Civil War Movies: Truth or Fiction?
Educational Resources -> Civil War Movies: Truth or Fiction
by John Clifton
Those who are looking for a lot of true life depictions in Civil War movies are likely to be disappointed much of the time, as Hollywood tends to go for the dramatic over the realistic. But the Civil War was epic enough to satisfy both, and Americans continue to be fascinated by this seminal event in American history, even 150 years after the conflict.
What's a Civil War Film?
For our purposes, a Civil War film is a movie which depicts scenes from the Civil War, or depict the effect of that war on people living through that era. For a film to qualify, it has to contain at least one scene set in the period between 1861 and 1865. In some cases, that means depictions of the home front. In other cases, that means a scene or two which shows a character involved in the war or trying to become involved in the war, then a shift in focus to the Old West. A few of those films are on this list.
But in many cases, these films focus entirely on the Civil War and its effect on human lives. You'll find battle depictions, discussions of family, the institution of slavery, loyalty to one's country, and a whole of lot of romance. Watch all these movies and you will learn something about American history, especially if you've never made a deep study of this period in our shared story.
1. North & South (1985) - North & South was a successful mini-series which played on ABC in 1984, spawning sequels in 1986 and 1994. The storyline follows one Northern army officer, George Hazard, and one Southern army officer, Orry Main (played by Patrick Swayze). Spanning their life together at the West Point Academy, serving together in the Mexican War, and then fighting on either side of the War of the States, North and South was full of melodrama. As you might imagine, this production boiled down to a night-time soap opera, so it doesn't necessarily follow history all that closely. At the same time, this mini-series is riveting, and it depicted archetypal elements of the war, including Southern aristocracy, Northern industrialism, runaway slaves, the cruelties of slavery, and Lincoln's inability to find leaders for the Union Army until late in the conflict.
2. Glory (1989) - The true story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a unit made up entirely of African-Americans, though commanded by a white man. Based on the letters of that commander, Robert Gould Shaw, and two separate novels about the regiment, this movie starred Matthew Broderick as Shaw, and earned Denzel Washington an Oscar. Glory is one of the best movies on this list, if not the best movie about the Civil War, and adds to that the benefits of telling important history. The bravery of the 54th Massachusetts helped prove to skeptical Northern white Americans that blacks had the stomach for battle, and helped spur the U.S. Army into recruiting upwards of 180,000 black soldiers for war duty. This influx in manpower was no small factor in the outcome of the war, though the story of the black soldier in pre-20th century history has gone untold. While the story isn't entirely accurate, it's more truth than fiction.
3. Gone With the Wind (1939) - This most famous movie about the Civil War is a grand sweeping romance and melodrama. Gone with the Wind is not so much about realistic depictions of the era. The heady optimism of the Southern celebrants in the opening scenes of the movie are a good depiction of the attitudes prevalent on both sides of the conflict. Stories talk of both sides believing the war would be over in a few months or even one battle, and Northerners from Washington D.C. are said to have gone out to watch the Battle of First Bull Run (or Manassas Junction), which was the first major battle of the war. These people had to flee back to Washington the best they could.
Other stories tell of President Sam Houston of Texas being run out of the state when he urged caution, and told the people of Texas the war was going to be long and bloody. Houston, who resigned the governorship over his unwillingness to support the Confederacy, said, "Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it."
Other stories tell that people thought William T. Sherman was crazy when he predicted similar figures would be lost in the war. He was even taken off active duty, until his predictions started to come true, upon which he was deemed not so crazy after all, and reinstated as an active general. That being said, much of Gone With the Wind is not particularly accurate. The burning of Atlanta, while dramatic, is more Hollywood than history. The devastation of the South is given proper accent, though.
4. The Red Badge of Courage (1951) - If you want a film that explores the psychology of going to war and becoming a soldier, The Red Badge of Courage is a good place to start. Audie Murphy, winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service in World War II, plays the soul-searching soldier. To have a bona fide war hero play the role of a man coming to grips with his perceived cowardice was brilliant casting. While the story is pure fiction, this is the kind of crisis every soldier goes through at one point or another.
