Civil War Cinema

From Birth of a Nation through Gone With the Wind to Glory and Lincoln, film has played a powerful role in shaping how Americans understand the American Civil War (and, in several instances, Reconstruction). Of course, every time a film appears, the critics are sure to follow, with scholars asked to pick apart a film in terms of historical accuracy, followed by complaints that those scholars are jealous, etc.

Some of these issues appear in this discussion sparked by a new film, Field of Lost Shoes. I freely admit that I’ve not seen the movie: indeed, in many cases I avoid seeing certain movies when they are released, because I find the ensuing discussion as predictable as it is discouraging.

“Did you see The Moon Also Rises?”

“Wasn’t that wonderful history?”

“What did you think about it … as a historian, I mean?”

“Well, I still liked it.”

Later … “He’s so picky. Maybe he’s jealous. So what if it wasn’t accurate? I liked it.”

So I won’t say anything about Tom Skerritt’s portrayal of Ulysses S. Grant, even if someone got the buttons on his uniform jacket wrong.

Perhaps this is what happens when you look for a maverick, only to find Franz Sigel.

At least Sigel’s buttons are correct.

Do you have a favorite Civil War movie? Or a least favorite Civil War movie? Details, please …

29 thoughts on “Civil War Cinema

  1. Bob Nelson October 16, 2014 / 2:29 pm

    Looking forward to “Field of Lost Shoes” if for no other reasons than that I have visited the New Market Battlefield a number of times and my good friend, Pete Taylor, has a cabin in New Market Gap that we use as HQ for our CW jaunts together. Favorite movie? “Glory.” Why? I thought the acting and writing were terrific and I felt as though I was slogging up the beach with those guys even though they are going (in the movie) in the wrong direction and at the wrong time of the day. And Morgan Freeman is one of my favorite actors.

  2. Pat Young October 16, 2014 / 2:57 pm

    Lincoln is my favorite.

  3. Sandi Saunders October 16, 2014 / 3:06 pm

    I want to see “Field of Lost Shoes” but since I will cry, I will have to wait till I can see it at home. I loved Gone with the Wind but I have never considered it a “civil war movie”. “Red Badge of Courage” would be my favorite civil war movie.

    • Charles Lovejoy October 19, 2014 / 1:00 pm

      I grew up in the area Gone with the Wind was about. Was always emphasize by my teachers and parents it was romantic fiction. I remember going to see it for the first time when I was in the 6th grade. Was very disappointing, I was wanting to see cannons firing, guns blaring, cavalry charges, not romance🙂

  4. John Foskett October 16, 2014 / 3:07 pm

    One entry for me – Cold Mountain. Why? In part because the director and producer cared enough to hire the Romanian Army to portray the troops at Petersburg in 1864 rather than a crowd of 50-something guys with beer guts dressed up in their Sunday best “authentic” costumes. In addition, the lines given the actors were half-believable. Full disclosure – I haven’t seen this one but the trailer and McNamara’s past directing credits don’t bode well. My second place goes to Pharoah’s Army. Nothing else is that close, although I find Glory to be acceptable despite being significantly overrated. I won’t mention the junk based on Shaara’s books, with their wooden dialogue, B-western production values, and stereotypes (e.g., the insipid dialogue bin Gettysburg with captured Rebs about why they were fighting and the equally insipid scene in G&G with the Yank and the Reb meeting at the river to trade). I wish Spielberg would get hired to turn something which involves Civil War combat so that it could be done along the lines of Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and Pacific, both for production values and for dialogue. I thought those skills were wasted on the Lincoln project.

    • Jimmy Dick October 16, 2014 / 10:10 pm

      I too would like to see a movie or HBO miniseries like the Pacific or Band of Brothers for the Civil War. Get away from the big battles and commanders and focus on the men who fought. First find a regiment that fought in most of the war in one theatre or another or better yet, one from the West and one from the East. If he wanted to do one series he could run another story line with the opposing side, but in different battles. Or do like Pacific. Select a few men who fought and left a record and focus on whatever they did. Just follow them win, lose, or die.

      The regiment idea could be a BoB type approach, but the individuals could be the other approach. Either one would work.

      • John Foskett October 17, 2014 / 8:10 am

        Agree. I don’t know why we demand reality in these WWII productions but settle for low-rent, “fake” images in ACW productions. So we get a bunch of over-age, out of shape re-enactors who have “authentic” apparel and B-Western stunts, cemented together with contrived dialogue suitable for a wax museum mannikin. And a small, but relevant point which was again brought home by the trailer for this one (admittedly, I’m a guy with an inordinate fascination with ACW artillery) – can’t anybody come up with the technology to produce an authentic-looking recoil?

