L13FC: U.S. Civil War Films

cindylucky13banner-1Welcome guests, and my co-host Pete from England, who has a genre passion for the U.S. Civil War. “I claim to have seen almost all of them during my 64 years such as Buster Keaton’s The General(1926), Gone With The Wind (1939), The Red Badge of Courage (1951), and The Horse Soldiers, with John Wayne leading the Union to victory, in the 1959 epic.” Those are some popular ones, but Pete’s knowledge about this genre is impressive. Ask him anything.

Pete and I talked about how we should approach the subject. What makes a great war movie? Is it the accurate reenactments like Gettysburg (1993)? Is it the band of brothers who provide an insight into the situation like Glory (1989)?  Perhaps it’s the personal stories of those caught up in the crossfire? Maybe the most memorable Civil War stories include all of these elements.

 Pete says: 

Ang Lee might not be your first choice to direct a film about the American Civil War, but his wonderfully sensitive film Ride With the Devil (1999) emerged as one of my favourites of the genre. Instead of focusing on one major battle, or concentrating on the issues of racism, slavery, or state’s rights, it looked at a totally different part of the war, the bitter border conflict between Kansas and Missouri, neighbouring states on different sides of the conflict.

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Tobey Maguire grew up to give a surprisingly good performance, as the young Confederate who soon becomes disillusioned with the pointless killings, and just wants to get away to a quiet life. British actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers delivers a memorable turn as the villain of the piece, all smouldering gaze, and hate in his eyes. This group of Confederate raiders, known as Bushwhackers, fight against the neighbouring Union sympathisers in Kansas, nicknamed Jayhawkers. They hide out during harsh winters, and use the support of friendly local people to give them shelter, and bring them food. Yet they constantly argue amongst themselves, diverse characters wanting to lead the group down different paths. The action sequences are few and far between, but all the more convincing for that.

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When they decide to join the notorious Confederate officer William Quantrill, he leads them on his fateful raid into Kansas, to attack the Union town of Lawrence. Here Lee really gets to flex his directorial muscles, with panoramic shots of the epic battle in which 200 civilians and soldiers were massacred by the victorious Confederates, and intense scenes that follow in the aftermath.

This may not be the first Civil War film you think of, but it is undoubtedly one of the best.

 Cindy’s Thoughts:

I’m still jealous of author Charles Frazier whose debut novel about the Civil War was a literary sensation in 1997. Cold Mountain was successful because it had something in it for everyone. Civil War battle scenes; complexity in the plot with the allusions to Homer’s, The Odyssey;  and the universal themes of survival, loneliness, and love. The novel contained a kaleidoscope of quirky characters. Then came the movie version in 2003. What a sensory treat!

The assembled cast was a dream team: Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, Donald Sutherland, Eileen Atkins, Brendan Gleeson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Ray Winstone, Kathy Baker, and Ethan Suplee. While everyone did their part well, I was most impressed by Renee Zellweger who won a Best Supporting Oscar for her performance as Ruby. Add the period details of the 1860s, the rolling hills of an Appalachian setting, the distinctive bluegrass sound intrinsic to the culture, and the changing seasons to film–what could be better than to film the black and white of winter on the mountain ledge with black crows and black coats approaching around the bend?–it sure aided the director, Anthony Minghella, to create a cinematic masterpiece.

 Eccentric characters intersect the lives of two lovelorn protagonists Ada and Inman played by Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. Ada is a young Charleston socialite and companion to her dying father. Educated beyond the expected norm, her life is free to pursue reading, needlework, drawing, and the piano. When her father dies, she is left to fend for herself on the 300-acre farm. Enter Ruby, a forceful young wildcat the neighbor hires to aid Ada in the running of the farm. Ruby is the opposite of Ada. Uneducated, self-reliant, and assertive, she is a perfect foil to Ada. The two become a dynamic duo, a feminine force of efficiency.