5. The General (1927) - You can't expect a Buster Keaton movie from 1926 or 1927 to have a lot in the way of Civil War truth, but this is a great silent movie. I saw this in the last year or two on Turner Classic Movies late at night, and it was excellent. Most of the movie takes place on a train, as Buster Keaton is trying to stop Union soldiers from getting control of the train he works on. Meanwhile, Keaton has to save his love, who originally spurned him for (what she thought was) his cowardice. Many critics consider The General one of the best films ever made. While I won't go that far, I'll say I found it highly entertaining--though completely fictional.
6. Friendly Persuasion (1956) - A number of Civil War movies depict the home front during this era, and Friendly Persuasion is one of the best of the bunch. Gary Cooper plays a Quaker whose worldliness continually gets in the way of his wife's (Dorothy McGuire) devout Quaker beliefs, which dictate pacifism. The early scenes are often played for laughs and include a romance, but the movie turns darker when the war, in the form of a Confederate cavalry raid in force, comes to their part of Indiana. The son, played by Anthony Perkins, decides to join the locals in fending off this attack, which forces Gary Cooper to reassess his pacifist ideals and come face-to-face with a profound decision. Friendly Persuasion is a largely forgotten but excellent film. The stories may not represent real history, but they do show how life on the homefront was neither simple nor easy.
7. Little Women (1933) - This George Cukor production is said to have taken a year and 1,000 people to produce. 3000 household items were personally authenticated to provide for the 1930's audience a truer glimpse of the "old-fashioned days". Katherine Hepburn and Joan Bennett star in this best version of a family of women dealing with domestic life in the absence of (most of) the men during The Civil War.
8. Little Women (1994) - At least four movies were based on Louisa May Alcott's tale about a family of women living through the Civil War Period in Concord, Massachusetts. I'll mention one more, since this version garnered a number of Oscar nominations. Winona Ryder got an Academy Award nomination for her performance, while others in this ensemble piece included Susan Sarandon, Gabriel Byrne, and Eric Stolz, as well as much younger Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, and even Christian Bale as Ryder's love interest. Once again, this is fiction, not fact, but it should be mentioned this novel was an instant success when it was published in 1868, so the people who lived through the Civil War approved.
9. Gods & Generals (2003) - This three-and-a-half hour epic (6 hours in the original version) didn't spend nearly as much time on Joshua Lloyd Chamberlain as it should have. Instead, it weighted the story a heavily on the Southern side of the action, which followed the war exploits of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, the famed general on the Confederate side of the war. Gods & Generals' predecessor (and story sequel), Gettysburg, gave each side equal time, which helped add weight to both sides of the story. What made it on film was more accurate than most Civil War films, though. If anything, Stonewall Jackson was even more of a religious fanatic than the movie depicts.
10. Gettysburg (1993) - Gettysburg is one of the best Civil War movies from the perspective of those who love history. While the production has its historical inaccuracies--they made Joshua Lloyd Chamberlain's pre-battle actions a little too Hollywood--most people should come away from this six-hour depiction of the Civil War's most famous battle with a better understanding of the war. The story follows the dramatic 3-day battle, which followed General Robert E. Lee's decision to take the Army of Northern Virginia into the North, in hopes of drawing Union troops away from Vicksburg, another pivotal battle raging out west. Instead, the Union forces learned where the Confederates would be marching and drew up battle lines along three hills commanding the battlefield, Big Round Top, Little Round Top, and Devil's Den, and General Lee's disastrous attempts to dislodge the Northern army from those commanding heights. When the South lost the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg within the same week, the war was a lost cause (despite lasting over a year and a half longer). Gettysburg is dramatic and historically accurate, for the most part. Those who aren't total history buffs might find the running time a little long for their tastes, but this is American history on display.
