce went into Mexico to report on the civil war that was raging in that nation. Bierce accompanied the forces of Pancho Villa and was last seen alive in the city of Chihuahua before disappearing without a trace. Investigations into the disappearance of the seventy-one-year-old writer yielded nothing and Bierce’s whereabouts and final experiences remain a mystery. A fitting end for an old soldier who wrote stories that almost always ended in a strange and discomfiting manner. (1962…27 minutes) 4 Stars
The Field of Lost Shoes
The Battle of New Market in May of 1864 was a relatively minor engagement in the Civil War but it is renowned for one reason. During the battle, approximately 250 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) participated as what was to be a reserve force but which actually took an active and important role in the fighting. These student soldiers are the primary focus of this film and stand out as the central figures in the movie. In The Field of Lost Shoes viewers are presented with the stories of a group of VMI cadets who are friends. As the Union Army of the Shenandoah under the command of the less than capable General Sigel moves down the Shenandoah Valley, a Confederate force led by General Breckenridge struggles to mobilize a force to stop the Union advance. In order to field a sufficient force and at least slow down Sigel’s troops, Breckenridge mobilizes the VMI cadets with the stated intention that they would not be involved in combat. Once the VMI troops march to Staunton and then took the field at New Market, circumstances changed. Thrust into combat, the VMI boys advance and actually take a Federal battery on Bushong Hill thus contributing to the defeat of Sigel’s force. In the film the storyline meanders toward the battle with its focus shifting between the personal stories of several cadets, a romance that is based on love at first sight, and debates among the young men about slavery. The highlight of the film is the actual combat at New Market and its aftermath. New Market was a bloody affair with more than 13% of the troops involved becoming casualties. Among the VMI cadets more than 20% were casualties with forty-seven wounded and an additional ten killed. Among the killed was Thomas Garland Jefferson, a distant nephew of President Jefferson. The film also touches on the friendship between Cadet Jefferson and Cadet Moses Ezekiel, the only Jewish student at VMI. This friendship culminates with Ezekiel bringing his friend back from the battlefield to a field hospital where he dies. While this film is well intended and does offer several very moving moments, it is fundamentally flawed. To begin, this film leaves the impression that a significant number of VMI cadets, who primarily came from the “best families” in Virginia, were anti-slavery. That premise seems difficult to believe and, while the anti-slavery message in the film is commendable, it seems historically inaccurate. A major defect in the film are the uneven acting performances which at times are more representative of a low budget TV movie or community theater rather than a polished feature film. While some veteran actors are part of the cast, most of their roles are minor with the exception of Jason Isaacs who does well as General Breckinridge. Generally, the acting in the film seems artificial or even amateurish at times and is very distracting. The overly dramatic sound track soars so often that it seems better suited to a silent movie than a modern film. At times, scenes seem like staged tableaus rather than parts of a motion picture. The glorification of VMI is overdone as well. The sacrifices of the VMI cadets at New Market were noteworthy and singular but their characters are so deified in the film that it seems more like a recruitment film for the Institute rather than a historical film. Interestingly enough, despite the sacrifices of the VMI cadets, one month later a second Union advance through the Shenandoah Valley under the command of General Hunter occupied the VMI campus and burned it down. No mention of this Confederate setback is mentioned in the film or its postscript. This oversight is interesting as it seems that such a defeat does not fit the heroic narrative of the film’s director and leads to incomplete storytelling. These flaws overwhelm the positive portions of this film and leave it a disappointing rendering of a unique story. (2014…96 minutes) 2 Stars
