Five Film Favorites: Civil War Stories

In case you haven’t noticed, here in Richmond, Virginia, located at the falls of the James River, we’re commemorating the beginning of the American Civil War (1861-65).

It’s been 150 years since the United States broke into pieces at war with one another. Over the next four years there will be many exhibitions devoted to telling parts of the story of the rise and fall of the Confederate States of America. Richmond’s role in the history of the Confederacy is significant.

One of the most important exhibitions will open at the Virginia Historical Society on Feb. 4, 2011 — “An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia.”

No doubt, in the next four years there will be many opportunities to watch old movies set during the Civil War. Which prompted me to make a list of my five favorite films about the time in which some 620,000 Americans died to support what the politicians of their day wrought.

Upon deciding I had a good theme for a new list I followed my usual method — I wrote down the first titles that came to mind, then I searched on Google for lists of more movies in the selected genre. After a while, a new truth began to sink in: There aren’t all that many great movies about that period of history.

At least, not in my opinion.

The reasons that may be true are too numerous and complicated to write about in this space. Perhaps, over the years, what prejudices film producers have seen in American audiences’ feelings about the Civil War’s causes, events, etc., have consistently provided a too easy platform for stories about that time.

So, while the place of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) in the development of the motion picture industry is quite important, it’s not a film I would recommend to a general audience for its entertainment value or historical accuracy. “Gone With the Wind” (1939) isn’t nearly as twisted as “Birth,” and it boasts some charming acting performances, but I don’t want it on this list, either.

Therefore, with the shortage of choices mentioned above, this time around my list has to include a less-than-feature-length film of an Ambrose Bierce short story (made in France) and a series of nine documentary episodes (made for PBS).

“The Civil War” (1990): Directed by Ken Burns; Cast: Sam Waterston, Jason Robards, Morgan Freeman

“The General” (1926): Directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton; Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender

“Glory” (1989): Directed by Edward Zwick; Cast: Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”
(1962): Directed by Robert Enrico; Cast: Roger Jacquet, Anne Cornaly, Anker Larsen

(1965): Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen; Cast: James Stewart, Doug McClure, Glenn Corbett

Hopefully, during the next four years of reexamining the Civil War, we will see some new films about that era worthy of consideration for a list of great movies.

Note: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” made its American premiere as an episode of Twilight Zone. As a bonus treat click on the video box below to watch the entire film (25 minutes).

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One Response to Five Film Favorites: Civil War Stories

  1. Margaret Kidd says:

    I would like to make an addition to your list: Pharaoh’s Army. Here is the IMDb link:

    I watched this film in my Civil War Film and Literature class and it is, in my opinion, the most compelling and accurate films about the war. The Virginia Historical Society showed it a few years ago during one of their film series.

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