11. Raintree County (1957) - This Civil War melodrama led to an Oscar nomination for Elizabeth Taylor, who played Susanna Drake, one-third of a love triangle with Montgomery Clift and Eva Marie Saint. Susanna Drake is the troubled Southern belle, while Clift plays a Northern abolitionist who lives in the South (Louisiana) for the sake of his marriage, but inevitably end up back in Raintree County, Indiana, Clift's family's home. It should tell you all you need to know about the realism of this movie when, at a point, the wife and 4-year old son are lost in Indiana, and Montegomery Clift decides to join the Union Army in order to give himself a better chance of running across the two of them. Strangely, this unlikely plan actually works. Anyway, Raintree County is full fiction, though it won one of the actresses a nomination, so it might be your type of fiction.
12. Drums in the Deep South (1951) - This low-budget movie from 1951 depicts two friends on either side of the action during Sherman's March to the Sea. Though the early-fifties color isn't so great and the budget made it a B-film, the director (William Cameron Menzies) was the set designer for Gone With the Wind, so he did an admirable job of making this look better than you would expect. This is a Hollywood depiction of the war, though, so don't expect historical truth from this production.
13. Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) - Another episode of man's inhumanity to man from the Civil War era is the Kansas-Missouri War, sometimes associated with the term "Bleeding Kansas". This was a series of raids and incidents that in the border towns on either side of the Kansas-Missouri Border, mostly between 1854 and 1858, over the issue of whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free state or slave state. The Missouri Compromise was abolished by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, replacing the precedent of Missouri coming in as a slave state (despite being above the "slave line" of parallel 36°30' north), which might have applied to Kansas, too. Instead, Kansas's slave laws would be decided by popular sovereignty, leading to an influx of Northerners and Southerners into Kansas, in hopes of winning the state's demographic battle for freedom or slavery. This led to a proxy war between the North and South, including murders and even massacres. This naturally led into a guerilla war once formal hostilities broke out, between Union forces from Kansas ("jayhawkers") and Confederate forces from Missouri (William Quantrill's "bushwhackers"), of which Jesse James was a member. Clint Eastwood takes on the role of Josey Wales, a Missouri farmer who becomes a bushwacker when jayhawkers from Kansas (backed by a corrupt senator) murder his family. This is a highly fictionalized story of Kansas and Missouri in the Civil War, but is highly entertaining. Don't expect much in the war of historical truth, though.
14. Ride With the Devil (1999) - Another story about Missouri men riding with Quantrill's Raiders, the Bushwhackers, this time directed by Ang Lee and starring Tobey McGuire and Skeet Ulrich. Now that I think about it, it's amazing how many of the movies on this list pit the southerners as the protagonists. I have to think that's because the southern side lost the war and are therefore the underdogs in the fight. But in the Kansas-Missouri border war, it's hard to pit the people of Kansas as the aggressors. Still, the two movies on this list about this period of history depict the Confederates. I'd like to hear other theories about why this is.
15. Birth of a Nation (1915) - The film that then-President Woodrow Wilson, who was what we would term a "racist" these days, said of Birth of a Nation, "It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true".
(It should be mentioned that President Wilson, besides championing the League of Nations and democracy abroad, was a first-class racist. One of his first acts as president was to segregate the federal government.)
Birth of a Nation is about two American families--one northern and one southern--and their lives during the Civil war and in the Reconstruction Era. The film portrays African-Americans as not only inherently dumb and savage, but also lusting after white women. It should tell you all you need to know about the film that the Ku Klux Klan are the heroes. While I would term this one of the most grievous cases of fiction-over-truth on our list, this film does have the distinction of rekindling popularity in the Ku Klux Klan, which had disappeared from the South for 40-some odd years, after the end of Reconstruction. It might surprise you now, but Birth of a Nation was the most technically advanced movie of its age, and was a wild success with the film watching public.
16. The Blue and The Gray (1982) - Starring Stacy Keach, Colleen Dewhurst, Lloyd Bridges, and Gregory Peck as Abraham Lincoln, The Blue & the Gray was a 1982 CBS miniseries set over three-nights. The story centers around a bored southern farmer who (in his role as artist for a newspaper) sees John Brown's trial. This spurs the man, played by Stacy Keach, to become interested in the issue of slavery. Introduced to northern society, he refuses to fight for the South in the war, due to the slavery issue, but he won't raise arms against his own country. Instead, he becomes a war correspondent traveling with the northern army, which allows him to see most of the famous battles. Meanwhile, friends from the North and family from the South get embroiled in the war. A lot of ground is covered, including First Bull Run, the Peninsula Campaign, The Wilderness, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Appomattox, and Lincoln's Assassination. This is a fictional story, though, so liberties are taken.
