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Actor Against Actor

May 2024
7min read

What are the 10 greatest movies ever about the Civil War?

Since 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).

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.

4 Gettysburg (1993).

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.

5 Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940).

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.

6 The Searchers (1956).

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.

7 Friendly Persuasion (1956).

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.

8 The Horse Soldiers (1959).

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.

9 The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).

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.

10 The General (1927).

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.

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