Some American Civil War films

Something that I have not previously mentioned, I have had a life long interest in the American Civil War. To be accurate, Civil Wars in general, though that will probably be the subject of another post, not in this category. When I was young, there was a television series, called ‘The Gray Ghost’. This was imported from the USA, and concerned the exploits of a Confederate irregular unit, led by the real life officer, Major Mosby. The issues surrounding the causes of the war, States’ rights, Industrialisation and immigration in the North, and the issue of slavery, were not really addressed of course, and it was all about the action. I later read a lot about this war, and carried on the interest into adulthood. Like many others, I favoured the Confederacy, though naturally not from a racist standpoint, more from admiration of the tactical skills of their generals, and the bravery and resourcefulness of their armies, against insurmountable opposition. Despite the impact of this war, to the extent that even today, some Southern states display the Confederate flag in courthouses, and fly it above public buildings, comparatively few films have been made about it. I have made it my business to collect all those available on DVD, and the following are my choices from that small number. I appreciate that this is the very definition of a ‘niche interest’, and will forgive all those who take this no further.

Gods and Generals. This 2003 film is a ‘prequel’ to ‘Gettysburg’, made ten years earlier, and part of a trilogy, the third part of which has not yet been made, and is said to be ‘in production’ for next year. This film is superior to the first, and ends at exactly the correct time, for the previous film to pick up the events that followed. Concentrating on the short career of the Confederate general, Thomas Jackson, famously nicknamed ‘Stonewall’ by his men, and filmed on and around actual Civil War battlefields, with a huge cast of amateur enthusiasts, who re-enact the fierce fighting, in addition to the well-known leads. The overwhelming impression is one of complete authenticity, though violence, and portrayal of injury and death is restricted in intensity, to allow for a lower age certification. Stephen Lang turns in a memorable performance as the religious and troubled Jackson, a man whose skill as a military tactician might not have been as great as it was painted. There is also able support from a restrained Robert Duvall, as Robert. E. Lee, and Jeff Daniels, as the Union Colonel Chamberlain. It is when the battles are raging that this production comes into its own. Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, are all recreated with great care and skill, and the scope of the film, with a running time of well over three hours, allows every detail to be shown. This film, and the earlier Gettysburg, were panned by critics, who mainly attacked the clumsy beards worn by the actors, and also complained about the occasional long monologues. If you like war films on this scale, and have the remotest interest in those troubled times, you will not be disappointed. Here is a trailer.

Ride with the Devil. By contrast, this 1999 film, directed by Ang Lee, eschews the huge battles and massed ranks of the more conventional Civil War films, to concentrate on an isolated aspect of the conflict. Missouri, in America’s mid-west, was a state divided against itself, as neighbours and former friends chose sides at the outbreak of hostilities. Here, there were no rules, no uniforms, and no mercy shown to the enemy. Armed bands of irregulars roamed the state, and crossed into Kansas, to pursue the causes of the sides that they had picked. The story concentrates on a band of Confederate sympathisers, and their exploits during a relatively short period. Historical accuracy is flawless, and period feel is so good, it often seems like a documentary that could have been made at the time, if such technology had existed then. The action, when it comes, is a series of frantic engagements, and uneven fire fights, though a lot of time is spent sitting out the weather, and avoiding capture. The main set piece of the film, a depiction of the real-life raid on the town of Lawrence, in Kansas, with the massacre that follows, is well portrayed, and convincing enough. Where the film scores is in how it handles the quiet moments, and the human impact of the war. Excellent performances, including an exceptional Tobey Maguire, lift this film far above what you might expect. This is not just for the Civil War enthusiast, as it works for lovers of film everywhere. Here is an intense scene, from the raid at Lawrence, Kansas.

Glory. In 1990, this film, made the year before, won three Oscars. It shows something of the gravity of this production, that a film about events in the American Civil War, should achieve this. The reason why is well-known, as this deals with the formation of the first Black regiment in the Union Army, to actually be allowed to fight in battle, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. The first part of the film concentrates on the racism that was still widespread in the North, and the opposition to arming black troops. There are the scenes from the training camp, the difficulties experienced by the all-white officers, and the eventual move South, to fight in the campaign in Georgia, and South Carolina. The predominantly black cast gave the producers a great opportunity to recruit the best black actors in the USA. Denzel Washington, (winning an Oscar) Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, as an educated Bostonian, and many more. The white officers are well cast also, with Matthew Broderick superb in the starring role, and Cary Elwes solid, as his second in command. In the latter part of the film, the regiment is finally given the chance to fight, and the first battle scene, involving hand to hand fighting in woodland, is edge of the seat stuff. Later, they arrive at the siege of Fort Wagner, an almost impregnable Confederate position on the coast. Expected to take a place at the rear, Broderick’s character pleads to be allowed to lead the forthcoming assault, and is allowed to do so. The futile attack is brilliantly portrayed on film, and despite failing to capture the fort, and suffering terrible losses, the 54th earn the respect of their fellow soldiers, as well as a place in history. A moving war film, with an engrossing plot, good script, and a great cast. Here is an early scene, depicting the battle of Antietam.