17. Jonah Hex (2010) - You might not immediately think of Jonah Hex when I say "Civil War movie", but the opening scenes of Jonah Hex show Josh Brolin as a Confederate soldier. He refuses his commanding officer's orders to burn down a hospital, which eventually leads to the branding scars which characterize Jonah Hex in the comics and this film. Jonah Hex isn't much of a movie, and there isn't much historical truth in this film, but if you want to see another Civil War depiction, Jonah Hex offers you that.
18. Wyatt Earp (1994) - Another film you might not immediately think about when a discussion of films about the Civil War come up, but Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp begins with young Wyatt trying to run away from home to join the Union army, since his brothers (Virgil and James) are away fighting the war. These are important scenes to show both the restlessness of Wyatt Earp, and the connection he has to his family. Perhaps because Wyatt Earp came out 6 months later than the more successful Tombstone, it was a flop at the box office (grossing $25 million, costing $63 million). It's a good movie, though, and much more honest to the real life of Wyatt Earp. In my mind, the film holds up a lot better than Tombstone (which I loved at the time), perhaps because it seems silly in retrospect to have a character asking silly questions like "Are you my huckleberry?" As for the depictions of the Civil War, there wasn't much in the way of the depiction, except perhaps of young men across the nation at the time eager to get to the war front for the sake of adventure or duty.
19. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962) - This is a 24-minute short film which appeared on the old Twilight Zone tv show. Based on an Ambrose Bierce short story, I wouldn't expect too much in the way of realism. It's a must-watch for Civil War film buffs, though. I don't want to spoil this film, which is based on a popular short story everyone (of a certain age) seems to have read in school, so I won't get into why the depictions in this story are purely fictional and metaphorical, as opposed to truthful.
20. How the West Was Won (1962) - This is a sprawling epic covering 4 generations of a family, spanning from the 1830s to the 1880s. The film itself required 5 distinct segments and 3 directors (Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall). The theme music is among the best and most recognizable in Hollywood history. With most epic tales, though, the story centers on archetypes and archetypal legends, so this film is more about the fiction of settling the Old West and glorifying the Frontier than it is about giving a true depiction. Much of the first half of the film tells the dramatic story of how the parents get together in dramatic and romantic, if often violent, ways. If you want a gauge of how accurate the history is, one scene involves a confederate soldier overhearing Ulysses Grant and William T. Sherman (played by John Wayne) discussing war tactics, and a subsequent attempt to assassinate two of America's most brilliant generals. (For the record, nothing like that remotely happened.)
21. USS Hunley (1999) - Okay, when I tell you about a movie starring Armand Assante, you immediately assume it has no historical value. But USS Hunley also featured Donald Sutherland. This 94-minute television movie for the USA Network tells the story of the first submarine to sink a ship in warfare, the USS Hunley. It's a tv movie, so don't expect complete attention to historical detail, but it's a good piece of naval warfare history to learn about. It should be mentioned (SPOILER ALERT) that the Hunley, a Confederate attempt to tip the naval balance with a new secret weapon, sank after sinking its first prey. In fact, the Hunley sank three times in the war, killing 21 crew members.
22. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1996) - Three rogues battle it out for a buried stash of Confederate gold, as a Civil War battle rages on and presents obstacles for the three. The Civil War adds a sinister backdrop to much of the action in this most iconic of Spaghetti Westerns, and many of the Civil War battle scenes have an almost surreal quality to them. As mentioned earlier, having armies nearby are mainly a plot device to make the rogue's job harder and more unpredictable, and the twists and turns in fortune resulting from cannon shelling and battle lines is less about a realistic depiction of the war, and more about seeing how these three fascinating fortune-seekers react to an ever-changing set of circumstances. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is excellent filmmaking, but it never claimed to be excellent history.