In 1988 President Ronald Reagan presented Premier Mikhail Gorbachev with a VHS copy of his favorite film. The film was Friendly Persuasion and President Reagan indicated to the Russian leader that it meant so much to him because it told the story of people standing up for their beliefs and pledging themselves to the peaceful pursuit of happiness. Crafted by award winning director William Wyler, Friendly Persuasion tells the story of the Birdwell family. The Birdwells are Quakers living in southern Indiana during the Civil War. It is 1862 and while the Birdwell family is a happy one there are troubling developments that act to destabilize them. Jess Birdwell, the family patriarch played by Gary Cooper, and Eliza Birdwell his wife, played by Dorothy McGuire, find their Quaker beliefs tested by a variety of challenges. Their only daughter, Mattie, has fallen in love with a Union cavalry officer who is home from the front recovering from a wound. Josh, the eldest Birdwell son, ably played by Anthony Perkins in his second career film role, has doubts about being a pacifist in time of war. The youngest Birdwell, Little Jess, does battle with Samantha, an ornery goose, in a way that tests his ability to be peaceful. When Confederate raiders led by John Hunt Morgan arrive in southern Indiana the family is split over what to do. Young Josh joins the home guard and goes off to fight the Rebels even though his parents oppose violence. When Josh’s horse returns from the skirmish without its rider, Jess sets out to find out what has happened to his son. While Jess is away Confederates arrive at the Birdwell farm and help themselves to a wagonload of provisions. One Rebel tries to carry off Samantha only to be beaten about the head with a broom by Mrs. Birdwell in defense of her pet. The Confederates withdraw leaving the Birdwell farm generally intact. Jess is nearly killed by a Confederate sniper but survives to rescue his wounded son. By the film’s end the Birdwells are home safe having weathered not only the storm of war but also the crisis of conscience that it brought with it. Based on the writing of Jessamyn West, Friendly Persuasion was a critical success upon its release.
The film was nominated for six Academy Awards inclusive of best picture, best director, and best screenplay.
The film won no Oscars which was a first for any film nominated for best picture. An interesting side-note was that the screenplay nomination was listed as “unnamed” due to the fact that the writer, Michael Wilson was blacklisted at the time.
The film also featured a charming score created by the prolific composer Dimitri Tiomkin. By telling the story of the dilemma war creates for people of conscience while simultaneously presenting a compelling human-interest story, Friendly Persuasion remains a moving film that leaves the viewer wanting to know more about its characters. (1956…137 minutes) 4 Stars.
Perhaps no American novel has had as many cinematic adaptations as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women published in 1868-69. To date there have been at least twelve television versions of Alcott’s novel and a half dozen film adaptations. The first filming of the story of the March family was a silent version in 1918. In 1933 Katherine Hepburn starred as Josephine March in a nicely done but now rather dated film.
In 1949 June Allyson filled the role of Jo in a sweet but somewhat campy rendition. 2018 saw the release of yet another cinematic edition of Little Women featuring a cast made up of relatively unknown actresses performing in a forgettable manner.
Greta Gerwig directed a critically well received but rather choppy and miscast film version of Alcott’s book in 2019 starring the talented Saoirse Ronan in the lead role. But, in 1994, an iteration of Little Women was filmed that did justice to this great story. Directed by Australia’s talented Gillian Armstrong, this attempt at capturing the emotional depth of Alcott’s writing truly hit the mark.
This Little Women was true to the original story, featured amazingly evocative performances, was shot in a beautiful manner, and was supported by an elegant score by Thomas Newman. In this film viewers meet the March family made up of loving parents and four beloved sisters. In this lovely film, each of these female characters is brought to life in a striking way. Amy, the youngest of the four March sisters, is spirited, somewhat selfish, and ultimately loving.
She is played as a child by Kirsten Dunst and as a young woman by Samantha Mathis each of whom excels.
Meg, the March sister who is ethical, true, loving, and committed is played to a tee by Trini Alvarado.
Beth, the musically talented and shy homebody who becomes dreadfully ill, is marvelously recreated by the Clare Danes.
The irrepressible Josephine “Jo” March, is brought to life by Winona Ryder who captures the spirit, writing talent, independence, and grit of this famous character. Supporting the sisters is Susan Sarandon in a stellar performance as the wise matriarch of the family, Marmee. Male characters such as Laurie and Professor Bhaer, who wed Amy and Jo respectively, are done justice by Christian Bale and Gabriel Byrne.
This brilliant ensemble comes together to create a film that not only tells a fascinating, rich, and layered story in a loving manner but also reaches out and touches the hearts of its viewers.
As the film unfolds scene after scene appear on screen, each of which reveal truths about the human condition. Young Beth, ill for years because of exposure to scarlet fever while doing charitable service, dies after revealing that she fears passing less than being left behind.
