The US Civil War (1861-1865) continues to evoke fascination and interest in the minds of Americans and others. The war was a struggle of ideas – slavery, states’ rights, freedom, national unity. Each of these ideas had been fiercely contested in political debates in the decades preceding the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States. His election was seen as the last straw by those people who felt that slavery should be permitted to exist, and by those people who felt that federal legislation should not be used to strike down the laws of individual states. As states seceded from the Union to join the new Confederate States of America, the passions of many others were aroused that felt that the ideals and cohesion of the wider United States of America needed to be preserved by armed force.
The bloody struggle that followed helped to define the modern American character.
Films, documentaries and novels have been written to capture the spirit of the struggle – or at least, how later generations perceived the spirit of the Civil War to have been. Films allow the film-maker to tell a fictional story intended to ensnare the watcher – as a form of entertainment encased with a historical veneer. It is perhaps in the eye of the beholder to determine how much a film-maker has told a fictional story, and how much of the factual story has been allowed to come through.
Civil War movies are characterised by several elements:
- Western Genre. Though Civil War movies use war as either the focus or as the backdrop for telling a story, such movies actually have more in common with Movie Westerns – with journey themes, struggles between good versus bad guys, and the celebration or reflection on the intrinsic elements of the US National character.
- Contemporary reflections on US Society and War. Film-making has been occurring for over a century, a period of time in which America has either been at war or preparing for war. Therefore Civil War movies can be seen as a barometer of contemporary national sentiment regarding national identity, its history, and its involvement in modern wars.
|Santa Fe Trail||Type||Film|
|Overview||Using the actions of the radical abolitionist John Brown as a backdrop, the film is part stock western with outlaw desperados and part human story as former friends and West Point class-mates find themselves divided by the rising emotions in antebellum America.The film begins in 1854 at West Point, introducing a cast of characters who seven years later would find themselves on opposing sides of the Civil War – such as James ‘Jeb’ Stuart (Errol Flynn) and George Armstrong Custer (Ronald Reagan). Other important figures from the time are included, such as John Brown (Raymond Massey), Robert E. Lee (Moroni Olsen) and Jefferson Davis (Erville Alderson).
For modern viewers, the film can be a little perplexing – John Brown, the radical abolitionist, is depicted as a deranged manic while the coming war is shown to be an unnecessary tragedy. However, with the US posed to enter another war (WW2), the film can be read as a call to unite North and South by downplaying the issues that divided the country in 1861 in favour of their shared identities as neighbours and fellow-country-men.
|Sources||DiscussionFilm available free at the Internet Archive|
|They Died with Their Boots On||Type||Film|
|Overview||A highly fictionalised account of the life of George Armstrong Custer (played by Errol Flynn), from his entry into West Point, his service in the US Civil War and the Indian Wars culminating in his death at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Flynn plays Custer as a larger than life hero, whose charisma and bravado are emphasised at the expense of the man’s real life failings. The film is a colourful re-telling of the life of a man who was regarded as a controversial figure in his own life-time, and the manner of his death has evoked controversy ever since – was he a self-absorbed manic who led his men to their deaths? Was he let down by his own officers? The film places the blame for his defeat squarely at the feet of dastardly renegades.
|Overview||The Civil War is a backdrop for a stock western – in which a Union army officer’s (Gary Cooper) dismissal for cowardice is a pretext for an undercover mission to investigate a band of rustlers supplying horses to the Confederate army.|
|Overview||Based (very) loosely on the events of Grierson’s Raid, Union Colonel John Marlowe leads his cavalry brigade on a long-range raid into Confederate held territory in support of the Union attack on Confederate garrisoned Vicksburg. Along the way, Marlowe (John Wayne) battles Confederates, his chief medical officer (William Holden), and a southern belle.
As with many westerns, the journey experienced by the character is a metaphor for the inner journey experienced by the characters. On a collective level, the characters grow to appreciate each other and even to respect their enemies.
|Overview||Charlton Heston plays the title role of Major Dundee, a Union officer whose career has been sidelined after the Battle of Gettysburg and sent to guard Confederate POWs at a remote post in New Mexico. A massacre by an Apache war-band becomes the pretext for Major Dundee to organise a mixed force of cavalry troopers, African-American soldiers, paroled Confederate POWs and civilians in pursuit of the Apache war-band.