23. Gangs of New York (2002) - While Gangs of New York is an entertaining film, I have a hard time imagining there's a lot of truth to the story, besides the squalor. The story is set around the underworld of the Five Points District in New York City during the Civil War, and the final scenes are a depiction of how these people's lives and conflicts are subsumed in the New York City draft riots from July 13 to July 16 of 1863, when the working men of New York City rioted to express their displeasure with the U.S. Congress passing a draft law, one which greatly favored the rich. (Those who paid $300 were exempted from the draft.) While history tells us the riots were suppressed by artillery and bayonets, the movie has that artillery involve a seemingly indiscriminate shelling of Manhattan Island by the U.S. Navy, and I'm pretty sure that was pure Hollywood.
24. Wicked Spring (2002) - "Six Men, Two Armies, One Dream"--that's the tagline for this 2002 war movie about the Battle of the Wilderness. The Wilderness was the beginning of the Overland Campaign in 1864, and marks the first time General Ulysses Grant faced General Lee across the battlefield. Grant had been summoned from his successes in the West by President Lincoln to take overall command of strategy, and 1864 marks the first time Union strategy across many theaters was coordinated. The plan overall was to strike at the heart of the Confederacy at a number of points, but in Virginia, the strategy was to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant's orders to General Meade, direct commander of the Army of the Potomac, was, "Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also." The Wilderness proved to be a bloody, yet inconclusive, engagement, a tactical defeat for Grant, who is said to have wept in his tent at the carnage. Unlike the earlier Union generals, though, when the next morning came, Grant was ready to go to battle again. The Overland Campaign saw 7 major engagements in roughly one month's time. Most of these were Union tactical defeats, but the overall strategy was working. Grant had done the math and knew the Union could replace troops, while the Confederacy couldn't. The Wilderness is when the war truly became a war of attrition, and this led to Lee's desperate decision to create the trench system at Petersburg. Wicked Spring is a small-budget indie film which fictionalizes the story of two soldiers--one Union and one rebel--and their letters to and from home are a major theme. This is good filmmaking, though, and any Civil War film buff should watch it.
25. The Colt (2005) - Another story set in The Wilderness campaign of 1864, The Colt is about a Union soldier grieving his brother's loss, who refuses to shoot a young colt born to his horse. The colt begins to ride with the Union Army, which inevitably leads to all sorts of plot twists. This is obviously a pure fiction tale, though it was nominated by the Writers Guild of America for a television award.
26. Cold Mountain (2003) - Cold Mountain, on the other hand, is a work of pure fiction. Despite its acclaim at the time, I didn't think it was particularly good fiction, either. Cold Mountain is about a Confederate soldier who goes away to war, then deserts after his best friend dies in the Battle of Petersburg (Virginia). Petersburg, the trench warfare stalemate that developed outside Richmond from early-June 1864 to late-March 1865, was the last stage of the Civil War and, in many ways, presaged the advent of trench warfare that characterized World War I some 50 years later. The South was beaten, but refused to give up, and fortified trenches proved to be able to hold off superior numbers, at least until desertion (spurred on by despair caused by Sherman's March to the Sea and Lincoln's reelection) robbed General Lee of the manpower to continue the defense of Richmond. Most of the movie involves Jude Law's bizarre journey through the backwoods of Southern Virginia and North Carolina to get back home to his love. Along the way, he meets a lot of crazy people, including Renee Zellweger. Zellweger won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role, though I still say she was doing a Granny Clampett impression (notice the similarities in the character's walking style). This is almost pure fiction, though the Union use of explosives and the subsequent tactical blunder of storming into the trench (a kill zone) did happen. The music is great in this film, though.
