The Blue and The Grey: The American Civil War on film

Birth of a Nation - American Civil WarSo many films have been made about this long and tragic civil war that I would not attempt to examine them all in one post. However, it is interesting to see how film-makers have dealt with the subject over the more than one hundred year history of cinema.

As long ago as 1915, D.W. Griffith made the epic silent film, The Birth Of A Nation. This explored a theme that would become popular, presenting the story of families on opposing sides. One family is abolitionist, from the north, the other is comprised of well-to-do southerners. This was a very long film for its day, and made on a huge scale, with large battle scenes and a stellar cast including Lillian Gish. Even then, the portrayal of African Americans (often by white actors wearing make-up), and the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, caused widespread outrage. (The original title was The Clansman) In more modern times, the film has often been vilified, and is perhaps best seen in the context of the history of cinema.

Some years later, in 1926, Buster Keaton managed to inject his own brand of comedy and pathos into the war with the release of The General. This story of a love-struck Confederate railway engineer was made with a huge budget for the time, and after a slow start became immensely popular with audiences. It has gone on to be widely acclaimed by critics and is now considered to be one of the top twenty American films of all time.

In 1939 there was a brutal war going on in Europe, and the issues and causes of the civil war took a back seat when the massive blockbuster, Gone With The Wind was released. Although set in the Confederacy, the film is really little more than a soap opera about love affairs, lost fortunes, and betrayal. Nonetheless, many consider it to be one of the finest films ever made, and think of it as the ‘definitive’ film about that war. Others, including myself, disagree.

Post-war, the faithful 1951 adaptation of the novel The Red Badge Of Courage, starring WW2 hero Audie Murphy, offered a more realistic view of what it might have been like to be a young soldier fighting in the civil war. But it is an examination of cowardice and redemption, and although set in the Union Army, it is not really about that war. It could just as easily be set during any conflict.

Glory - American Civil WarFilms dealing with that war continued to appear occasionally, including The Horse Soldiers (1959), the civil war segment in How The West Was Won (1962), Shenandoah (1965), and Clint Eastwood’s rather good, The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976. But we had to wait much longer for the industry to take this conflict seriously and begin to present the issues, alongside authentic battle scenes, and realistic portrayals of life at the time.

By 1989, we finally got to see a film that looked in depth at the issue of slavery, and the true story behind the  formation of one of the first all-black regiments to fight in the Union Army. We saw events from the point of view of freed slaves and free men from the north, facing prejudice from their own side, as well as from the enemy; led by white officers who themselves faced being ostracised for their involvement. With a cast of famous African American actors, a large budget, and some memorable cinematography, Glory took the civil war film into the modern age, and justly won three Oscars as it did so.

In 1993, the film Gettysburg (and the later prequel Gods and Generals) invested both time and money in faithful accounts of specific battles. Running to almost four and a half hours, the film featured a who’s-who of famous actors as well as thousands of re-enactors as extras. This was such a large undertaking that it was shown in two parts in cinemas. For a mainstream audience, it was too detailed, too long, and too much of a good thing.

Looking for more characterisation to hang their Civil War films on, we soon found some unusual entries into the genre. Ang Lee’s superb 1999 film, Ride With The Devil chose the Missouri/Kansas border wars as its setting, featuring the bitter neighbour against neighbour struggle that made the fighting in that theatre of the war so cruel and revengeful. The set-piece battle scene of Quantrill’s raid on Lawence, Kansas was expertly handled, but it was in the everyday details of life at the time where the film excelled. Trying to get through harsh winters, never knowing who to trust, and sticking with your side whatever the cost – these aspects are all intimately explored.

Four years later, director Anthony Minghella brought his screenplay of the novel Cold Mountain to the big screen, and the war to a new audience. Anyone who had read the book (myself included) would find a faithful adaptation with a near-perfect cast. Stand-out performances from Renee Zellwegger and Philip Seymour Hoffman were the icing on a very authentic cake, and the film wallowed in critical and popular approval. The awards that followed are too numerous to list.

Birth of a Nation - American Civil WarMore interest in the war followed the release of the epic Lincoln in 2012. Although Spielberg’s film was a biopic of the Union president during a particular period of his life and did not feature battles, high praise for reminding the world of the legacy of the war followed, along with a best actor Oscar for Daniel Day-Lewis.

With some minor omissions, that brings us right up to date. Film-makers are still finding worthy subjects from this war to bring to the viewing public. Written, produced, starring and directed by Nate Parker, Birth of a Nation shares its title with the 1915 film but tells a different story. This one is based on the real events of a slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, in 1831. Not strictly a civil war film, as the events portrayed preceded that war by thirty years, it cannot be denied that it provides valuable background to the war that came later.

This year also saw the release of Free State of Jones, starring Matthew McConaughey. Again based on an actual event, it tells the story of Jones County, in Mississippi, during and just after the civil war. A group of Confederate deserters ally themselves with some runaway slaves. Settling in the swamps of Jones County, they resist the government of Mississippi, which is part of the Confederacy. Although not officially supported or supplied by the Union Army, they manage to hold out until the end of the war in 1865.

For 101 years, this war has fascinated film-makers and audiences alike. There is no reason to suspect that they will ever stop making films about it, or that people like me will stop wanting to see them.

I retired, almost two years ago, then aged 60, and moved from a busy life and work in Central London, to Beetley, in rural Norfolk. After 22 years as an Emergency Medical Technician in the London Ambulance Service, followed by 11 years working for the Metropolitan Police in Control Rooms, it is going to take some adjustment to being retired, and not working shifts. My interests include photography, local and global history, and cinema and film. I have yet to find a home for my extensive DVD collection but look forward to revisiting many favourites, and discovering new ones.

24 thoughts on “The Blue and The Grey: The American Civil War on film

  1. Pete, there were a few I’ve not seen yet, but most I have as you know I share the same interest as you here. I must check out Free State of Jones, I can’t believe that one got pass me.. Take care, Great write up on the war films…

  2. Great list of films, Pete. When anybody mentions Clint Eastwood and the Civil War I always think of ‘The Beguiled’, that of course has no battles in it but is a very special film and I find it fascinating. I’ve missed a few of the newest ones but I’m putting them on my list.

    • Thanks, Olga. ‘The Beguiled’ is certainly set during that war, but it is a compelling thriller about sex and power. Still worth a watch though!
      Thanks again for reading this, much appreciated.
      Best wishes, Pete.

    • Thanks, Steve. I could have included many more films about that war, but TGTB&TU would not have been one of them. I pushed my luck a little, with Josey Wales!
      Best wishes, Pete

  3. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is my fave Civil War film. Completely absurd take on the conflict, of course, but I absolutely love it.

    I don’t know of too many really top rank Civil War films. Most of them are worthy efforts which fail to deliver.

    PS: Gettysburg is bona fide big cinema, but the speeches. You’ve got to love speeches to love Gettysburg.

    • Thanks for the comment, Tony.
      ‘Gettysburg’ may be one for the true fans of the genre only, I agree. It has to be remembered that it was a turning point in American history, and was treated with due reverence. It was always going to be ‘worthy’ because of that.

      However, there is much to applaud in films like ‘Glory’, ‘Cold Mountain’, and ‘Ride With The Devil’. If you haven’t seen them, I can really recommend those three.
      Best wishes, Pete.

  4. Pingback: Film and Cinema: Another new article | beetleypete

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