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.
Honorable mentions to David O. Selzick’s glorious epic soap opera ‘Gone with the Wind‘, Buster Keaton’s brilliant silent comedy ‘The General‘, and Ang Lee’s underrated ‘Ride with the Devil‘.
What are your favorite movies about the American Civil War? Tell us in the Comments.
Surprised nobody mentioned Cold Mountain, directed by the late, great Anthony Minghella. It’s just a great movie period.
The casting of Matthew Broderick in the lead role of Glory always kinda wrecked to movie for me a bit sadly. It’s a really good film, I just wish it was someone other than Ferris Bueller leading the charge. They should have cast Jason Patric in the role.
Well, obviously… “Mysterious Island (1961)”!
Buster Keaton’s “The General (1926)” is a Civil War comedy that will make your jaw drop.
“The Horse Soldiers (1959)” isn’t a great film, but it’s John Ford’s only Civil War picture. So there.
I thought “Lincoln (2012)” was pretty good.
I’d like to see John Huston’s “The Red Badge of Courage (1951)” again. The studio chopped it up and there is barely a film left.
John Ford also directed the Civil War segment in How the West Was Won, for what it’s worth…
The only one I really remember is Glory. I actually think it’s Broderick’s best role. We saw Gettysburg on a high school field trip and I remember liking it, but I don’t remember a thing about it. I consider The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly one of my favorite westerns, so I guess I can use that one as well. I wish I had something more fresh to add to the table. Fun fact about North and South. We had a middle school teacher who had a handle bar mustache who played a soldier extra for both the North and the South for that film. He was either a band teacher or a history teacher.
Buster Keaton’s The General. It’s a hilarious comedy, a sweet romance, and a riveting adventure. Keaton’s Johnnie Gray (might as well have named him Johnny Reb) is a Southern locomotive engineer who wants to impress his gal by enlisting in the army when war breaks out, but he’s doubly rejected: by the recruiters who view his railroad work as a more essential service, and by his girlfriend, who thinks him yellow for failing to sign up! But when a squad of Union saboteurs steal Johnnie’s locomotive (“The General”—the name of a locomotive stolen by Union soldiers in a real-life railway raid) and inadvertently kidnap Johnnie’s girl along the way, he gives chase…one man against the Union Army!
I’m no partisan of the Confederate cause, but Johnnie’s devotion and resourcefulness in the face of incredible odds always have me rooting for him. The action pieces are amazing, brilliantly choreographed. Indeed, the film boasts one of the greatest stunts in cinema, the collapse of a train-laden bridge that had to be shot in one take or else. One of the all-time great movies. See it a zillion times.
How’s about The Beguiled, Ravenous, Jeremiah Johnson, The Last Samurai, Gangs Of New York, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Andersonville, Jonah Hex.
Ravenous is set during the Mexican-American war, not the civil war. Still a really cool movie though…
“Ride With The Devil” is fantastic. It’s the clear winner of this category, imo.
I concur… I liked Ride with The Devil far more than Cold Mountain.
I like Ang Lee films, but I didn’t like Ride With The Devil at all. I don’t know if it was the cast or what, but it felt like a straight to video movie to me.
It could have to do with the fact that Toby Maguire is a shitty actor with zero range. I haven’y seen Ride With the Devil but have never understood why he’s famous.
Yeah maybe. Skeet and Jewel didn’t help.
Thanks Shannon for mentioning NORTH AND SOUTH. It was a massive miniseries with great production values and a who’s who of actors (even a pre-Star Trek Jonathan Frakes and his future wife Genie Francis).
It is a great adventure I watched many times. The first and second series are a muct – the third series is best left forgotten. I want to mention another staple for me, and a kind blood brother to NORTH AND SOUTH – THE BLUE AND THE GRAY miniseries. Again it has a who’s who of actors (including Stacy Keach, Gregory Peck, and Lloyd Bridges). It is too bad that neither of these has seen Blu ray release.