27. Shenandoah (1965) - Shenandoah is a fictional account of an isolationist southern family living in the Shenandoah Valley of Northern Virginia during the Civil War. Considered the "Breadbasket of the Confederacy", the Shenandoah Valley was considered a strategic reason, which is why three separate campaigns were fought there. The first was in 1862, when Stonewall Jackson fought off three Union armies in a campaign that helped make his legend. Confederate cavalry leader, Jubal Early, was sent in the summer of 1864 to rid the valley of its Union presence, which led General Grant to send Union cavalry under Phil Sheridan to get rid of Early and end the valley's usefulness to the South. Sheridan used a scorched-earth policy in this third campaign, and this is when the movie is set. Jimmy Stewart plays the father of a large family (6 sons, 1 daughter), which has remained out of the war until 1864. Their lack of participation ends when the Union soldiers take one of the sons. Shenandoah, which came out in 1965, is seen as a story about the futility of war, and often connected to criticisms of the Vietnam War. That's less likely than it would seem, as it came out in 1865, when America's participation in Vietnam was just starting to escalate, and that escalation was still popular. The film was released (June 3, 1865) was done before the Gulf of Tonkin Incident (August 2, 1865).
28. Major Dundee (1965) - A Sam Peckinpah film starring Charlton Heston as Dundee, a Union soldier, and Richard Harris as Tyreen, a rebel soldier being held in prison and Dundee's former rival. While Peckinpah claimed this was based on a true story, that's not the case, though there was one incident in New Mexico during the war that Confederate prisoners ("Galvanized Yankees") were recruited because of manpower shortages to fight Indians. This film is actually derivative in many ways, borrowing heavily from the plot of Moby-Dick, borrowing ideas from movies like The Searchers and Laurence of Arabia, and even parodying a scene from Fort Apache. But the story, which includes a search for an Indian and the soldier's run-ins with French troops garrisoned in Northern Mexico, points out one important Civil War note that is largely lost to history. The French intervention in Mexico from 1862-1866 shows to us a picture of North America's future, had the South succeeded in splitting the Union. With the United States embroiled in a bitter civil war, the French emperor, Napoleon III, felt comfortable in leading an international coalition against Mexico in 1862, even delving so deeply into Mexican politics as to place his cousin, Maximilian, on the throne of Mexico (as emperor) in 1864. This touched off a bloody war in its own right, in which Mexicans under Benito Juarez fought for their independence. The Mexican-American holiday, Cinco de Mayo, stems from a Mexican victory in this war. The Mexicans were unable to oust the French until after the Civil War was completed, despite their ability to counter France's ambitions, because France had a force of 40,000 troops still in the country. In 1865, just days after the war with the South was over, General Grant dispatched General Phil Sheridan with a 50,000-man force to the Texas to put down rebellion there, and also to intimidate France and put pressure on them to leave. This created an area in northern Mexico French troops would not go, and also allowed Sheridan to supply Juarez. According to Sheridan, he, "supplied (Juarez) with arms and ammunition, which we left at convenient places on our side of the river to fall into their hands." Juarez continued to gain strength in Mexico, and the French eventually pulled their troops out in 1866. Maximilian was captured, and when he was hung in 1867, France did nothing to stop the execution. This shows the difference in a strong, united US and weak, divided US, and how we (and our neighbors) would have been treated had we continued apart. The Union winning the war was a good thing for North America. While America's neighbors may not have always liked having to deal with the Americans, you can say that we've never tried to put an emperor on the throne of other North American nations.
29. Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) - Starring William Holden, John Forsythe, and Eleanor Parker, this is the story of a Union prison camp and (as the title implies) an escape from that prison camp. Add in a beauty, a love story, and a tribe of marauding Mescalero Indians, and you have the makings of a good 50's Hollywood Western. Once again, this story is more fiction than truth, and more Western than Civil War story.
30. Shadow Riders (1982) - Shadow Riders is another western which begins with a Civil War scene. Tom Selleck and Sam Elliot play the Traven Brothers, who are characters from a Louis L'Amour novel. Shadow Riders follows the now-familiar trope of having two friends or brothers fight on either side in the War Between the States, but the story picks up with their meeting near war's end and returning home to the family together. This is pure western, complete with invincible heroes and paper mache villains. Those who watched The Sacketts, another Louis L'Amour adaptation starring Selleck and Elliot, are likely to compare this film unfavorably to them. What little there is of the Civil War is pure Hollywood.