Jo, mourning the death of her sister, takes inspiration from a trunk full of memories to take pen in hand and begin to craft the story that will define her artistry.
Amy, in a fit of anger, burns Jo’s novel only to be forgiven after a near death fall through the ice. Meg, tells the wealthy girls she attends a party with that she will not wear silk because it is made by slaves or children in northern textile mills.
Jo, cuts her hair, her one true beauty, to get enough money to allow her mother to take the train to Washington City where her husband lies injured in an army hospital.
Time after time, this film delivers not only food for refection but a conduit to human emotion. Nominated for three Academy Awards, critically acclaimed, financially profitable, this version of Little Women is a perfect film and one that can be lovingly watched time and again. (1994…118 minutes) 5 Stars
Gangs of New York
For over twenty years master director Martin Scorsese was interested in making a film about the impoverished Five Points section of New York City during the mid-19th century. Having read a 1927 book by written by Herbert Asbury titled The Gangs of New York, Scorsese spent years writing and re-writing concept outlines that would become the basis for this film. In Gangs of New York, Scorsese tells the story of Amsterdam Vallon, the son of an Irish gang leader who was slain in a riotous fight with Natavist criminals. The leader of the Nativists, and the man who murdered Amsterdam’s father, is William “The Butcher” Cutting, a man who is a brutal killer. Young Amsterdam escapes from Cutting and spends his childhood on the streets and in an orphan asylum. Years pass and Amsterdam returns to Five Points as a young man bent on revenge.
Amsterdam is a capable criminal and, over time, he makes a favorable impression on Bill Cutting. Amsterdam becomes a trusted lieutenant of Cutting and slowly draws himself into his inner circle. Cutting busies himself with political deals with Boss Tweed, the leader of the Tammany Hall machine while Amsterdam plots his murder.
Then, Amsterdam’s identity and plotting are revealed and Cutting brutally punishes him but does not kill him. Once again, Amsterdam bides his time and builds up support among Irish immigrants who are pouring into the city.
Finally, when he is strong enough, Vallon arranges a gang fight between the Irish groups led by him and Cutting’s Natavist criminals. As preparations for the gang fight are made the Draft Riot explodes onto the scene in July of 1863. In a bloody climax, New York City is torn by mass violence while Amsterdam and “The Butcher” confront each other in a final bloody battle.
The film ends with New York rising from the ashes while Bill Cutting rests in his grave next to Amsterdam’s father in an old cemetery. Gangs of New York received ten Academy Award nominations none of which was rewarded with an Oscar.
The performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, who received a best actor nomination, fluctuates between electric energy and over-the-top villainy. Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Amsterdam Vallon, does a competent job in a role that is all too often steeped in gore.
The supporting cast includes Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Liam Neeson, and Brendan Gleeson all of whom do creditable work in the film. Scorsese does an excellent job of recreating the Five Points neighborhood via a huge set constructed in Italy where primary filming occurred.
However, this is a film with many problems. The historical authenticity of many aspects of the film is poor. Naval warships did not bombard New York City during the Draft Riots as is shown in the movie.
The “Mad Max” style gang warfare depicted in the film is greatly exaggerated. The catacombs that appear in several scenes do not exist.
The Five Points neighborhood is presented as almost a level of Hell which is a distortion of reality.
The burning of P.T. Barnum’s Museum during the Draft Riot is incorrect as that event occurred two years later.
Beyond the historical inaccuracy, the level of violence in the film is gratuitous at best. Viewers of this film will see, numerous murders, torture, brutal beatings, and cartoon-like mayhem featuring buckets of blood.
Also embedded in the film is a strange religiosity that appears at odd moments in a symbolic manner while terrible things occur on screen.
Martin Scorsese is a brilliant director who has produced amazing films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, and The Irishman. Gangs of New York is not part of Scorsese’s best work and is, in fact, an overly long, meandering, and grotesque film that is disappointment on many levels. (2004…167 minutes) 1.5 Stars
Harriet tells the story of the bravehearted Harriet Tubman, a woman who escaped from slavery and returned to the South time and again to free fellow slaves. In this biopic, Cynthia Erivo, a noted singer, comes to the screen and gives a sincere and powerful performance as a freedom fighter who eventually helped liberate dozens of people due to her direct action, determination, and courage.
