What with all the chatter about a coming second Civil War and all those statues coming down, I thought it might be useful to provide a list of good movies about the first Civil War. There haven’t been all that many, considering the significance of the occasion (I settled on ten, though even ten is way more good ones than we have about the Revolution, which some people regard as being an event in its own right).
As often happens, the losers had the stories. Four of these are from a Southern perspective. Three are either balanced or apolitical. The other three are about Lincoln.
My experience with Birth of a Nation is too long ago, and left too limited an impression (VHS on a 25″ television was perhaps not the best way to experience it) for me to have much of an opinion about it. From what I do remember it wouldn’t have made the cut anyway.
The General (1926)
D. Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
And we begin here, with the Silent Era’s real Civil War masterpiece. It’s such a great and lauded comedy (it competes with Some Like it Hot for the highest ranking comedy on all those Best Of lists compiled by the crit-illuminati, and that it’s even a competition would be proof God doesn’t exist if it weren’t greater proof that the Devil does), that it’s easy to forget it’s also an action masterpiece, a Great Romance, a better train movie than Hitchcock ever made, and, as such things go, pretty sound history (the event depicted was real and, underneath all the zaniness, the story doesn’t stray much from the facts). You can have extra fun running around the internet looking up all the breathless reviews and trying to catch anyone emphasizing that the movie is as pro-Confederate as Gone With the Wind, or, if memory serves, Birth of a Nation. Buster makes us laugh. He’s protected. For now.
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
D. John Ford
The variety of approaches John Ford took to the Civil War–without ever quite making a straightforward Civil War Movie (even The Horse Soldiers, comes in at an odd angle)–would make for an interesting book. Ford was one of two major American film-makers whose movies had politics (see below for the other) and those politics were cranky, unpredictable, leaning toward the pragmatic but with a touch of poetry thrown in at key moments to tip the moral balance.
He was made for Abraham Lincoln, then, and Lincoln for him. Ford famously “shamed” a reluctant Henry Fonda into playing the lead. Fonda was overwhelmed by the idea. Forget the Great Emancipator, Ford said. He’s a jack-leg lawyer from Springfield.
And that’s what Fonda does. He forgets himself right into the jack-leg lawyer’s skin.
But Ford never lets you forget this jack-leg lawyer’s eye for the main chance. Every move he makes–whether defending innocents from a lynch-mob, judging a pie contest, or, in the movie’s most telling scene, moving, with seeming reluctance, from the easy company of the backwoods farmers who know he’s a card, to the lap of Springfield Society, where only a certain Mary Todd laughs at his jokes–is rooted in ambition. Any idealism would be–must be–forever tempered. The visage of the stone monument that emerged from the rain in the film’s final frames as World War II loomed counts the cost.
Gone With The Wind (1939)
D. Victor Fleming (among others)
The Great White Whale.
Or is it Elephant? I get confused.
Anyway, it’s not the History that bothers the termite-lauding gate-keepers. As a matter of abiding by facts (which is what the illuminati always mean by History, except when the facts are inconvenient), Gone With the Wind is better than almost any of the historical fictions that never seem to bother anybody.
It’s the perspective that grates.
You know….But it’s racist!
No kidding. It’s told from the point of view of a daughter of the Plantation South–a class not generally known for their enlightened views on the subject–and engaged entirely with what she sees, feels, deems important. And if you think she and hers have got a sense of privilege when it comes to black people, you should take a look at how they–and Mammy–feel about “white trash” hillbillies some time.
It’s dangerous to forget what people have believed or why they believed it. I’m sure I read somewhere or other that it’s the forgetting that will let them learn to believe again.
Unless, of course, we really have transcended mere human nature.
Watch it now, while it’s still legal.
The Tall Target (1951)
D. Anthony Mann
Mann watched John Ford’s movies even more obsessively than Orson Welles or David Lean. He studied them so hard, his movies ended up having politics, too, never more than here.