31. Andersonville (1996) - Don't watch this movie if you are sickened by the mistreatment of prisoners of war or the wasting away of life in concentration camp conditions. Andersonville is about the infamous Confederate prison in Georgia, where nearly 13,000 of a total 45,000 Union soldiers died due to starvation and disease brought on by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. Andersonville prison was originally supposed to hold 8,000 men, and the numbers ballooned to several times that number. The treatment of prisoners led to a trial after the war of Captain Wirz, the officer in charge of the camp. While there are historical inaccuracies in this movie, the depiction of the conditions are, if anything, toned down for the viewers.
32. Across Five Aprils (1993) - Based on a 1964 novel about an Illinois family which is firmly on the side of the Union, but has a son who joins the southern cause. This 82-minute made-for-tv film mainly follows around a 10-year old member of the family. The book is great, while the film is not-so great. Both are fictional accounts of Civil War era people. Across Five Aprils follows the time-honored tradition of creating tension by placing family or friends on both sides of the conflict.
33. Dances with Wolves (1990) - 1990 was a good year for Civil War films. You might not think of Dances With Wolves as a Civil War picture, but the opening scenes see Kevin Costner in 1863 battle scenes. He's awarded a horse for his bravery and given a transfer out west by a commanding office for his service. That's where Dances With Wolves becomes a movie about the frontier era and the Old West. The theme for Dances With Wolves is one of those Hollywood theme songs which still sends shivers down the spine--it's pure Americana. There's not much in the way of Civil War history in the film, but I recommend a watch (or re-watch) if you haven't seen it in a while.
34. Dog Jack (2010) - This recent film is about an escaped slave who joins a Union regiment, and brings along with him his dog, which becomes a mascot for the unit. Dog Jack stars Lou Gossett as the voiceover narrator for the grown boy, and based on a book by Florence Biros. This is all fiction, though.
35. Love Me Tender (1956) - Yes, an Elvis movie about the Civil War. Elvis Presley plays "Clint", the youngest of a group brothers (The Reno Brothers) who want to go off to fight in the war for the South. Clint ends up staying at home to take care of the mother, while the three elder brothers go away to fight. When the family is mistakenly informed that one of the brothers is dead, Elvis marries the brother's grieving girlfriend, which you know is going to cause trouble. This was Elvis's debut as an actor, and despite mixed reviews of the film, many came away thinking Elvis was a natural as an actor. Love Me Tender is fiction, though. The next film on our list is a more realistic version of the same story.
36. Rage at Dawn (1955) - In this movie, the Reno Brothers are four corrupt robbers (led by Forrest Tucker), while the fifth is a peaceful farmer (played by Denver Pyle). The gang is joined by Randolph Scott, who infiltrates the group when the gang murdered a previous informant. Good viewing might be to watch the two depictions of the Reno Brothers and comparing the quite different portrayals of the group. The Reno Brothers were real, and there is more truth about their lives in Rage at Dawn than Love Me Tender.
37. Sommersby (1993) - Sommersby is based on real events, but not real events during the Civil War. Instead, it's based on events that happened in 16th century France, as told in The Return of Martin Guerre (starring Gerard Depardieu) and a gaggle of French books. The real Martin Guerre trials happened in the 1550's and are almost too bizarre to be truth, but they are well documented. Sommersby, based on such an odd event, is an odd film. Richard Gere plays an abusive husband who goes away to the Civil War, then returns a changed man. His wife (Jodie Foster) accepts him as her husband, while Bill Pullman, who hoped to marry Foster, doesn't accept the story. Eventually, Gere's character is put on trial. Obviously, there was no real-life Sommersby, but as an introduction to the strange case of Martin Guerre, there is a historical antecedent here.
38. The Beguiled (1971) - Clint Eastwood's first attempt to play against type was a flop at the time, but is still considered one of his finest films in France. Eastwood plays a Civil War soldier who is found by a 12-year old girl near death, and is taken by her to her school for girls. The women (and girls) around the school are initially afraid of Eastwood's character, but eventually the man-starved women begin to vie for his affections. From here, things get ugly quickly. Based on a 1966 book, The Beguiled is a total fiction.
