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Actor Against Actor
What are the 10 greatest movies ever about the Civil War?
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
Another Civil War story starring John Wayne, this one is set when the war is actually going on. Wayne leads a group of Union soldiers deep into Mississippi on a secret mission to destroy railroad tracks, an operation based on Col. Ben Grierson’s audacious 1863 raid. The film takes great pains to portray Southern families and soldiers favorably, and, in fact, the Confederate officer captured by Wayne and his men turns out to be as likable as the Duke himself. Again, as in so many Civil War films, this one shows gallant Americans fighting for what they believe to be right. Indeed, Wayne was equally at ease playing officers in both armies.
This shocking Western, set in 1885 Nevada, earned strong reviews when it made its debut. Calling it a Civil War movie may be a bit of a stretch, but it deals with passions and strains aroused by the war and still undamped in its aftermath. In it, a former Confederate major, Tetley, leads a posse that lynches three innocent men accused of cattle rustling and murder. The film showed the dangers of mob rule in the West, but it had a broader aim. The United States was in the middle of World War II, and Tetley was clearly meant to represent not only the Nazis but the campaign of lynchings that the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante groups were still conducting in the American South (nearly 5,000 blacks had been lynched between 1865 and 1943). The theme of the haunting movie was that both racism and Nazism, promoted by bullies like Tetley, can thrive only when good men stand by and do nothing, as happens in the film. The movie told Americans that it was time to fight back.
There are, thankfully, very few comedies about the Civil War, and The General , the silent film starring Buster Keaton, is by far the best. The stone-faced Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a Southerner who tries to enlist in the Confederate Army only to be told he’s more valuable as a civilian locomotive engineer. His girlfriend, Annabelle Lee, thinks him a coward. Johnnie’s locomotive, The General, is soon hijacked by Union spies, with the lovely Annabelle aboard. Keaton jumps on another engine and gives chase. What follow are some of the finest sight gags in movie history. Based on an actual event, The General is both hilarious—the finest showcase for the talents of the greatest comedian of the silent era—and at times a haunting evocation of the period in which it is set.