In this film director and screenwriter Kasie Lemmons crafts a story that, while sometimes leaning towards formulaic, still comes across as memorable.
The film begins with efforts by Harriet’s father to free her family. A long ago promise by the owner of Harriet and her family to liberate them at some point is presented to their new owner.
The patriarch of the slave-owning Brodess family refuses to honor this pledge to liberate and, upon his death, so too does his son-and-heir, Gideon.
What follows is Harriett’s breathtaking flight to freedom, a journey so perilous that one can hardly imagine the type of courage necessary to attempt it. Harriet eventually reaches Philadelphia where, with the help of African-American abolitionist William Sill, she establishes a life. Harriet is assisted by an African-American woman, played by Janelle Monae, who owns a boarding house.
However, Gideon Brodess, portrayed in all his seething anger by Joe Alwyn, refuses to accept Harriet’s escape.
Gideon, with the assistance of professional slave catchers, arrives in Philadelphia bent on capturing Harriet. Harriet escapes but her supportive landlady is beaten to death by Gideon.
With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, Harriet is forced to move to Canada but, over time, she is driven to return and retrieve her family. Harriet does return to Philadelphia and convinces William Sill to sponsor her return to her home territory in order to free her family.
While Harriet’s efforts to help her family members are less than successful, she does begin her career as an Underground Railroad conductor, a role she excels at.
The film follows Harriet’s hair-raising trips down south in pursuit of liberating as many men, women, and children as possible. The film also tracks the obsessive efforts on the part of Gideon Brodess to recapture Harriet and avenge his embarrassment over her escape.
The climax of the film is a personal encounter between Harriet and Gideon where she finally defeats him. In an epilog, viewers learn that Harriet was responsible for directly freeing over seventy slaves as well as spying for the Union Army in ways that led to the emancipation of over 750 other people.
Harriet received generally good reviews and netted a substantial profit. Cynthia Erivo’s performance was hugely praised and earned her an Academy Award nomination for best actress. The powerful and moving song, “Stand Up,” sung by Erivo, earned a second Oscar nomination as best original song.
Many critics describe this film as having a good but not great plot structure supported by the electric performance by its main character.
Harriet tells a memorable story and brings a brave freedom fighter’s life to the screen. Although there are some melodramatic plot elements, Harriet remains a good film that deals with the institution of slavery, the ugly causation of the Civil War, and one heroic woman’s fight against it. (2019…120 minutes) 3.5 Stars
This sequel to the 1971 Clint Eastwood version of The Beguiled approaches the same story in a slightly different way.
As with the earlier version, the story begins with a young girl who is hunting for mushrooms on the grounds of her boarding school coming across a wounded Union soldier.
The soldier, Corporal John McBurney, is an Irish immigrant who was wounded during General Grant’s Overland Campaign in Virginia.
At first the head mistress of the school, Martha Farnsworth played by Nicole Kidman, wants to turn McBurney over to the Confederates but she is convinced to allow him to recover from his wounds at the school.
In short order, Corporal McBurney uses his charm and seductive nature to win over virtually every girl or woman in the school. Particularly charmed are Edwina, a spinsterly teacher at the school played by Kirsten Dunst, and Alicia, a precocious student portrayed by Elle Fanning.
While McBurney’s charisma seems like a strength, it ends up leading to McBurney’s demise. One night, McBurney seduces Alicia but is discovered by Edwina. This discovery leads to a confrontation and, in short order, McBurney is sent tumbling down a flight of stairs. The fall results in a terrible fracture of his wounded leg and a subsequent amputation.
McBurney does not handle his recovery well and ends up showing his true colors laced with anger, violence, and threat. Mistress Farnsworth and the girls concoct a plot to poison McBurney with lethal mushrooms and the plan works.
The film ends with McBurney’s body being sown into a sack and left at the school’s gate for pickup by whatever soldiers pass by next.
This remake has a similar plot structure to the original but to a much greater extent it takes the perspective of the female characters.