The Horse Soldiers. This 1959 film is essentially a mainstream western, and a vehicle for the stars, John Wayne, and William Holden. Directed by the master of the western film, John Ford, it tells the true story of a famous Union raid, deep into enemy territory, in 1863; when almost 2,000 cavalry made the journey of over 200 miles to Newton Station, to destroy the railroad connection to Vicksburg. As this is very much a Hollywood action film, some liberties are taken. Holden plays the part of an Army doctor, constantly at loggerheads with Wayne’s character, and there is a female interest, in the shape of a Southern belle, and would-be spy, played by Constance Towers. All this froth aside, the film actually manages to give an exciting and accurate portrayal of these events during the Civil War, as well as allowing the Confederates encountered, to be shown as brave and dignified opponents. Although it tries to be more of a cowboy film, than a serious film about an actual battle, it strangely succeeds in ending up as both. Two memorable set pieces involve the students from a Confederate Military Academy, attempting to stop the Union column, and the Rebel attack at Newton Station, as ragged troops arrive by train, to mount a forlorn charge. Surprisingly good. This is the memorable scene, when Confederate cadets are mobilised against the Union troops.

The Red Badge of Courage. This film is from 1951, directed by John Huston, and filmed in black and white. Based on the classic short novel by Stephen Crane, the film is also unusually short, running for only 69 minutes, a result of unforgiveable cutting by the studio. It also famously suffers from obvious continuity errors, and the potentially disastrous casting of Audie Murphy in the lead role. Murphy was the most decorated soldier in the US Army in World War Two, and used this fame to launch an acting career in Hollywood. Luckily, he suits this role, of the boastful, untried soldier, about to take part in his first action. The young man soon becomes terrified in battle, and runs away, hiding in shame. He later receives a small injury, and returns to his unit, wearing his ‘Red Badge of Courage’, the bandaged wound. At first he lies about his desertion, though later confesses, and redeems himself in the next attack. Despite all these shortcomings, this is a truly classic film. Huston uses extreme close ups to good effect, and the other actors in the cast, for the most part all relatively unknown, are a pleasure to watch. It says a lot about bravery and manhood, and of course, is anti-war in sentiment, and could just as easily be set during any conflict. Here is a clip of a battle scene, featuring most of the cast.

That is my somewhat selfish exploration of films set during the US Civil War. I hope that it prompts you to watch some of them, but I will be more than usually understanding, if you think that I am off the rails a bit, with this offering.

48 thoughts on “Some American Civil War films

  1. I have seen all those films, except for the TV Gray Ghost, and enjoyed them as films, however I took an oath to protect my country, the same oath men like Lee did. And they betrayed their country!
    Frankly the North should have accepted the secession of the South. The southern states are, for the most part, against science and progress. They ferment racial hatred. And their holding onto the poverty they were born into is a drain on the taxes of the north.
    PS: One I watch over and over is Keaton’s The General.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Don. I try to forget about politics when I watch films. Cromwell rebelled against King Charles 1st, and eventually contrived to have him beheaded for treason. But that was in the 17th Century. Different times, different values. I just see it all as ‘History’, and enjoy the film for what it is.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I am English, John, so obviously see that war in a different light. More as an ‘Historical observer’.
      I appreciate that you will have a different opinion, and I naturally respect that. I also appreciate the marvellous military skill of the Spartans. But they were a society built on slavery.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I understand your point of view, just offering mine as we just had more treasonous behavior here and when you are in the middle of it – which is still ongoing – it’s not like the films are historical at all!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. While all terrific films, there is NOTHING to admire about the confederacy – they attempted the overthrow of our government while advocating the enslavement of free people…I just have to say that because there was NOTHING about it then – OR NOW.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, John. I am not American, so I might have a different view of history. That doesn’t mean that I support the institution of slavery, simply that I was interested in the aspect of the military conflict from a young age. I also appreciate Roman history, and that empire was built and maintained on slavery.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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    2. John, I certainly understand and agree that the Civil War itself was an insurrection against the Constitution. That alone makes their action illegal in all respects. As for the slavery part… up to that time until that moment in American history… slavery was in fact an accepted lifestyle and economic necessity and the South felt threatened economically and culturally… if not also politically disadvantaged… which then gave them the impetus to insurrection and secession. More appropriately it’s a scar on all of American history as all of America permitted the institution to flourish via state control rather than federalizing equality. It stands as an example of emotion and passion separating families and often facing each other on the battlefield. America’s crime against humanity was allowing slavery within its borders. The crime of the South was defying the Constitution and the law with the insurrection and secession action. This is why the Northern military incursion into the Southern states was considered a punitive police action to quell a rebellion… not an invasion.

