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History of American Civil War Films

By Christopher M Geeson

Since the beginnings of cinema, the American Civil War has been the subject or background for hundreds of films. This series of articles will focus on some of the most outstanding,

A key figure in the history of cinema, and in the development of Civil War films was D W Griffith. His films were influenced by the Southern Romance novelists of the late nineteenth-century, such as Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon. He developed their stories of aristocratic plantations with Confederate cavaliers, Southern belles, and loyal slaves, adding elements of childhood stories he had been told by his father, a former Confederate Colonel.

During his illustrious career, D W Griffith addressed the Civil War in thirteen silent films, including The Guerrilla (1908). The Battle (1911) and Abraham Lincoln (1930). His most famous Civil War film was The Birth of a Nation (1915), based on Dixon's 1905 novel, The Clansman.

The Birth of a Nation is the story of two families, the Southern Camerons and the Northern Stonemans, who are separated by the War, but are reunited during Reconstruction.

Griffith reportedly paid a lot of attention to historical detail, based on consultation with military advisors and war veterans, to recreate settings such as Appomattox Court House and Ford's Theatre.

Battle scenes had been a rare feature of previous films, but in The Birth of a Nation, Griffith produced a grand and sometimes horrific vision of the battlefields. In one scene, two former friends face each other in battle, one in grey, one in blue. This theme has been constant in many films since.

Unfortunately, the film was strongly racist in dealing with emancipation and the Ku Klux Klan, causing controversy when released, and it still elicits strong opinions today. The film proved extremely popular and influenced a vast number of films set in the plantation South, the most famous being Gone With the Wind (1939).

Gone With the Wind, produced by David O. Selznick, won eight Academy Awards and earned the label 'The Greatest Motion Picture Ever Made'. It is one of the few Civil War films without any battles, although its stunning scene of the streets of Atlanta covered with wounded Confederates is still powerful today, and the famous burning of Atlanta sequence is part of movie history.

During the forties, the Southern Romance, a genre popular since the beginning of cinema, passed away forever, at least in the form it had taken in the first half of the twentieth-century. Its necessary connections with slavery were a major factor first in its popularity, but later, in its demise. Later depictions of the Civil War and slavery, such as the television series Roots (1977), based on Alex Haley's 1976 novel, and North and South (1985-6) had a great part in destroying the romantic image of the Old South. The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind defined the Civil War for a mass audience, and many subsequent films were heavily influenced by them.

The Civil War in Western Movies

The Civil War has been the setting or background for literally hundreds of Westerns.

In John Ford's The Horse Soldiers (1959), John Wayne plays Colonel Marlowe, the leader of a Union cavalry troop sent into the plantation South to destroy Vicksburg's supply lines. The film is based on Colonel Benjamin H Grierson's 16-day raid into the Confederacy in 1863.

John Ford had a strong interest in the Civil War, as many of his films show. His depiction of the Shiloh battlefield in How The West Was Won was perhaps inspired by the fact that his uncle had fought at the battle on the Union side, and then deserted to join up with the South.

Another film based partly on historical fact is Alvarez Kelly (1966) in which William Holden plays a trail boss driving a herd of cattle for the Union, who is then captured by Confederate Colonel Tom Rossiter (Richard Widmark) and forced to herd the cattle to besieged Richmond in 1864. The story is based loosely on an actual incident, when Wade Hampton's Confederates captured 2,486 cattle to feed their army.

Far less historically accurate is Edward Bernds' 1958 film Quantrill's Raiders, which depicts Quantrill's attack on the Federal arsenal at Lawrence, Kansas in 1863. History is disregarded as the hero fights off the raid and even kills Quantrill: in reality, Quantrill massacred 150 civilians in the raid, burned the town to the ground, and died two years later!

Many films dealt with Southerners who went West after the War, such as Best of the Badmen (1951), The Searchers (1956), Run of the Arrow (1957) and Elvis Presley's first film Love Me Tender (1956). Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) is especially notable for its treatment of post-war issues. Another theme in many Westerns was the reconciliation of North and South, either after the War, such as in Andrew V McLaglen's The Undefeated (1969), or during the War to unite against a common enemy, usually the Native Americans, as in John Sturges' Escape From Fort Bravo (1953). This theme was taken to its extreme in Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee (1964), in which Charlton Heston leads a ragtag cavalry troop composed of Union troops, Confederate POWs, renegades, horse thieves, and a preacher. When the troop embarks on its mission into Apache territory, the Union men sing 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'. The Confederates retaliate with 'Dixie', and the other misfits respond with 'My Darling Clementine'! However, by the end of the film, the troop has resolved their differences.

From the solemn battlefields of John Ford's films, to the satiric conflicts in Major Dundee, the Civil War has been a factor in some of the greatest, and some of the most unusual Westerns ever made.

The Red Badge of Courage, Glory and Gettysburg.

Although there have been literally hundreds of films which have dealt with the issues of the Civil War period, there have been relatively few which have actually focused on the battlefields. Films from The Birth of a Nation (1915) to Sommersby (1993) have instead concentrated on how the War has affected the lives of the characters.

The first significant film to concentrate on the battlefield was the dramatisation of Stephen Crane's novel The Red Badge of Courage (1951), the story of a young Union soldier confronted by the brutal reality of war. John Huston, a World War II documentary film maker, successfully captured the anti-War message of Crane's novel in the violent battle scenes. His cynical film, emphasised by the casting of Audie Murphy, the Second World War's most decorated GI, was as much a comment on the futility of World War II as on the Civil War.

Glory (1989), directed by Edward Zwick, is one of the few films to deal with African-American Union soldiers and tells the story of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick). Despite the fact that most of the characters are fictitious, their sentiments and situations are firmly grounded in history. Their climactic assault on Charleston's Fort Wagner which left half of their number dead is depicted stunningly in the film, leading James M McPherson to describe it as '..the most realistic combat footage in any Civil War movie'. Ronald F Maxwell's Gettysburg (1993) was actually filmed on the Gettysburg battlefield and is a detailed account of the 1863 battle, recreated authentically with over 5000 extras.

The suggestion of historical accuracy is defined from the start with the title sequence which juxtaposes original Civil War portraits with pictures of the film's actors, showing the film makers efforts to achieve authenticity.

One of the film's strengths is that it focuses impartially on the opinions and motives of the officers and foot soldiers from both sides of the War, showing them as human beings with emotions and flaws. There are no heroes or villains as each character is given the opportunity to describe a different view of the War in between the film's epic battle sequences which culminate with the overwhelming scene of Pickett's charge.

There were many causes and effects of the Civil War, and there have been many histories and mythologies as a result. Some have vindicated slavery, others have avoided the subject; some have taken sides, and others have attempted to be neutral. The value of the films I have examined in these three articles is that they reflect the wide range of cultural perceptions of this epic event.

Further reading:
  • E.D.C Cambell jnr The Celluloid South: Hollywood and the Southern Myth (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1981)
  • R M Henderson, D W Griffith: His Life and Work (Oxford Univ. Press, 1972)
  • J T Kirby, Media-Made Dixie: The South in the American Imagination (Univ. of Georgia Press, 1986)
  • S Simmon, The Films of D W Griffith (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993)
  • E Buscombe, The BFI Companion to the Western (Andre Deutsch Ltd, 1988)
  • P French, Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre (Viking Press, 1973)
  • P Hardy, The Encyclopedia of Western Movies (Octopus Books, 1984)
  • J McBride & M Wilmington, John Ford (Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd, 1974)
  • M C Carnes, Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (Cassel, 1996)
  • R A Rosentone, Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History (Harvard University Press, 1995)

The above articles first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, April to August 1998.