        • SF Walker October 18, 2014 / 5:14 am

          Even if you used the same size powder charge as on a real Civil War artillery round, you probably still wouldn’t get the recoil without a projectile in front of the powder. I’m interested in ACW artillery, too, particularly the heavy coastal guns.

          I also would love to see a “Band of Brothers” style Civil War movie. Given how popular Gettysburg and Cold Mountain were, I’d say the audience is definitely there.

          • John Foskett October 20, 2014 / 1:05 pm

            We should combine our talents, since my preference is definitely the field artillery. Maybe we can meet in the middle on siege guns.🙂 I agree on the charge sans ordnance. I refuse to believe, however, that there aren’t other mechanical ways of getting those suckers to buck back 3 feet or so. There’s a reason battery operations under fire were challenging, what with “incoming” as the crew has to manhandle the piece back into position and sight it after every shot. In these movies they just step right back up to the piece, load and fire. I find that especially silly in films like those Maxwell/Turner gobblers, with all the effort spent on uniforms and small arms and Hardee’s Tactics maneuvering. At least, however, most of them use lanyards rather than the aberrant slow match which Ford ignorantly used in The Horse Soldiers. I think you’re right about the audience, although I think it has to tend more towards the story (Cold Mountain/Private Ryan) than the historical experiences (BofB/Pacific). Just give me some reality so i don’t think I’m watching a B-western from the 1940’s or ’50’s shot on a back lot at Universal or some such..

  5. jfepperson October 16, 2014 / 3:20 pm

    Glory or The Horse Soldiers are my favorites.

  6. Mike Sheriff October 16, 2014 / 4:42 pm

    Gods and Generals

  7. Gary Amundson October 16, 2014 / 5:02 pm

    I liked “The Conspirator”.It was criticized for being too “stagy” but it provided some thoughtful moments.

    Least Favorite: “The Lincoln Conspiracy”. It came out sometime in the 70’s. Half-baked conspiracy theories along with puerile dialogue, ham-handed acting, and uninspired directing. A good lesson in everything not to do when making a movie.

    Movie I’d like to watch: “The Raid”. I understand it’s loosely based on the St. Albans Raid. I’d like to see how the movie treats this interesting episode.

    • Andy Hall October 17, 2014 / 9:47 am

      The production company behind “The Lincoln Conspiracy,” Sunn Classic Pictures, specialized in low-budget, quasi-documentary films of that sort. In that same period they also distributed “Beyond Death’s Door,” “In Search of Noah’s Ark,” and “The Bermuda Triangle,” the latter based on a Charles Berlitz book. (I got to be an extra on that last one, too, which consists of the entire scope of my film career.) A few years later those would all be classed as straight-to-video productions, but in the late 1970s there was still a theatrical market for them.

  8. Susan Sweet October 16, 2014 / 5:36 pm

    My favorite Civil War movie as a child was the Great Locomotive Chase. It got me interested in the Andrew’s Raiders.

    As an Adult I have two I like even with the issues pointed out above . Glory, and Lincoln with Daniel Day
    Lewis. I have never been a fan of Gettysberg or Gods and Generals. I cannot get through the last one without falling asleep.

    I being to. Book discussion group
    At the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum in Wilmington. Ca. Once a year we bring movies with any connection with the Civil
    War. We have seen clips from the sublime to the ridiculous . Three Stooges Buster Keaton , Birth of a Nation etc.

  9. hankc9174 October 16, 2014 / 6:43 pm

    Shenandoah. Despite its many inaccuracies, it portrays helplessness and loss…

    • John Foskett October 17, 2014 / 12:46 pm

      I agree on that one. As you point out, it’s hardly a “documentary” but it does a good job of accurately conveying the strains imposed by a civil war on families caught in the middle.

  10. Will Hickox October 16, 2014 / 8:02 pm

    My two favorites:

    “Glory.” I first saw it at age seven and was so moved/confused that I cried. It started me on the path to becoming a Civil War historian.

    “Sherman’s March.” Must be seen to be believed. The director set out to make a documentary about said march. But then his girlfriend dumped him, and the lovelorn director turned it into a film about trying to pick up southern girls, with an occasional mention of Sherman or the march.

    • Andrew Raker October 17, 2014 / 9:48 am

      I had to watch Sherman’s March for a writing class in college. It was my last semester, and we had to come in on a Saturday morning to watch it, and I’m also pretty sure I was hung over, but I was hooked right away. I’ve wanted to see it again since then, but haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy.

  11. Buck Buchanan October 17, 2014 / 8:04 am

    As a child, I LOVED Johnny Shiloh….still do.