Inman is a wounded deserter after surviving the Battle of Petersburg. He walks for hundreds of miles to return to Cold Mountain, NC, back to Ada. Along the way, he meets philosophers and oracles. A blind man imparts wisdom. An old hag surrounded by her herd of goats rescues Inman and nourishes him back to health. What makes the movie outstanding are the guest performances by powerful actors. Each vignette showcases an ethical dilemma. Take Natalie Portman’s character who appears as a single parent whose baby is dying. Alone in her cabin, she faces invasion and rape. She is completely convincing and her situation is heart-wrenching. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays one of his best roles as a decrepit preacher whose lustful passions get him into a lot of trouble. He’s the comic relief showing the absurdity of man. He’s hysterical.

What’s your favorite Civil War film? What’s an image or scene that has stayed with your over the years? 

63 thoughts on “L13FC: U.S. Civil War Films

Add yours

  1. That seems to be a recurring topic for film producers Cindy. I’ve seen some interesting series which I thoroughly enjoyed but can’t remember the name. That proves I’m old. lol. I’ve also watched some interesting YouTube history channel ones too. I think even better than a film is to go tour the places where it really took place and enjoy the usual tourist information presentations.

    1. I agree it’s better to visit the location and dive deep into the history. That was the best thing about living in Virginia for seven years. The state lives and breathes battlefields and estate homes. To visit Appomattox, Yorktown, Colonial Williamsburg, Mt. Vernon, cross over to PA and go to Gettysburg was inspirational. As far as the Civil War is concerned, I always enjoyed the Ken Burns documentary.

      1. I think that the Ken Burns documentary was one of the most amazing pieces of film-making I have ever seen. Anyone interested in the Civil War should watch that. I am jealous of the trips to the battlefields. Maybe one day…

    1. It had a huge budget for the time, John. Initial poor sales at the box office almost ruined Keaton’s career though, and he was forced to lose control of his films after that. It went on to become acclaimed as one of the top twenty American films of all time.

  2. Both of your choices resonate to me for one reason: they are human stories that use the war as a setting that allows the story to play out. Too often, films about historical times try to simply re-enact the event, and the human aspect is lost – “Pearl Harbor” anyone? By highlighting films that tell a story of people – and yes, “Gone With The Wind” certainly counts in that regard – we learn more about the history of an event because of how it impacts those who have to struggle through it. Bravo to you both!

    1. Hi John. Well, with Pearl Harbor, you have the love triangle, but it didn’t work for me. That’s one film where the reenactment of the harbor was outstanding. I do think Pete and I share the same angle–the personal story inside the cyclone works for me.

      1. Cindy, in the promo for “PH”, you see the war planes flying over young boys playing baseball…nice idea, but the attack was at 7a! It was all imagery, and your point about “personal story inside the cyclone” is absolutely why those films work! Nice job!

        1. Major events like PH or JFK’s being shot have been documented so much over the decades that I’d be scared to death to reenact such famous events. A film is a recreation but it’s impossible to get everything perfect because of the very nature of reinvention. I like those crazy stories during dramatic events from some obscure bystander that when investigated did happen. Here’s an interesting article I found with an interview of the technical adviser on the set of PH. While it’s unlikely men golfed and women hung up their clothes at 7:55am and boys played ball, is unlikely but not impossible. The point Jerry Bruckheimer tried to make was establishing was how unprepared, how relaxed and unaware were the citizens that morning. Anyway, the article mentions the Japanese pilot waved to one of the boys below and he waved back. THAT seems improbable, but apparently, that was true.
          http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2001-05-29/features/0105290263_1_pearl-harbor-uss-arizona-third-wave

  3. I have to thank my recent blog chum, Pete, for linking me here. Interesting site as I am both a history buff and a movie freak… and a former metal detector guy (former meaning… no time and I currently live in the middle of a damn desert with little to search for). I am also a transplanted Illinois resident (Chicago/Rockford).. and an Air Force vet (my overseas was Iceland (Cindy, being ex-Navy will remember Keflavik). I did a three day R&R to Scotland once.