Colin Ferrell does a creditable job of playing McBurney but he lacks some of the dynamism brought to the role by Eastwood. Conversely, the female leads in the film are much stronger than their counterparts in the original version.
Interestingly enough, director Sofia Coppola was very reluctant to take on this project as she was uncomfortable working on a remake. However, when Coppola accepted the assignment, she brought a fresh look at the material which earned her the Cannes Film Festival award for best director.
In terms of locations, all exterior shots were taken at Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville, Louisiana, while interior shots were filmed at the New Orleans home of actress Jennifer Coolidge. The film received generally good reviews and earned more money than anticipated One criticism of the film was the elimination of an African-American woman’s role that was significant in the original version. This “whitewashing” allegation was made by some reviewers but the consensus was that by taking the women’s perspective, this remake edition of The Beguiled is a solid film. (2017…93 minutes) 3 Stars
Gods and Generals
In 1993 director Ron Maxwell and Ted Turner combined to produce an excellent Civil War film in the form of Gettysburg, a sweeping historical epic based on Michael Shaara’s award winning novel, The Killer Angles.
Ten years later Maxwell and Turner came together again to craft a prequel to that film based on Jeff Shaara’s novel titled Gods and Generals. Shaara’s novel tells the story of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and the Confederate leadership from the start of the war until the Battle of Chancellorsville. In Maxwell’s film, Jackson is portrayed as a deeply religious man totally dedicated to the cause he fights for.
Jackson was initially to be played by Russel Crowe but scheduling difficulties precluded this award winning actor joining the production. Instead, Maxwell recast Stephen Lang in the lead role rather than allowing him to reprise his role of General Pickett which he did so well with in Gettysburg. General Lee, who was played by Martin Sheen in Gettysburg, was unavailable so Robert Duvall took on the role.
In many other cases actors who were part of the Gettysburg such as Jeff Daniels, Brian Mallon, and Kevin Conway reprise their roles in Gods and Generals.
Unfortunately, what the cast was able to produce in the earlier film is not achieved in this one. Gods and Generals suffers from several fatal flaws. To begin, in all too many instances the viewer is given scenes that are more representative of a poorly written stage play with seemingly endless monologues popping up throughout the film.
Time and again, actors enter a scene and stand around watching with ethereal looks on their faces while someone waxes lyrical about some point of belief. All too often, these monologues are used to provide justification for secession, rebellion, or slavery.
The few African-American characters who are seen in the film act as if their Confederate superiors are wonderful people to whom they owe utter loyalty. In many scenes the Christian faith of southern leaders is brought to the forefront in a way that makes it seem as if the Confederate cause was closer to God than their Union opponents.
The motivations of Federal soldiers are unaddressed in the film save for one long monologue rendered by Jeff Daniels as he reprised the role of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine.
Throughout the film background, music that seems more appropriate for either a wake or church service lumbers along in a melodramatic way. In a number of scenes, the actors are staged in ways that make it seem more like they are posing for a Confederate Christmas card or postcard rather than telling a story.
In all too many instances actors in smaller scenes appear to be amateurs whose performances range from inadequate to cringe-worthy. At three hours and thirty-nine minutes, the theatrical release version seems to go on endlessly.
For the dedicated viewer, a four hour and forty minute director’s cut is available which includes scenes focused on John Wilkes Booth and the Battle of Antietam but one would have to be in love with this project to watch all those extra minutes. All of these defects led critics to utterly pan this movie.
Some critics described the film as the greatest apology for secession and the “Lost Cause” since the silent film Birth of a Nation. Commercially, Gods and Generals was made for 56 million dollars while it netted just 12.2 million dollars.
Author Jeff Shaara, who initially approved of the film, on second thought came to distance himself from it while describing it as unrecognizable when compared to his novel.
Originally, Ted Turner intended to complete his Civil War trilogy by producing a film version of Jeff Shaara’s novel The Last Full Measure which takes the narrative to the end of the war.
That production never saw the light of day due to the terrible reception Gods and Generals received. If there is an upside to this awful movie it would be the Fredericksburg portion of the film which features gritty battle scenes, an actual pontoon bridge, and the attack of the Irish Brigade.