    I am partial to The Horse Soldiers….I mean, William Holden & The Duke.

    My overall favorite is Glory…pretty accurate and when they were filming the movie, several NCOs from my Infantry Bttalion at FT Stewart, GA, served as advisors/trainers teaching the cast memebers to march. Several made it in as extras.

    Honorable mention…Gettysburg. If you do not the sigfht of the line of COnfederate guns firing at the opening of Longstreet’s Charge….well, you have no blood in your veins!

  12. Bert October 17, 2014 / 3:59 pm

    I’m willing to forgive some degree of historical inaccuracy if they capture the spirit of what it was like to be there and stimulate folks to learn more. Gettysburg (the film) made me want to find out more about Chamberlain, the savior of the Army of the Potomac. Ok, so I learned that wasn’t quite right. But I wasn’t disappointed. To the contrary, learning about so many other stories of courage and Americans at their best in horrific situations was extremely satisfying. It made me want to remember even more all those soldiers who gave that last full measure.

    So yes, Gettysburg remains my favorite, with Glory as a close second, despite casting Ferris Bueller as Shaw. 😉 Gods and Generals was a disappointment and once a candidate for worst by being a Jackson hagiography, but has upon subsequent viewing partially redeemed itself. In a rare moment of disagreement with my old friend Jim E., I can’t quite forgive Horse Soldiers for reducing Grierson’s raid to a romance novel type movie. But I’d concede that it had its moments too.

    There were lesser known ACW movies I stumbled over that turned out to be surprisingly good. Seraphim Falls as a good allegory, and the Class of 61 about John Pelham (among others) for examples.

  13. Terry Johnston October 17, 2014 / 7:37 pm

    How about Ang Lee’s “Ride with the Devil”? A really good film … with some great performances.

    • Will Hickox October 17, 2014 / 9:31 pm

      When it comes to “Ride With the Devil,” I can’t get past the fact that it includes a black man riding and killing Yankees with Quantrill–even if he is played by the terrific Jeffrey Wright.

      • Charles Lovejoy October 19, 2014 / 12:54 pm

        Not sure but I think Jeffery Wright’s character was loosely based on John Noland a black that was supposed to have rode with the Missouri bushwhackers. I have never did the research, just read a little about John Noland here and there.

  14. Lee Elder October 17, 2014 / 10:11 pm

    If Lincoln can be called a Civil War movie, which I believe it can, then ranks with my favorites. As a John Wayne fan, The Horse Soldiers gets my automatic consideration as well.

    My favorite Civil War film is The Outlaw Josey Wales with Clint Eastwood. For me, that film captures the rage the soldiers on both sides felt during and after the conflict. I don’t see this film as a shining example of historic accuracy in movie making, but it does point out the impact the war had on the soldiers who fought it. It also makes a point about the restless violence of the irregular units involved in the Kansas/Missouri border war. The book is even better than the movie, but the question here is about the film.

    Lee Elder

  15. Jud Crihfield October 18, 2014 / 7:21 pm

    The Outlaw Josey Wales. Post Civil War mostly, but fantastic depiction of the impact and human toll of the war.

    • Lee Elder October 19, 2014 / 6:18 am

      Agreed!

  16. Charles Lovejoy October 19, 2014 / 12:46 pm

    “Ride with the Devil” I think it did a good job depicting the brutality of war. I liked “Gods and Generals” because of Robert Duvall and Stephen Lang . I generally like most of Robert Duvall’s movies. I also liked “Cold Mountain”, I liked the human struggle it dealt with.

  17. Joshism October 28, 2014 / 9:33 am

    I don’t know if “Field of Lost Shoes” is a good movie or good history, but it’s a darn good dramatic subject for a movie, in theory.

    I would make the movie a particular way: all about the VMI cadets. The war breaks out, some of them leave to fight, they keep getting called up to guard baggage trains and such, always wondering if they themselves will ever see fighting. Finally New Market happens and all the drama builds to Breckenridge’s famous “Put the boys in, and may God forgive me for the order.” Grant would never be seen, probably not Sigel either. The whole movie would be about what the cadets experienced and the decision to send teenagers into a battle.

  18. Chris Evans October 28, 2014 / 2:48 pm

    My favorites include: ‘Glory’, ‘Gettysburg’, ‘Ride with the Devil’, ‘The Hunley’, ‘Andersonville’ (really underrated), ‘The Day Lincoln Was Shot’ (again underrated).

    I like ‘Gods and Generals’ even with its myriad flaws though the complete version is a better film than the theatrical (and makes more sense).

    ‘Lincoln’ is definitely one of the best of recent years. Stellar performances all around in that one.

    Chris

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