    Anywayyyy…. I think my biggest “gripe” with Hollywood doing historically based movies are when directors slap their artsy crap on screen and movie patrons walk away with a total misconception of what the real history was being depicted. Cases in point.. Oliver Stone and his “JFK” (to this day I won’t watch that film because of the historical license the writer/director took). Quentin Tarantino is notorious for this. Watching “Django Unchained” was like fingernails on a chalkboard to me (although it had some violent entertainment value to keep me from leaving the theater). His “Inglorious Basterds”… I left the theater because of all the historical misconceptions. It’s bad enough the average American person/student/former student on the street has only a passive interest in history (and geography… but let’s not get started on that one) but it urks me when these folks leave the theaters thinking what they just saw was an accurate depiction of history.

    On the plus side… there are enough people interested in historical accuracy with re-enactment clubs being popular these days keeping the studios a bit honest. Just look at IMDB. For each movie they have a section on errors and goofs.. and people who post things are amazingly detailed and picky. You mentioned John Wayne’s “The Horse Soldiers”. For 1959 that was a cool film. The movie is depicted to be a point in 1863… yet some of the weapons used were not out until 1871. There were references to being a prisoner at Andersonville but that was not in existence until 1864.

    To quote IMDB… “In many scenes, Hannah is clearly wearing a bra, a garment invented in the 1890s and finally patented in 1913. Moreover, her bras are the “pointed” style popular in the 1950s.”
    Heck, I don’t think uniforms actually got dirty and dusty until the TV movie “Buffalo Soldiers” (1997, with Danny Glover).
    Some viewers can be pretty picky on historical accuracy.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Doug, and I hope that you get to enjoy more of Cindy’s site sometime. I agree that the presence of Winchester 1873 rifles in Civil War films, alongside many similar historical liberties, can be annoying for those of us with enough knowledge to spot the mistakes.
      However, what did you think of these two films, or any other Civil War film? (Other than The Horse Soldiers, that you mentioned) Do you have a favourite, or even one you like the least? Come back, and let us know.
      Best wishes, Pete.

    2. Hi Doug and welcome. WELL! You have definite opinions and shared a lot of them. I’m more lenient when it comes to historical films. As long as they create the historical climate and not claim it’s based on a true story, then it’s a fictional story set in the past. “Inspired by true events” gives poetic license and breathing room to tell a story. As far as anachronisms go, I believe it’s important to get the details as close as you can. Making a few errors, I can forgive it. Make too many and I certainly see your point. Still, I can enjoy the film if the story is good. Take ‘Imitation Game’. Lots of historical facts bending and shifting, and I still love the film because it’s a great story and highly entertaining. There’s a fun site you would like — History vs. Hollywood. It will list every mistake in every historical film. SOOO, did you see Pete’s choice, ‘Ride with the Devil’? Did you see ‘Cold Mountain’?

      1. Yes.. “Imitation Game” was good; more a biographical sketch.. that also made the Hollywood point that gay folks can make a contributions in spite of social prejudices, and in those days the social persecution was more profound, especially from unappreciative governments. But beyond the social message it was a good movie… and the early computer machine was a great prop albeit not historically accurate. But like you said, some things can be overlooked with a good story. The movie “Enigma” (2001) is very loosely based on Turing and far more fiction, yet also a good yarn.
        I have never seen “Ride With The Devil”, but I have seen “Cold Mountain”… and I did enjoy the plot as well as the historical realism of the film in general. I rather enjoy seeing stories of people having been changed by war on both sides, and then trying to move on in their lives in a country trying to recover. Although I do have a question… why does it seem that the current trend in making movies about some period in America where the actors themselves are not usually American?