The journey is a metaphor for the inner journey of the characters, as each battles their own internal demons as they relentlessly pursue an external enemy.
|Overview||During the Civil War, Virginian farmer Charlie Anderson (James Steward) tries to remain neutral and keep his family safe whilst the war rages around him. Unfortunately the war cannot be ignored forever, and the family suffers throughs a series of tragic events. In contrast to other Civil War films, the larger political questions are ignored in favour of more personalised issues of family and personal loss.
The film can be read as an allegory for America’s contemporary slide into the Vietnam War, and the growing sense of tragedy as an increasing numbers of families lose loved ones in that war.
|The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly||Type||Film|
|Overview||An Italian spaghetti western, the film completes the ‘Dollars’ trilogy about the adventures of Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man with no name’. In this film, three gun-slingers compete for a fortune in Confederate gold. Along the way, they struggle through gunfights, hangings, Civil War battles and prison camps.
Curiously, whilst set during the Civil War, the main characters operate on the periphery of the war. Indeed, the war itself means nothing for them – they have no sense of attachment to ideology, country, state, neighbours or family. They exist only for themselves.
|Overview||The film is loosely based on the upheavals in the Southern States following the end of the Civil War and the concurrent French intervention in Mexico. Former Union Colonel John Henry Thomas (John Wayne) and former Confederate Colonel James Langdon (Rock Hudson) each led separate bands of ex-soldiers into war-torn Mexico.
Initially the two groups operate independently until shared adversity brings them together. The journey experience is a metaphor for the inner journey of the participants, and a metaphor for Americans finding their common identity – a theme which resonates with the contemporary confusion in American society when the film was released, as the country struggled to come to terms with the social divisions caused by the Vietnam war.
|The Outlaw Josey Wales||Type||Film|
|Overview||Seeking revenge following the murder of his family by boarder raiders, Missouri farmer Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood) joins a Confederate guerrilla band. At the end of the war, Wales survives a massacre of his unit when it attempts to surrender at the hands of the very boarder raiders that murdered his family. Despite his desire to be alone with his personal pain, Wales finds himself a magnet for other lost individuals as he flees. His ‘army of one’ tactics takes him through a succession of violent clashes with Union soldiers, bounty hunters and Commancheros.
By the end of the movie, Wales realises that his running and killing were merely ways of avoiding his own inner pain: ‘…I guess we all died a little in that damn war…’. His journey was a metaphor not only for his own inner journey of understanding, but a metaphor for America’s own recent experience in the Vietnam War. The film is also a revisionist re-telling of the Civil War, in which the war is stripped of its glorification and Union soldiers are not depicted as heroes.
|Overview||The film centres on Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) and his leadership of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first official African-American regiment unit of the Union Army. The film follows the regiment’s foundation and the struggle of its members against suspicion and bigotry in order to participate in the US Civil War.
In contrast to many earlier Civil War films, Glory attempts to find glory in the tragedies of the war – and in particular the willingness of African Americans to risk their lives for a country that was supposedly fighting a war for their emancipation, yet in reality that same country denied African Americans their civil rights as American citizens for another century.
|Overview||Displayed on an epic scale, the film re-counts the three day Battle of Gettysburg. It wraps together many of the famous incidents of the battle: the incursion of the Confederate ‘Army of the Northern Virginia’ into Pennsylvania; its accidental discovery of Union forces at the town of Gettysburg; the ferocious battles of ‘Devils Den’, ‘Little Round Top’ and finally ‘Pickett’s Charge’.
The battle is treated as a national coming of age – the Civil War is personalised not just through the self-sacrifice of disparate groups of soldiers, but through the tragedy of friend fighting friend. The cultural significance of the battle is reinforced by the succession of speeches by the main characters. The climax of the film is the failure of Pickett’s Charge, which peters out at a low stone wall which is popularly remembered as ‘the high-water mark of the Confederacy’. Though the war was to continue for a further two years, the tragedy of Picketts Charge is a remembered as a metaphor for the tragedy of the Civil War.