Actor Against Actor

PrintPrintEmailEmailSince movies began, less than 40 years after the guns had fallen silent at Appomattox, Hollywood has churned out more than 700 Civil War-related films—nearly three times the number of movies about World War II. Most of them have stressed reunification, honoring the bravery of the soldiers on both sides, assigning no guilt, and declaring no true winner. Despite their historical faults, and these have been many, particularly their ignoring slavery, they have managed to help Americans make sense of the terrible war that tore the country apart in the middle of the nineteenth century.

During the five years when I was writing a book about this durable genre, The Reel Civil War, and during a prior decade as a newspaper entertainment writer, I have watched every significant Civil War film. So when the editors of American Heritage asked me to choose my 10 favorites, I was able to draw on considerable experience.

It is nearly impossible to select the best 10 Civil War-era films using historical authenticity as a yardstick because most have sacrificed accuracy for drama. What follows is a very subjective top 10 based on overall entertainment value, commercial, and critical success upon release, sustained popularity over the years, and each movie’s sense of history and ability to evoke deep stirrings about the American past. I should say at the outset that there is one very notable absence. The Birth of a Nation is one of the most commercially successful films in our history and has earned a spot in the American Film Institute’s top 100 best movies. The landmark 1915 epic about the war and Reconstruction runs three hours and is highlighted by groundbreaking cinematography and character development. It is also racist tripe; I sincerely believe that this one movie has done as much to promulgate segregation in America as did the Ku Klux Klan it glorifies, the Jim Crow laws, or the lynch mobs.

1 Glory (1989).

In one scene, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the white commander of the all-black 54th Massachusetts, tells his men that the Confederates have threatened to execute any black soldiers captured in battle and that President Lincoln is willing to offer them honorable discharges. The soldiers are to make up their minds that night. The colonel expects to find only a few left in the morning; he is confronted by the entire unit, standing at attention, ready to fight.

Glory, about one of the first all-black regiments in the Union Army, is far and away the best of all Civil War movies. The 1989 film is the story not merely of blacks fighting for their freedom but of their efforts to win on the battlefield the manhood stolen on the plantation. To do so, they must fight the Union Army, too. Audiences rarely see Confederates in the film, because it is not just the Southerners who are the enemy. The enemy, in 1863 or right now, the movie implies, is racism, wherever it is found.

The film stars Matthew Broderick as the commander, Morgan Freeman as a black sergeant, and Denzel Washington as a private (he won an Oscar). Hundreds of re-enactors gave it a very realistic look, and a stirring score infused Glory with religious overtones for these black men who, like the white men next to them, fought and died for freedom.

2 Gone With the Wind (1939)

is one of the greatest movies of all time. The towering epic of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, mismatched lovers caught in the grip of history, has retained its power since it first opened. It is the most compelling depiction of Southerners as noble cavaliers in their Lost Cause, victims fighting an uphill struggle to defend States’ Rights, hearth, and home. In it, of course, we find Rhett roguish but hopelessly in love with Scarlett, who won’t embrace him because she loves another. Scarlett is the Southern-belle hellcat who simply must get her way. There is namby-pamby Ashley Wilkes, land-mad Gerald O’Hara, saintly Melanie, bossy Mammy, and Prissy, who knows little about “birthin’ babies,” plus that luscious Max Steiner music.

The trouble with Gone With the Wind is that it forgives the South for slavery. The movie seems to say that since the Southerners we see in it are good to their slaves, and since Scarlett treats Mammy with such great affection, then the institution might not have been so terrible. Well, it was.

3 Roots (1977).