But this very long battle scene cannot make up for the many structural acting, writing, and philosophical problems this bloated film possesses. (2003…219 minutes) 1 Star
Free State of Jones
In the latter stages of the Civil War a group of Black and White Mississippians rose up against the unfair actions of the Confederate government on the home front.
Led by a former Confederate soldier, Newton Knight, these rebellious southerners actually took control of a significant portion of southeast Mississippi.
Once in charge of parts of three counties, Knight’s rebels declared the area to be the Free State of Jones and fought to protect it.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight in this unusual and moving film. Orchestrated by veteran director Gary Ross, Free State of Jones presents aspects of the Civil War that are rarely written or talked about.
In the South, as in the North, the Civil War often seemed like a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” But, in the Free State of Jones, the rights of working men and women, regardless of their color, were respected. During the film we see Matthew McConaughey lead men into battle, construct a short-lived government, bring together unlikely allies, and live to see his hopes and dreams crushed under the wheels of reestablished oppression.
The film starts with Newton Knight watching his nephew, Daniel, die in his arms after the Battle of Corinth. Newton brings his nephew home to Jones County where he finds the Home Guard stripping the local residents to the bone. Newton fights back against the oppression of civilians and ends up fleeing into a nearby swamp. There, in the swampland, Newton encounters escaped slaves who he allies himself with.
Newton fights against slave catchers and, when more Confederate deserters join his force, begins to establish control over the local territory.
Newton’s warriors establish a free area which they then guard until Confederate counterstrokes become too much for them. Retreating back into the swampland, Newton and his force fight a guerilla war against the Rebels until the war ends. During these years of fighting,
Newton befriends and falls in love with Rachel, a slave owned by a local plantation owner. Rachel, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Newton live together until Knight’s wife, played by Keri Russell, returns after years of separation from him.
In an interesting plot twist, Newton’s wife and son move in with he and Rachel. In the post war years, Newton and Moses Washington, a long-time comrade of his played by Mahershala Ali, work to guarantee the human, voting, and citizenship rights of working people both Black and White.
Sadly, Reconstruction sees the emergence of violence and oppression enacted by angry White folks. With the end of Reconstruction, these forces of suppression become even more violent as tools such as lynching, voter suppression, Black Codes, Jim Crow, and the KKK all descend of the African-American population.
Moses is one of the many Black people lynched during this time period and Newton must face the reality that he has lost the war for equality. All through the film there are brief flash forwards that involve the story of Newton and Rachel’s great-grandson who faces legal jeopardy because of Mississippi’s bigoted racial marriage laws in the 1940’s.
The film ending is open ended as it should be since much of the business of making America a nation where the color of one’s skin should not determine your fate remains unfinished. Director Gary Ross spent ten years thinking about this film project.
After a great deal of research and reflection Ross was finally able to complete this work.
Although Free State of Jones lost money and received mixed reviews, it was appreciated by a number of critics.
This is a film filled with good intentions and a compassionate handling of an overlooked aspect of the Civil War. All too often apologists for the Confederacy point toward “great men” like Lee, Jackson, and Jeb Stuart as symbols of southern honor.
But, in reality, why is a man like Newton Knight, who stood up to oppression in defense of liberty for working people so unknown? Is it not brave, noble, and honorable to believe that all working people deserve their rightful share of happiness in life?
The great slave owners, like the northern industrialist exploiters, did not care about common folk. Our heroes should be just people and not the elitist or rich cavaliers.
In Free State of Jones, we see men and women stand up to power, regardless of the risks, in the pursuit of freedom. That heroic story is well told in this engaging and moving film. (2016…140 minutes) 4 Stars
Ride with the Devil
The Civil War was a violent and bloody affair but certain territories experienced a level of cruelty that stood apart from what occurred in the major theaters of operation.
In Missouri and Kansas, the Civil War took on a shape that included bloody guerilla war, forced relocation of civilians, black flag no prisoners taken policies, blood feuds, and murderous gangsterism that gave and accepted no quarter.
In this lawless region men such as Bloody Bill Anderson, William Quantrill, and other irregular leaders fought a war against the Union that was horrific in nature. On the Union side Jayhawkers, red leg militia, and oppressive regular army units fought against the guerrilla fighters in a fairly merciless manner.