        Best Civil War film? Gotta be a tie between “Glory” and “Gettysburg” (the sequel “God And Generals” not quite as good). Gettysburg is a difficult battle to portray in cinema because there were so many stories to tell from all sides… not just Chamberlain’s 20th Maine at Little Round Top. It would literally make the film three days long! But.. great movie nonetheless. As a postscript… I was at the 135th year re-enactment in June/July, 1998. This is just not a few guys getting together… this was a huge endeavor. There were 15,000 re-enactors all in authentic encampment for three days.. horses, limber, wagons, cannon.. the works. There were some 60,000 fighting under Lee and 90,000 in the Army of the Potomac in 1863. You can’t even imagine that many men in one area until you see how many men comprised just 15,000 by comparison. It literally took a couple hours for the units to march to the battle area from their encampments. The cannon was deafening.. and the musket fire was continuous. An amazing experience to witness… then increase that by 10 times to imagine the real thing. Made for great home video.

        1. Thanks for returning with your choices, Doug. I went to see the full cinema edit of ‘Gettysburg’, when it was released – in two parts- in London. I had to go from the early showing of Part One, into the later showing of Part Two, so spent all day in the cinema. I then bought it on VHS, and later on DVD. I have never been able to get a Region 2 copy of the full film though, and had to settle for a Region 1 version that still cuts out big chunks, to add to the Region 2 version that I have two different copies of. Once a year, I settle down to watch ‘Gods and Generals’, followed by ‘Gettysburg, spending some enjoyable hours immersed in the battles portrayed.
          I was most interested to read about your experience of the reenactment, which must indeed have been a sight to see.

          But such feasts are not to everyone’s taste of course, which I why I chose the concise ‘Ride With The Devil’ for this article.

          I have watched ‘Glory’ many, many times, including the UK cinema release, the extended cut VHS with added documentary, and DVD versions in Region 1 and Region 2.
          When it was shown on TV last week, I still watched it again.

          Best wishes, Pete.

          1. I never understood the criticism of Broderick at the time. I though his casting was perfect, and I really enjoyed his performance. I watch it at least once a year.

          2. Sorry, my friend, I’m going to give you a double-whammy. I think Broderick and Tobey Maguire are poor actors. Their baby-faced, wide eyed expressions are fine, but their delivery seemed wooden and lacked the nuances of being naive. When they transition to frustration and disillusionment and finally to enlightenment, I don’t see enough of it to warrant empathy on my part. But I like Tom Cruise, so what does that tell you? It’s all subjective.

          3. I would consider myself scolded, until you mention you like Tom Cruise. At least Broderick’s physical resemblance to Robert Shaw was remarkable, and I thought he was great in ‘Ferris Bueller.
            I will give you Tobey, although I liked his youthful innocence in this film, and thought it was suitable.
            Seems like we all have our crosses to bear…x

        2. Doug, that would have been quite the experience! I’ve seen reenactments over the years, and I’m struck by the sound most of all. The sound of battle, the echos, the booms that you feel inside the heart, the rushing of feet and gallop of hooves, the mumbling and shrieks of voices. No matter how good the sound system in the theater, it can’t compare.
          As far as others trying out an American accent — the biggest example I can think of is ‘Blackhawk Down’. And then there are the films where no one attempts an accent. I think of ‘Valkyrie’ where everyone is British except for Tom Cruise.

          1. Something positive about an American playing an Englishman. Over here, the historical drama serial ‘Poldark’ is one of the most popular programmes ever shown on TV. One of the lead characters, Francis Poldark, is played by an American actor, Kyle Soller. It is a tribute to him that nobody (and I mean nobody, including me) knew that he was an American, until he was interviewed on TV, speaking in his natural accent. The same goes for Renee Zellweger in ‘Bridget Jones’. As a Londoner, I can confirm that she delivered the accent flawlessly.
            I am embarrassed by many British actors attempting American accents. Bob Hoskins, Michael Caine, and Ewan McGregor, are all prime examples of OUCH!

          2. There are some who nail it–British to American and vice versa. I think Aussie Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain, (as well as her friend Naomi Watts) do a great job flip-flopping through accents. Some are better off not trying.

