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.