- Historic Sites
Actor Against Actor
What are the 10 greatest movies ever about the Civil War?
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
The mini-series based on Alex Haley’s quasi-biographical book about his family’s history in slavery, shown on ABC-TV, was a watershed in American entertainment history. The series, repeated often over the years, tracks the history of Kunta Kinte’s family from their roots in Africa to life in South Carolina during the Civil War and eventual freedom. Starring LeVar Burton, Lou Gossett, Jr., John Amos, and Ben Vereen, it packed an emotional wallop and earned record ratings. Produced late in the civil rights era, it was the first lengthy cinematic look at the lives of slaves and showed them as people, not the amiable lackeys that had populated so many prior historical films.
As a feature film, this very long movie enjoyed about the same level of success as Pickett’s Charge. But its backer, Ted Turner, a student of Civil War films, believed in the production and resurrected it as a mini-series for his Turner Network Television. There, with additional footage, it has flourished and is often shown in its entirety on the Fourth of July.
Based on Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels, it is a well-balanced story. It views the war from the Southern side, with Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet as its protagonists, but the Northerners, especially Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, are treated with great respect. Using re-enactors and filmed at Gettysburg itself, with the most careful attention paid to its lengthy battle sequences, the movie is justifiably a favorite of Civil War enthusiasts.
For all their historical faults, these two films about the central figure of the Civil War must rank high on any list and stand as a tandem. Ideally, viewers should watch them back to back, with Young Mr. Lincoln first. Its rather simplistic story has the fledgling lawyer defending some innocent local boys accused of murder. The power of the movie, though, lies in its presentation of Lincoln as a strong-willed, conscientious man who represents all that is good about America. Henry Fonda is wonderful as this Lincoln, particularly in the film’s finale, when he leaves behind a wondering provincial friend to walk forward alone into a storm that is clearly the great war in his future.
Abe Lincoln in Illinois stars Raymond Massey as the President. Like most earlier works about Lincoln, it offers a highly inaccurate, sanitized, and at times sappy story of his life. There is the idealized romance with Ann Rutledge, Mary Todd Lincoln as a whining harpy, and Lincoln as a champion wrestler, an ardent reader, and a man who tries his best to avoid the destiny others are certain will propel him to greatness. Massey’s performance as the gentle emancipator-to-be (a character almost completely opposite to the one that drove the real, dynamic President), aired so many thousands of times on television over the years, has become our view of Lincoln. Here he is a man of legend and lore, but an admirable and moving one nonetheless.
Both films had considerable historical significance for the world into which they were released, helping rally Americans to prepare for war with the Nazis and to trust Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 as their forebears had trusted Lincoln 80 years earlier.
Critics reviewed John Ford’s chilling story of a former Confederate officer’s five-year postwar hunt for a niece kidnapped by Indians as a run-of-the-mill Western when it opened. Today it is seen as a cinematic gem, but not for its cowboys and its Indians. Contemporary critics view the former C.S.A. colonel Ethan Edwards, portrayed in a gripping performance by John Wayne, as a man who lost his country when the South lost the war. He is an alien in the postwar America, unable now to fit into society, a doomed Rebel who can neither forgive nor forget. The Searchers is John Wayne’s finest film.
Directed by William Wyler, this story of pacifist Quakers living in southern Indiana during the Civil War at first appears to be merely an evocative tale of American farm life. Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire are the parents in a loving family whose quiet existence is shattered when Confederate soldiers arrive in the area. Their son Josh, played with deep intensity by Anthony Perkins, comes under enormous pressure from friends to take up arms and defies Quaker tradition to insist on fighting against the South. His father, who has abhorred violence all his life, must decide between his religious faith and his need to stand by his boy.