It is this lawless environment that award winning director Ang Lee takes up in his excellent Civil War film Ride with the Devil. Ang had a long and successful pattern of excellence in his directorial career before and subsequent to the making of this film.
Among Lee’s other credits are films such as Sense and Sensibility, Life of Pi, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In this particular film, Lee has taken a story originally told by author Daniel Woodrell in his compelling novel Woe to Live On and brought it to the screen in a powerful way.
Ride with the Devil begins with a wedding scene set against the backdrop of terror on the horizon. At that wedding viewers meet Jake Roedel, a Confederate sympathizer who is the son of a Union-loving, German immigrant father, played by Toby Maguire. Jake’s best friend, and the brother of the bride is John “Bull” Chiles, played by Skeet Ulrich. John is also a Confederate sympathizer who has plans to join a guerrilla band.
Violence arrives within a day as Union Jayhawkers strike at the Chiles farm where their murder John’s father and burn his family home. John, Jake, and several of their like-minded friends, hunt down the Union raiders and punish them.
This excursion triggers their joining one of the Rebel irregular bands and beginning a pathway to violence that seems unending.
Over a period of months John and Jake encounter fearsome fighters who seem to have no compunction about taking human life.
At one point John and Jake connect with guerrilla leader George Clyde and his African-American sidekick Daniel Holt, played by Simon Baker and Jeffrey Wright respectively.
This foursome stay together during a winter which they spend in a dugout on the property of a southern leaning family that includes a charming young widow of a Confederate soldier.
That woman, Sue Lee Shelley, is played with verve and wit by the popular singer Jewel. In short order, Sue becomes a love interest for John. Sadly, Union troops kill Sue’s father and badly wound John.
This wound is mortal and Jake and Daniel tend to Sue’s grief and then join up with the irregulars again.
Violence escalates when a number of irregular units join forces under the command of William Quantrill who sets off to Lawrence, Kansas to exact vengeance for Union atrocities.
The film then shows the sacking of Lawrence inclusive of wanton murders, the slaughter of Freedmen, and the burning of the town. Jake and Daniel are sickened by the violence and act to stop the killing of several civilians.
These acts of mercy costs Jake dearly when he is taken to task by the murderous Pitt Mackeson, played with a snake-eyed coldness by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who vows to murder him.
Wounded in action, Jake and Daniel travel to a farm where Sue is now living where they discover that she has borne a daughter, Grace, fathered by their friend George Clyde. Daniel and Jake recover from their wounds at Sue’s place and a romance takes root. A wedding follows as Jake and Sue begin a life together along with little Grace.
En route to the Indian Territories Jake, Daniel, and Sue encounter Pitt Mackeson and one of his gunmen who are bent on a suicide mission against a Union garrison nearby.
This tense standoff leads to actions by all concerned that determine their fates as the film closes.
Filmed in Kansas City, Sibly, and Pattonsburg, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas, Ride with the Devil was shot in a beautiful way.
In order to heighten the film’s authenticity, the main performers were put through a three-week bootcamp designed to familiarize them with the horsemanship and gun play that were at the core of the movie.
Over 200 reenactors assisted with the main battle sequences and over 250 black powder pistols were used in the filming of the movie.
The film cost over 38 million dollars to produce and, unfortunately, netted less than one million dollars at the box office. Reviews were mixed with critics siting the convoluted plot, film length, and overt violence as shortcomings while praising the historical accuracy of the production and its focus on an overlooked aspect of the Civil War.
The film received no Academy Award nominations and its release on disc and via digital platforms met with very mild interest.
Yet, despite the film’s shortcomings and lack of critical success, it remains a solid bit of storytelling and a visually impressive film. Ang Lee’s films always include striking visual imagery and shots of the landscape that are memorable.
This film tells a violent story set in a time and place in American history where it was all too easy for some people to lose their ability to be merciful.
With a young cast that uniformly does well, beautifully crafted visual imagery, and a story well told, Ride with the Devil is an underrated Civil War film.
Viewers should be aware of the violence inherent in this film as well as the bitter racism that is portrayed, but it is a film well worth seeing. (1999…140 minutes) 3.5 Stars