You call a bunch of weirdos in colorful costumes punching each other a civil war? Plenty of good movies have been made about the real Civil War (the American one, if that needs saying). Here are a few of our favorites.
Back in the day when TV viewers only had three networks plus PBS to choose from, the miniseries was an extremely popular format. They weren’t too dissimilar from the “limited event series” we’re provided with today, with the exception that episodes would run every night of the week (rather than once weekly) until the story was complete. One such “novel for television” (as ABC pitched it) was 1985’s ‘North and South‘, based on a pair of books by author John Jakes.
‘North and South’ actually came to TV in three parts. The first two (which covered the events of the Civil War) aired in 1985 and 1986. The final, more dismissible part (which covered the aftermath of the war) came in 1994. The series focuses on two families – the Hazard family of the North and the Main family of the South – and how the war both brings friendships together and tears them apart. But the real drive of the series is on two individuals: George Hazard (James Read) and Orry Main (Patrick Swayze), who become friends during their military training at West Point, then find themselves fighting on different sides when the war breaks out.
While much of ‘North and South’ takes on the sudsy, soap-operatic style with over-dramatic line readings that was typical of much of TV in the 1980s, the miniseries is worth watching if only to see the performance by Patrick Swayze, which got the actor in front of millions of American eyes and solidified him as a major star. (In fact, when it came time to do the third miniseries in 1994, Swayze declined and his character was only mentioned in passing rather than recast.)
Sadly, ‘North and South’ has never seen a Blu-ray release, but a nice boxed set featuring all three volumes and a handful of bonus materials is available on DVD.
M. Enois Duarte
As a Western fan, I’m torn between ‘Dances With Wolves‘ and ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly‘ as my pick for the best movie set around the Civil War. The Kevin Costner epic sheds light on a people who also suffered and experienced the consequences of war, but are often forgotten or simply never talked about. Native Americans didn’t directly participate in the North-South conflict, but it’s ironic that foreigners fought over land that was never theirs to begin with and the Natives had to suffer afterwards when Western expansion suddenly ballooned. In my eyes, the film celebrates the Native American culture and idyllic values during the period just before it was annihilated.
Sergio Leone’s seminal classic, on the other hand, situates what is essentially a treasure hunt during the height of the Civil War. Three men don a variety of identities and costumes while trying to avoid direct participation in the conflict, but in doing so, their pursuit of $200,000 gives moviegoers a sweeping, epic overview of the war itself. In a way, the chase for Confederate gold is paralleled with the reasons behind the war, but of most interest is that the story is a look at the conflict from an outsider’s perspective.
Growing up in the Mojave Desert, the locale didn’t offer any ability to see limited release films at one of the two nearby chains (AMC and Cinemark). If we wanted to catch one, it required a 45-minute drive to San Bernardino. My family wasn’t one to typically make that haul, but when I was 13, we did.
My mom grew up in a small South Pennsylvania town approximately 20 miles from Gettysburg. Because of that, the rich Civil War history was always intriguing to her. When the 1993 four-hour-plus film ‘Gettysburg‘ was released to select theaters, we made the drive.
A film nerd even then, I enjoyed it – but the history and context that I got out of the film was even greater. When we traveled to Gettysburg the following year, everything I got out of the film made the visit all that more insightful and meaningful. Because of that, ‘Gettysburg’ has always held a special place in my heart.
I am a little bit surprised to find that it’s been 23 years since ‘Gettysburg‘ was released, and that there hasn’t been a more impressive Civil War battle film in the intervening years. Then again, the aging ‘Gettysburg’ has many of the same qualities as ‘Titanic’ but lacks the spectacular production quality. It’s a period piece steeped in romantic tragedy. The drama is stilted, but the fascination comes from the character vignettes. I recently watched ‘Zulu’, and it has that same disaster-in-motion futility to it. Perhaps it’s time for someone like Ridley Scott to go big budget on the Civil War.
Assuming that it would be everybody’s first choice, I made the mistake of instructing the staff to think of options beyond just ‘Glory‘. As a result, nobody picked that one, so it’s left to me to give it some attention. The film is certainly the best that Edward Zwick has ever directed (perhaps the only good one he has). I might argue that the movie’s a tad melodramatic and has an unintended theme in suggesting that the black soldiers needed a white hero to stand up for them and lead them. Nevertheless, it is overall a fine and worthy film that tells an important story often glossed over in the history books.
Much more problematic is D.W. Griffith’s silent epic ‘The Birth of a Nation‘. Let’s be clear – the film is straight-up, unambiguously racist. Griffith himself apologized for it later in his career. It’s very uncomfortable for a modern viewer (well, most modern viewers) to watch a story glorifying the KKK and demonizing black people, portrayed by white actors in blackface. In many ways, the film would be best lost to history. However, it’s impossible to dismiss entirely. Its technical and cinematic storytelling achievements revolutionized the way movies were made. Griffith invented film grammar that would form the basis of cinema language for the next 100+ years. For better or worse, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is an important, historically significant film that will continued to be studied, analyzed, and debated for the next 100+ years.
What are your favorite movies about the American Civil War? Tell us in the Comments.