      Nonetheless, the conflict on the battlefield was between two armies, trained the same, trained in the same schools, with the same weapons technology, same military methodology.. and bringing the balance of failure or success in a battle down to the ferocity of the common soldier to a cause, and leadership ability to exercise strategy. So the conflict does remain a source and reference for real or armchair strategists around the world.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Very well said. As I said to Pete, since we are currently in the midst of another coup attempt, it makes these films seem not like history but rather topical! Thanks for your opinion!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. There’s a couple of those I haven’t seen but you have whetted my appetite. I saw the Ken Burns series which I agree was excellent.
    Have you read the Starbuck Chronicles written by Bernard Cornwell? It is a four book series which follows the exploits of Boston-born Confederate officer Nathaniel Starbuck. The books accurately portray events, tactics etc. but tell a gripping story. I like the way Cornwell includes useful notes and maps to explain what was true history, what may well have taken place and what is made up for your entertainment. I would recommend them.

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    1. I devoured those as soon as they were released, Paul 🙂 Great books!
      I even bought the film of ‘Copperhead’, although I cannot currently watch it, until I get a multi-region DVD player set up. It is Region 1, and won’t play on European DVD Players.

      Best wishes, Pete.

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  4. My kids while growing up liked the movie “Gettysburg” and watched it repeatedly on our VHS. I took the family on a road trip there and they loved seeing the places depicted in the film. One of the things I loved doing was taking photos of the exact same scenes in the old Civil War photos showing the damage and dead strewn about.
    Just a note on “Gods And Generals”.. actor Robert Duvall is a descendent of Robert E. Lee, hence the novelty of him in the same role in the film.
    A friend and I went to the.. I believe the 128th reenactment of the battle. It was held outside of the state park at a nearby farm given no discharging of firearms were allowed inside the park, and of course out of a measure of respect for the site itself. I had been to many reenactments in the late 80’s and well into the 90’s when they were done by local groups as depictions of various battles at at most usually had no more than 100 reenactors at best. When I was at the 128th in Gettysburg we all got the flavor of the immense number of men, horses, and artillery in the actual battle (something like 100,000 from both armies) itself as there were over 5,000 reenactors, all staying the three days encamped separately, Union and Confederates.. and the day of the battle they all marched in their respective units to the battlefield.. what seemed like an endless parade of blue and grey, cannon, wagons, and horses. All reenactors took pride in staying as close to realistic uniforms, equipment, weapons, etc. But the immense numbers of reenactors was amazing. When the artillery from both sides went off it was truly amazing, and knowing our reenactment artillery pieces were only a fraction of what was in the real battle made the experience all the more humbling. But when the small arms fire began it was literally a solid sound for minutes on end.

    What was interesting is how they determined who died in battle. It’s natural to not want to become a casualty too early in the battle because this is quite an event to participate in for each reenactor so it’s logical no one want to take a fall early. But apparently it was a bit of an honor system tied into the particular event your unit was reenacting inside the battle itself… like Pickett’s Charge, where the unit was nearly obliterated. In general in their individual ammo pouches they has about 25-30 rounds, which of course were not real lead bullets of the day but the wrapped powder charge that they tore open with their teeth and poured into the muzzle of their musket. Well, they would have one wrapped powder charge colored.. say red… and as they randomly reached into their pouch during battle to reload and they pulled out the red charge that meant they were to take a fall. For the most part it seemed many held to their roles as a casualty as there were a large number of downed soldiers in the fields.
    It was really interesting watching all that.. and there were thousands of spectators watching and cheering. Especially when the reenactors showed up representing Meade or Lee. I managed to get some great video.
    Believe it or not.. I actually took the family to a D-Day reenactment on the beaches of Lake Michigan north of Chicago at old Fort Sheridan in the late 80’s.

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    1. My biggest regret about never visiting America is not seeing the CW battlefields. My cousin toured Gettysburg and brought me back a souvenir of a mounted piece of shrapnel, and a selection of minie bullets too. They are on the window ledge in the small office room where I am typing this reply. I have been to the Normandy beaches a few times, and also the WW1 cemeteries and battlefields in France and Belgium.
      (I am also very interested in The Englsh Civil Wars, and The Spanish Civil War. As they are much closer, I have been able to visit battlefields.)
      Best wishes, Pete.

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      1. And having been a historical war buff myself I never got to visit Europe to tour the WW1 and 2 locations. I spent three days in Scotland on a getaway trip when I was stationed in Iceland back in ’73.. and I thought that was SO cool.
        I’ve been to Gettysburg three times.. and each time I started on the Confederate side and walk across the mile long field of Picket’s Charge to the “copse of trees, high water mark” just to absorb the spiritual ambience of the place. Then there’s Little Round Top.
        When I win the lottery, old chum, I’ll get you over here.. then I will go over there and you can be my European guide. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Pete, when I was going through your takes yesterday I seen this and thought of a real good small film that fits this category. ‘Pharaoh’s Army’. I would recommend it. I was a big fan of Chris Coopers early career. This film and ‘Watewan’ (not Civil War related) are my two favorites.