39. The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams (2007) - This film was made by Julian Adams, the great-great grandson of the real-life Robert Adams. Robert Adams was a South Carolina native who joined the Confederate Army two days before Fort Sumter was fired upon, and served in many of the battles of the Civil War, until his capture late in that conflict. Actors playing in this film include Amy Redford (daughter of Robert Redford), as well as Mickey Rooney and Tippi Headren. The battle scenes were filmed with Civil War reenactors and you'll find some of their costumes lacking, but it's a minor miracle this story was made into a film at all. The story itself follows the life of Robert Adams in detail, and since the family of Mr. Adams produced the film, it's taken from history. You might not find all the dramatic (and formulaic) twists and turns that you would find in a standard Hollywood movies, but that's a good thing, if you're looking for truth in war movies. One thing I wanted to see an answer to, and which I have no answer for: since the real-life Robert Adams was a southern planter, did he use slave labor? It's hard to tell from the film, but I suppose you don't expect the man's family to put that in the forefront.
40. Ken Burn's Civil War (1990) - You hear so much about how great a documentary is, and you might tend to be skeptical. Ken Burn's Civil War is simply extraordinary documenting of the Civil War, complete with thorough attention to detail and accuracy, and first-rate narration and voice acting. Voice actors included Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Irons, and Sam Waterston, as well as eminent non-actor voice talents Kurt Vonnegut, George Plimpton, Studs Terkel, and Garrison Keillor. The inimitable David McCullough, famous lately for books like John Adams and 1776, is a brilliant and authoritative narrator. Civil War historians get into the action, too, adding their insights and anecdotes throughout the production. including Stephen B. Oates, Barbara J. Fields, Ed Bearss, and Shelby Foote, the excellent southern historian with that distinctive Mississippi accent. The music is excellent, while the use of archival photography, letters, and journals adds flavor and immediacy to the story. Coming in at 608 minutes, The Civil War is simply a tour-de-force. While there are always detractors and other opinions, the history is well-documented and you can be certain it follows the mainstream.
Civil War History
For a long time, when Ken Burns chose a subject for a documentary, from the Civil War to Baseball to Jazz, he chose subjects which brought into focus race relations in American history. I consider this an important documentary for my own knowledge of the Civil War, because I was educated in the Texas education system, where we were taught that the Civil War was about states' rights--not slavery. So it was important for me to be exposed to such an excellent film which dwelled so much not just on slavery, but the relations of whites and blacks in the north, as well. I've since studied the era between the end of the Andrew Jackson administration and the start of the Civil War, when this country had 9 president in the 20 year period between March 3, 1841 and March 4, 1861, and how much the country changed in those twenty years. In those years, the country added a huge swath of territory, including Texas (through treaty) and the territory that became of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, western Colorado, and even southwestern Wyoming (through war with Mexico). This new acquisition of territory presented a new challenge to the traditional southern way of life (agriculture, cotton, and especially slavery), because southern leaders feared that this new territory would be used to create at least five states (actually more), and were determined to see slavery spread to an equal number of the new states, to keep an electoral balance in the Congress between free and slave states. When the North refused to let this happen, and the South found that pro-slavery candidates were going to win national office, they pulled out of the Union. So the war wasn't based on states rights, so much as it was based on the South's bitterness about their inability to force their slave system on other states. Ken Burn's Civil War didn't really cover this in any detail, but it did get me (a southern boy) to thinking about the Civil War outside of my own cultural milieu.
Watching Civil War Depictions
Watching Civil War films is a good introduction to the War among the States, as long as you don't take them to be complete truth. Movie producers' first duty isn't to educate, but to entertain and make a profit for their studio. Truth is often times trumped by fiction, because the storytellers want to make their story entertaining for the wider audience. Hopefully, by reading through this give to Civil War movies and the truth or fiction in the them, you'll have a better understanding about which you can take for literal fact, and which you should sit back, eat some popcorn, and simply enjoy.
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