The story involves Dick Powell’s detective, John Kennedy–who has isolated himself by resigning his post–trying to stop the Baltimore Plot assassination attempt on Lincoln as he journeys to Washington D.C. by train for his inauguration. It’s a fine thriller, a great train movie and an excellent historical drama, not to mention one of the great unsung films noir.
But it’s also sharp about the complexities involved in secession and slavery as seen by the people of 1861. There are fine performances all around–Powell was really good at this sort of thing and the unflappable Adolphe Menjou has one of his very best roles.
But don’t sleep on Ruby Dee’s “servant,” as loyal as Mammy or Pork, and under no illusions about where her real interests lie. The subject of freedom does come up, after all. And her I know what it is (in response to her mistress suggesting she couldn’t possibly) says more than any hundred books about why the seductive appeal that slavery held for the slavers could only be eradicated by the massive bloodshed that, by 1861, was inevitable whether the Baltimore Plot succeeded or not.
Worth remembering–and revisiting–as the Alt-Right seizes the Post-Millennial Narrative.
The Red Badge of Courage (1951)
D. John Huston
I wrote extensively about this one here. I would only add that its mutilation is not entirely without relevance to the question of why Empires fall. And that what is left is still essential viewing for anyone who hopes to learn from the mistakes we were beginning to make even as this still essential film was being chopped to pieces by its studio.
Escape From Fort Bravo (1953)
D. John Sturges
“How’d a decrepit old man like you ever get in the war?”
“Because all the smart young men like you was losing it.”
A rare western actually set in both the West and the Civil War. Its most stirring scenes involve Indian fighting. But it’s a first rate Civil War film, too, presaging the kind of cooperation between bitter enemies that was required to hold the West during the conflict, and conquer what remained of it afterwards.
Anyone who thinks that was easy or inevitable will be disabused of the notion by this one. The final clash with the Mescalero Apaches is among the most heart-stopping action sequences in cinema, nonpareil even for the man who made The Great Escape.
Meanwhile, William Holden and Eleanor Parker are at their considerable best–he never more bitter or world-weary (not even in The Wild Bunch, the movie Sam Peckinpah made after Major Dundee, which shares its main themes with Bravo, turned out less than half as good), she never more noble or fetching.
But the heart of the film belongs to William Demarest’s aging Confederate. He’s there for a reason.
You know because all the smart young men like you was losing it.
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
D. Clint Eastwood
Of the Eastwood-directed films I’ve seen (eleven by my count, most of them entertaining), this is the only one with a touch of poetry. One wonders if the early involvement of Phil Kaufman–who’s known for such touches–had something to do with that. But, as it’s brutal poetry, it might have been Forrest Carter’s source material. Carter wrote two novels about the Josey Wales character, a renegade who, motivated by vengeance after his family is murdered by Kansas Redlegs, rides with Bill Anderson in the Civil War and refuses to surrender afterwards. Before that, as Asa Carter, he had been a speechwriter for George Wallace, credited with, among other things, Wallace’s “segregation forever” speech. Brutal poetry was his specialty.
Any chance Josey Wales would be rated as highly as it deserves (Orson Welles thought it a masterwork and, with Eastwood shedding most of the Sergio Leone influence and accessing his inner John Ford, I’m in no position to argue), was shot to hell once that got around. Perhaps Kaufman’s status as a sterling liberal would have helped ease the illuminati‘s collective conscience. There was no way for that to happen with Eastwood’s name under the directing credit.
Be that as it may, it’s an essential film. certainly the best made about a border raider. Unlike the Jesse James’ narratives it shadows, it doesn’t need a distortion of history to make the fictional Wales a protagonist who, if not exactly easy to root for, is still worth feeling for. The character suits Eastwood’s laconic style to a T (it might be his best acting job), and there’s good work all around, especially from Chief Dan George, who, in a just world, would have picked up the Oscar he already deserved for Little Big Man.
With time and patience I’ve even forgiven Sondra Locke for not being Shirley MacLaine (Eastwood’s partner in Two Mules for Sister Sara, who would have been perfect for this if she’d been ten years younger).