          3. Well, Pete, I love Mel Gibson generally and I make it a point to go to his movies… even when he directs (I just saw “Hacksaw Ridge” two days ago). He does an acceptional American accent in the majority of his movies. But I have to admit, the self-centered patriotic American came out of me a bit when I went to see “The Patriot” back in 2000. “What the hell is an Aussie doing playing an American Revolutionary War hero?! You mean, we had NO American actors available?” That kinda feeling. 🙂 But I do watch it once a year, in spite of it’s highly fictionalized account of Frances Marion, “The Swamp Fox”. I did have a dispute with the historical accuracy of the Brits burning a church down with a bunch of American non-combatants inside. I don’t recall any atrocity like that conducted during that war. But Hollywood needed to assign emphasis on the big bad enemy. Good film though.

          4. I did enjoy “Hacksaw Ridge” and while I can’t vouch for it’s story accuracy one has to have a measure of faith in these kinds of bio-films. The context of “him” wanting to enlist to serve his country after Pearl Harbor yet being a contentious objector is a pretty amazing thought process in itself when you think of actually wanting to beithrown into combat without a weapon. The reality is that you see the absolute hell of humanity as they kill one another in every way possible, especially your friends being killed, yet somehow in all that the urge for revenge within you never overcomes your religious ideals. I’d never be able to do it. Good story.. and super great war effects. I’ve not been in war (I was sent to Iceland during the war in my generation) but that’s a whole other deeply-rooted feeling not for this blog to discuss. Yet I am of the opinion that the American public is far too shielded from the gruesomeness of death.. so I applaud the use of graphics and special effects to get as close to the real war we never see on our TV sets. I highly recommend the movie.

            I also saw “Arrival” this weekend as well. Umm…

          5. Everyone’s raving about ‘Arrival’. I’m going on Wednesday to see what all the fuss is about. I’m glad you approved of ‘Hacksaw Ridge’. That’s one I hope to get to soon.

          6. My reluctance in my last post to continue on about “Arrival” was that I thought it a disappointment a bit. I was hoping it was not so much another “Independence Day”.. maybe more like “The Arrival” with Sheen and
            Foster.,, a bit more intellectual than just a”bad aliens” theme. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, good actors for the most part, were just Hollywood stock. In fact, with action hero Renner in the film I really expected some plot more tuned to his past films. In the end anyone could have done this movie. But this wasn’t so much about the actors as the aliens themselves.
            I leave it to you to read the plot line elsewhere. But my takeaway from this was the pretext of the aliens and the humans trying to develop a common language, and that was intriguing and nicely formed. But the director decided to mix some artsy stuff regarding the age-old idea of space & time relationships and afer a while I managed to get confused. This is definitely one of those films where you spend 20 minutes after, while walking to the car, asking questions on what you just saw. “How exactly were the aliens going to help humans?” “Was the daughter at the end the kid in the beginning that I thought was a son?” Yada, yada. Also, the film had a habit of being darkly filmed.. I mean.. like there was never a clear day dark.
            Also, Forest Whitaker is an actor.. not some stand-in to play a local military commander role. I’m sure the main case was selected to get box office attention.

            So, I am guessing this is one of those films cerebral types far more cerebral than me will enjoy. I would have been just as happy waiting for the DVD and not spending the money.

        3. Gibson had a head start on that accent. He was born in the USA, in New York State, and lived there until his family moved to Australia, when he was twelve. He has dual nationality, American and Irish, (The latter from his mother) and does not have Australian citizenship as such.
          He has entertained me many times, even when he butchered history in ‘Braveheart’ (the list is too long…) and despite his apparent dislike of the English, at least in his films. I agree that it was unlikely a church would have been burnt down with people inside it during the Revolutionary War. In the same way that Wallace would never have met Robert The Bruce, or fathered a child by the English princess, these facts are skipped over for entertainment value, or perhaps to hammer home Gibson’s wider motives?

