When Hollywood Makes History


THE PRESIDENT’S LADY (1953) Andrew Jackson (Charlton Heston) progresses from Tennessee backwoods lawyer to the hero of New Orleans to President in this adequate historical melodrama. The plot revolves around his love for Rachel Donelson (Susan Hayward) and the turmoil surrounding their matrimony.

THE CIVIL WAR “Take a good look, my dear. It’s a historical moment. You can tell your grandchildren how you watched the Old South disappear one night.” — Rhett Butler, GONE WITH THE WIND


THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE (1951) John Huston’s version of Stephen Crane’s famous novel was not successful, in part because of production problems that left the completed film in a truncated version. Two World War II veterans—Bill Mauldin and Audie Murphy—played soldiers caught up in the conflict.


THE GENERAL (1927) This silent classic starring Buster Keaton is still funny and often quite beautiful. The story is based on an actual event—an attempt by the Union spy James J. Andrews and his raiders to steal a Confederate locomotive, The General.


THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) D. W. Griffith’s Civil War epic impressively re-created a number of historical incidents, including Lee’s (Howard Gaye) surrender to Grant (Donald Crisp) at Appomattox. But it is basically a paean to white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan.


GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) Margaret Mitchell’s saga of the Civil War became one of the most successful movies of all time. While the film centered on Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), the scene of Confederate casualties is one of the strongest statements about the reality of war ever put on film.


TENNESSEE JOHNSON (1942) In perhaps the most satisfactory adaptation of the life of a U.S. President, Van Heflin played Andrew Johnson as he rose from backwoods bond servant to President.


YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939) The story of Abraham Lincoln before he entered politics, this John Ford film did well re-creating the frontier life of the time. Henry Fonda made an appealing Lincoln.


ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1924) This popular silent film followed Abraham Lincoln’s life from boyhood through his assassination. Here the President (George A. Billings) consults General Grant (Walter Rogers). In 1930 D. W. Griffith made his much-better-known Abraham Lincoln , starring Walter Huston.


HEARTS IN BONDAGE (1936) The actor Lew Ayres directed this drama about lovers (James Dunn and Mae Clarke) on opposite sides during the conflict. Frank McGlynn, Sr., who was noted for his portrayals of Abraham Lincoln, did the part again; Irving Pichel played Gideon Weites.


ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS (1940) Issued the year after Young Mr. Lincoln, this production was not as successful. Robert E. Sherwood co-wrote the movie, based on his play.

THE WEST “We had a council at Broken Bow. Red Cloud says the Indians will lay off the railroad, if the whites will lay off the Indians.” —Jeff Butler, UNION PACIFIC


THE GUN FIGHTER (1917) The silent film Westerns of William Hart presented a gritty, realistic look at a frontier life that had disappeared not so very long before. This feature was no exception: it eschews the traditional happy ending and has Hart die saving the heroine (Margery Wilson). Here is “the Killer” (Hart) ready to fight his rivals for the gold in Desert Pass.


IN OLD CHICAGO (1938) In a climactic twenty-minute sequence, the 1871 fire that destroyed Chicago was impressively re-created in an otherwise puerile movie.


THE ALAMO (1960) John Wayne produced, directed, and starred as Davy Crockett in this opulent, all but endless tribute to the 1836 siege.