The following is a short-list of films about the Civil War and
Reconstruction in American History. Some are better than
others. It is important when viewing a film purporting to relate an
historical event or chronicling the life of a prominent person that one
consider the background of the people who wrote, produced, and directed
the movie. The context of when the film was released can also provide
invaluable insights into evaluating the credibility of the message.
Buster Keaton directed and starred in this classic of the
silent screen. The film is loosely based on an actual event that
occurred during the Civil War, where Union spies penetrated
Confederate lines, stole an engine, and then fled north to their
lines, attempting to destroy tracks and bridges as they went.
Keaton plays an engineer who tries to rescue his engine – not out of
any sense of honour or duty – but because he really loves his
engine. Even though it may not be historically accurate, it is
worth viewing because it highlights the comedic artistry (okay,
slapstick) of early film. These our the films our
grandparents and great-grandparents grew-up watching. See if you
can identify the scene where Keaton breaks his neck. (He was not
aware that he had done so until years later when his physician,
reading an x-ray, asked him when had he broken his neck!) Disney
retold the story in
The Great Locomotive Chase (1956). [Unrated]
(1993) Colour–248 minutes;
Ronald Maxwell, director.
Meticulously detailed and highly
accurate depiction of the events leading up to,- and transpiring
during-, the crucial
Battle of Gettysburg: the "high water mark of the Civil
War". Unfortunately, as a result, it is an excruciatingly
long film. There is no way a movie of this length can be used in
its entirety in the classroom, but certainly scenes could be extracted
for the purpose of showing what combat was like during the
mid-nineteenth century. I might have been offended by how noble
the Confederate leaders are depicted had their Union counterparts not
been so equally portrayed. The movie makes one realize that
enemies can possess mutually respectable attributes even if they have
differing (and possibly despicable) views regarding issues such as
slavery. It also portrays how intertwined the lives and careers
of the contending officer corps' were prior to that epic conflict,
emphasizing the "house divided", brother-against-brother"
aspect of the War of the Southern Rebellion. [PG-rated]
The Horse Soldiers
(1959) Colour–119 minutes;
John Ford, director.
This film is
loosely-based on an actual series of events during the Civil War –
Grierson's Raid – which made Major-General
Ulysses S. Grant's subsequent investment and conquest of
John Wayne delivers a standard performance as Colonel Marlowe,
ably supported by other veteran actors such as
William Holden. It is not what I would call a great
movie, but it does have some merits. Of value to the history
teacher are the scenes towards the end of the film that depict Union
cavalrymen destroying railroad tracks, rolling stock, and contraband
in an effort to deprive the Confederacy of their use. It is a
graphic portrayal of the concept of total war advocated and later
practiced by Major-General
William Tecumseh Sherman on his epic campaign through Georgia
in 1864. I grew-up watching this film, and I am a big fan of the
Duke, so I always end-up watching it whenever it is on.
Ride with the Devil
Colour–139 minutes; Ang Lee, director.
A Civil War-tale set in Missouri and eastern Kansas, it
does an excellent job of capturing the
internecine guerilla warfare waged between
(sometimes euphemistically referred to as
Missouri Partisan Rangers) and Union-sympathizing "Jayhawks".
Although the bulk of the film follows a group of fictitious
Confederate partisans, it succeeds in capturing the nature of warfare
on the frontier. The one actual historical event depicted
Quantrill's Raid on Lawrence, Kansas 21st August 1863 – is
faithfully reproduced, down to the hard-shell Baptist preacher riding
around town with an American flag tied to the tail of his horse.
Toby Maguire delivers a low-key, believable performance as Jake
Roedel, a first-generation German-American who sides with the
Confederacy out of loyalty to his childhood friends. Probably my
favorite character is Daniel Holt, portrayed by Jeffery Wright.
[R-rated, for graphic violence]
(1965) Colour–105 minutes;
Andrew V. McLaglen.
Stewart, delivers one of his most-memorable performances as
Charlie Anderson, a widower-patriarch of a large family working a
sprawling farm in northern Virginia during the Civil War. Try as
he might to remain neutral, that conflict eventually intrudes into the
daily-life of the family with tragic results. This film contains
many poignant moments, as it provides an intimate portrait of family
life in the mid-nineteenth century. [Unrated]
Red Badge of Courage
minutes; John Huston, director.
Compelling film-adaptation of the novella by
Stephen Crane of the same name. This film succeeds at
communicating the horror of war on a personal level.
Audie Murphy, the United States' most-decorated combat-soldier
of World War II, delivers an extremely sensitive performance as the
Bill Mauldin, the creator of the famous
Willie and Joe comics for Stars & Stripes during World War II,
who plays the Loud Soldier, also gives a stellar performance.
What is so amazing about both of their performances is that neither of
them were professional actors. This to be one of the best-cast
films ever. [Unrated]
(1989) Colour–122 minutes;
Edward Zwick, director.
Riveting tale of the young,
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, ably played by
Matthew Broderick, training and leading the first black
infantry regiment into combat during the Civil War. Apparently
the screenplay was based in-part on the letters of Colonel Shaw.
As a result, there is a believability about the way the story is told
that makes this one of the best historical dramas ever made.
Denzel Washington won his first academy award (best supporting
actor) for his portrayal of Private Trip. Academy award-winner
Morgan Freeman, another highly-respected, veteran African
American actor, is also in the film.
[R-rated, primarily for graphic
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Wednesday, 21 January 2009