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    1. Thanks, CB. I have that on DVD. i have collected every Civil War film available, (I think) including such hoots as the mini series soap opera ‘North and South’, with Patrick Swayze. Many of them are Region 1 imports from the US, which I have not been able to play since my all-region DVD player died. Funnily enough, I got a new one earlier this week, so will be setting it up soon. If you know any US Civil War films I might have missed, please suggest more. I have an account with Amazon US for Region 1 films, so I am ready to go!
      ‘Matewan’ is an excellent film. I saw that i the cinema in London, but don’t own the film.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sounds like you have it covered. But if something comes to mind I’ll let you know. A friend of mine has a series he’s trying to pitch that takes place during the Civil War. Him and I have a script that was optioned by some hollywood types, what a bunch a bullshit that was except we made a few bucks. The option ran out so I have it back in my hands. feels better.
        Do you also indulge in books from that era? I’ve read some pretty good ones. Fiction and nonfiction. ‘Wildwood Boys’ by James Carlos Blake is a good read. I see you did a piece on Ken Burn’s doc. I haven’t read your take yet but I really like his work. Time for a revisit. I’ll stay in touch.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I used to read a lot about the war, mostly non-fiction. (Including Shelby Foote’s huge history)
          Thanks for the suggestion, I will look it up. As for Burns’ documentary, I think it’s one of the best things I have ever seen.

          Liked by 1 person

            1. I was surprised to read so much antagonism about the Vietnam series from American bloggers and writers. Many of them served in that war of course, and think Burns betrayed their courage, and the death of their friends and comrades. When you have been in combat (I haven’t) it is hard to see that sacrifice as ‘pointless’, I get that.
              I grew up watching that war on the news. I was almost 14 in 1965, when it started to be widely reported on the BBC here, and 21 when the US left.
              I watched every report, all the documentaries, and looked at all the photos taken by the likes of McCullin and Page. I was also very political, and demonstrated against the war outside the US Embassy in London when I was 16. http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/march/17/newsid_2818000/2818967.stm I was in the Young Communist League back then, so naturally opposed to a pointless imperialist war.
              Back to Burns’ series. I thought it worked so well. It used the ‘alternative’ views of some of those Americans involved, as well as seeing it from the viewpoint of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong soldiers too. It may well be the most balanced look at that war that has ever been filmed.
              Best wishes, Pete.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Thanks for that Pete. Exactly what I was looking for. A personal touch. You stirred up all sorts of thoughts on my side.
                I came away with all sorts of emotions and new perspectives. The biggest one was Ho Chi Minh. I was totally ignorant of the kind of man he was. I agree with your summation sentence. Good stuff Pete.

                Liked by 1 person

  6. Gods and Generals: It took me two sittings, had I taken any notice of your advisory note on the length of the film I may have prepared better, but overall much enjoyed; especially once I gave into the historical side of the film and became interested. I now feel compelled to watch ‘Gettysburg’
    I’m also glad I now know why the good old boys named their car the General Lee.

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    1. Thanks Eddy. If you liked this, then you will find Gettysburg more of the same, pretty much a ‘part 2’. If you get the proper version, it is also very long, so be warned (again). Martin Sheen replaces Robert Duvall as Robert.E.Lee. I will leave you to decide who does it better! There are lots more huge stick-on beards too, and a strange English soldier who is there observing. I didn’t realise that anyone didn’t know why that car was called General Lee, it had a Confederate flag painted on it! Maybe that’s just little old me, and my unusual interests? Check out curnow.com when you get the chance, great film stuff. By the way, I have discovered how to reply to comments, rather than just adding new ones. Grown up blogging! Cheers mate, Pete.

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      1. It’s odd what you know, and what you don’t; next time you need technical help with your computer I’m your man, and I’ll keep you in mind for any history questions that pop up, although I’ getting a fresh education with your film recommendations. Loving the false beards; hard not to be distracted sometimes.
        Cheers

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  7. You make some good points Eddy, but as you rightly say, it is a Hollywood film, about an emotional event in American history, so it will obviously be overplayed! I like Ferris Bueller a lot, one of the few US comedies that I have any time for. ‘Ride with the Devil’ might be better for your taste. (Still Hollywood though!)

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  8. Glory: Ok, a bit too Hollywood for me, a little over played and I couldn’t get Ferris Bueller out of my head, half expecting ‘Yellow’ playing the soundtrack.
    In saying that I did enjoy it 🙂

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