So you want ‘Blue and Gray’ on Blu and Ray? 🙂
That took me a minute. Nice one!
Thank you! I’ll be here ’til Thursday. Try the veal! 😉
I’m trying to score points for outside the box thinking so I’m going to throw out Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom. Sure, it wasn’t about “THE” Civil War, but it was about a future human civil war. And sure, it was technically a computer game not a movie but it had so much live action video that it was often referred to as a movie that occasionally let you play a computer game. And like other movies mention, it had high production values and a list of well known actors: Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowell, John Rhys-Davies, Jason Bernard, Tom Wilson, and many more. And it was by far vastly superior to the actual Wing Commander movie that was made.
It was a hell of a game that really wanted to be a movie. I can’t for the life of me figure out why it and Wing Cammander III haven’t been redone and brought into the 21st century.
After Civil War was over The Conspirator is a great film about Mary Surratt.trial for Lincoln murder.
There was also a great play called “The Andersonville Trial” starring William Shatner. It’s really interesting.
Others have said it, and I must agree, Gettysburg is probably the best of the best. The followup, Gods and Generals, was pretty darn good too.
Other than Gods and Generals, I can’t think of anything that hasn’t already been mentioned. Glory and Gone with The Wind are both fantastic movies (I really like Gone With The Wind because it actually shows how people’s lives were changed as a result and puts a more human face on it).
I have never seen North and South, its on my bucket list
“Glory” starring Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington is probably the Greatest Civil War movie. The story, the acting and the battle scenes were all excellently done.
And then there is the excellent movie “Gettysburg” (1993) with a truly excellent cast! This movie is a close second to “Glory”.
Other great Civil War films:
“The Horse Soldiers” and “The Undefeated” (Post-Civil War) starring John Wayne. I’m a huge Wayne fan!
“Ride With the Devil” was a great movie in how it portrays the Partisan battles between Kansas and Missouri including Quantrill and Black John and the other partisan leaders. The scene when they attacked Lawrence Kansas was epic! A truly forgotten aspect of the Civil War in the West.
I was not really a fan of “North and South”, but I did like “The Blue and The Gray” and the great TNT movies “Andersonville” and “Last Stand at Saber River”. Also with Tom Selleck, “The Shadow Riders” (Post-Civil War)
Gettysburg was produced as a miniseries for the TNT network, but also had a limited theatrical run. Like Luke, I was able to catch it in the theater – all four hours of it plus intermission. I didn’t have to drive 45 minutes to see it, but it was only playing in one out-of-the-way theater in Boston that was a long walk from the nearest subway stop, so it probably took me more than 45 minutes to get there anyway.
The theater was playing a 70mm blow-up print with 6-channel sound. I still remember the booming cannon fire during the battle scenes rattling my bones. I also remember how terrible all those embarrassingly fake beards looked on the big screen. 🙂
I remember we got out of school to see it. Our teacher was able to get a “group rate” for our entire HS class to go to the theater to see the movie and skip half of the school day.
I loved the movie, but most others just used the time to get out of school.
I don’t agree with giving Gone with the Wind only honourable mention because it delivers many memorable war-related scenes such as the burning of Atlanta. Two other civil war related films are and Friendly Persuasion directed by William Wyler and starring Gary Cooper and Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee with Charlton Heston and Richard Harris.
I really enjoyed Major Dundee, an excellent period piece set during the Civil War. Similar to John Wayne’s The Undefeated.
I’ve never seen Friendly Persuasion, but love Gary Cooper films.
Both Gettysburg and Glory are excellent films, I’m surprised nobody mentioned Spielberg’s Lincoln and while not a film Ken Burns’ Civil War should get a look see in the Documentary category.
I’m surprised no one mentioned “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”!
The movie was better than I expected.
It’s a shame, they never finished the Shaara Trilogy with “The Last Full Measure”. That would have been amazing to finally see Cold Harbor, Chancellorsville and Petersburg on screen!