          Another fact conveniently overlooked is that half a million or more Americans remained loyal to the British Crown during the Revolutionary War, many fighting on the side of the ‘enemy’ against the ‘Patriot’ Army.

          But I digress….

          Best wishes, Pete.

  4. I enjoyed Cold Mountain (beautiful film) but haven’t watched Ride with the Devil although I’ve enjoyed many of Ang Lee’s films, so it’s going on my list. Glory is a movie I’d happily watch over and over and I had the luxury of watching the General in the local cinema (Penistone Paramount, over 100 years old now) with live music from a cinema organ and it was even better than I remembered. Thanks for the link, Pete!

    1. I haven’t seen them yet, Doug, but intend to. I have just submitted a US Civil War article to the film site, Curnblog including reference to those two films. If they publish it, I will send you a link.
      Regards, Pete.

  5. Great topic Cindy & Pete! I’m afraid I haven’t much to add here as I haven’t seen either films. I really should check out Ride With the Devil because of Ang Lee, who I think is an extraordinary filmmaker who can tackle various genres.

      1. I’m afraid the only Civil War-related film I can think of is Gone With The Wind, ahah, not sure if that counts.

        @Cindy – I’m still on my blogging break, though I did post my Five for the Fifth post before I left on vacation a couple of weeks ago. Saw Arrival, it was very good. Now I gotta catch up on reviewing stuff again. I’ll be seeing ALLIED early next week!

    1. Hi Ruth! It’s funny how the older you get the less you are caught up on the newest releases but you’ve seen everything from twenty years ago. Got to be a generational thing. Anyway, going to see ‘Arrival’ tomorrow after school and I just read Ted’s review on Hacksaw Ridge. A lot of bloggers have high praise for both. As far as Lucky 13 Film Club is concerned, I’m looking forward to working with you and Keith and ‘Allied’. What fun!

  6. Hello Pete & Cindy…

    I have so many war time films that comes to mind, but I wanted to find some of my faves that possibly were not repeated here. I do however love Gone with the Wind, for showing strength where there appeared to be little.. My list includes Waterloo Bridge, A farewell to Arms and War Horse. But, as I mentioned the list could go on and on.. Great post… Take care, Laura

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Laura. I am pleased to hear how much you enjoyed ‘Gone with the wind’, as well as those films that dealt with WW1 and WW2. Thanks very much for coming over to comment on this site.
      Best wishes, Pete.

  7. Ride with the Devil was a surprise. I don’t most people expected such a good movie.
    Cold Mountain. Movies made from books are usually better than your average fare.
    And we see and feel much from the viewpoint of a woman.
    “Eccentric characters”? Yes, but they feel authentic. It’s chancy though because you want the audience to relate. It worked.
    And a cast so large that you’d think it would be hard to hold this whole thing together. Great job. Good movie.
    Don’t mind watching this again at all.

    1. Hi, JC. It seems from your comments that you thoroughly enjoyed both films, which was very good to hear. Thanks very much for contributing to this month’s theme.
      Best wishes, Pete.

  8. Hi, Cindy and Pete:

    Better late than never.

    Thanks, Pete for your comments regarding the NBC made for television movie, ‘Journey To Shiloh’. I also liked that the film did not have a “group hug” or “happy ending”. And that it showed the darker side of the South on the heroes’ journey east.

    The film is also a well cast test bed for future talent (Harrison Ford, James Caan, Michael Sarrazin, Don Stroud). Writing could have deeper and action more detailed (Prime Time Censors). Though, overall. A decent Civil War film!

  9. I hope to see the films you have both covered in the near future. Gettysburg, Gone with the Wind, Glory, The General, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Lincoln and surprisingly The Good, The Bad and The Ugly are all films about the Civil War one way or the other and all favourites of mine. I think Gone with the Wind might be the strongest for showing the ‘domestic’ side of the war and the displaying the true cost of war.

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