And, lo and behold, gleaming through at the end, is that old shibboleth, The American Dream.
The one where all men are brothers, forgiven their sins and living in harmony–a strange vision indeed, emanating from the Segregation Forever man and, perhaps for the last time, granted the power of myth.
Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1988)
D. Lamont Johnson
Television and, to my mind, a superior take to Steven Spielberg’s (still quite good) made-for-theaters Lincoln.
Gore Vidal’s source novel had enough authority to excise the inevitable sentimentality that’s built into Lincoln’s basic arc (so primal that little myth-making gild has ever been required) from any adaptation. And Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore, the best Abe and Mary since Young Mister Lincoln, look, act, move and speak as though they’ve absorbed everything John Ford implied forty years earlier–or that the real Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd left behind of themselves just shy of four score years before that. There is no better way–on film, television, stage or page–to experience the weight of Lincoln’s burden or the lasting tragedy of his being taken from the scene so soon after the guns grew silent.
D. Ron Maxwell
The best battle film ever made. There are sequences in other films that match the combat scenes here, but no entire film that mounts with the same tension from peak to peak.
The battle itself was made for a three act drama, though no one seems to have realized it until Michael Shaara published The Killer Angels in 1974. It’s all captured here. Sam Elliot’s John Buford turning a skirmish into a battle on the First Day that established the respective positions of the armies (and the Union’s tactical advantage). Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain desperately clinging to Little Round Top and preventing the turn of the Union flank (in scenes of brutal close order fighting that have not been surpassed) on the Second Day. Stephen Lang’s George Pickett leading the fatal charge against the Union center on the Third Day.
Maxwell spent years trying to bring it all to the screen and the commitment shows. The weight of the matter is left in no doubt. The men on either side understood the battle’s–and the war’s–significance, to them and the nation. An impressive array of fine actors do their best work bringing them to life–not just Elliot, Daniels and Lang, but Tom Berenger (James Longstreet), Richard Jordan (Lewis Armisted), Brian Mallon (Winfield Hancock), C. Thomas Howell (Tom Chamberlain) and Kevin Conway (as a fictional Union Everyman) are all indelible. Even the small parts are exquisitely cast and played–for me the strongest impression is made by Andrew Prine’s Dick Garnett, on screen for perhaps five minutes, and doing more than any man here to demonstrate the fatalistic sickness that descends on men who have seen too much slaughter.
And beyond all that is the movie’s most disorienting feature–Martin Sheen taking Robert E. Lee down from his pedestal and putting a human being in his place with a penetrating psychological portrait that does not shirk the idea that Lee was undone by the cult of personality his virtually unbroken string of successes before the Third Day at Gettysburg was bound to engender.
Ride With the Devil (1999)
D. Ang Lee
A box office disaster with the kind of mixed reviews that always result when a movie doesn’t come with the underlining in crayon that tells critics what they are supposed to think.
Don’t let that put you off. It’s a great sequel to The Outlaw Josey Wales, but it’s also it’s own thing–something that cannot be said of many films made post 1980, in the Frozen Silence of modern American “culture.”
Tobey Maguire reminds you of why he was such a big deal for a while there and Jewel caps a lovely performance by being the only white person in the history of film to keep the word “nigger” free of modern associations.
It’s the absence of all modern associations, especially those tied to moral or physical comfort, that make the film difficult to fit into any approved Narrative.
We’re back to the border wars again–the one part of the country where the War raged on for years after Appomattox, not as a test of political will, but as a killing field fought over by “irregulars.”
A German immigrant and a black man ride with the Southerners (this made many heads spin on C-Span), who are losing their identity anyway. The Southerners fight each other verbally as much as they fight the Enemy physically.
No one is ever right. Or safe.
You can see how the thirty-eight million dollar budget turned into six hundred thousand at the box office.
But the lessons for the future are there, if you choose to look and learn.
The main difference is that, next time, it will be down your street, and the bickering will be between men with Uzis and AKs, instead of six-shooters.
Else rocket launchers.
Watch ’em while you can ya’ll!