COMMENTARY | With the sesquis…sequic….the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, as well as the Fourth of July weekend coming up, it's a good time to beat the heat and see some history. Here are the five best Civil War films to see, and three you might want to take a pass on.
Five Civil War Films To See
1) "Gettysburg:" Normally when catching a four-hour movie in the theater complete with an intermission, you'd think the film would flop. But Ron Maxwell's cinematic masterpiece, based upon the book "The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara, mixes exciting battle scenes like the desperate bayonet charge at Little Round Top with the human element that General Lewis Armistead provides on Seminary Ridge shortly before Pickett's Charge. The students in my Civil War class are willing to stay late from class to see the ending, even though they know who won.
2) "Glory:" Sure the film is knocked for being "PC," but only by those who haven't seen it. Edward Zwick's movie shows how poorly the North treated their "colored" soldiers as well, on the battlefield, with discipline, and with pay. Even Denzel Washington's Oscar-Award winning character "Trip" is depicted as a bully and a jerk; he has to learn to give respect if he wants to earn it. The doomed assault on Ft. Wagner in South Carolina is a must see for any war film.
3) "Lincoln:" As a political scientist, I can't resist putting a film on the list that involves a good old fashioned political tangle, showing that not all battles were fought in fields. Stephen Spielberg manages suspense, even when the outcome is known, demonstrating why he's the master of his craft, and Daniel Day-Lewis managed to upstage Gregory Peck's portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. Arguments knocking the film's accuracy are also fairly overrated.
4) "Gone With the Wind:" The gaudy Civil War romance is an American classic. Most would put it on the list for its glamorous plantations, uniforms and dresses, smart-acting by Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable, Hattie McDaniel, Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland and one of the best adapted screenplays in history. Almost lost in all of this is that the film shows the suffering of citizens in wartime, and provides a shockingly balanced portrayal of Southerners for the time the movie came out.
5) "The Horse Soldiers:" This entertaining John Wayne film not only covers a little known event (the Vicksburg Campaign in Mississippi), often ignored by history, but is no less important of the outcome of the war. Director John Ford also manages humor, one's comeuppance, and a strong willed female character long before the days of Angelina Jolie.
Three Civil War Films To Avoid
1) "Gods and Generals:" At a conference at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), a number of Civil War scholars congregated at the gift shop on a field trip to the Battle of New Market. Nothing was more mocked than the boring successor to "Gettysburg." When you read the book of the same name by Jeffrey Shaara, you'll wonder how Ron Maxwell botched it. The meandering plot and repetitive battle scenes can't save moments like the desperate charges at Marye's Heights.
2) "Birth of a Nation:" Sure D. W. Griffith may have created some pretty innovative techniques like night filming that make some folks think of this movie as one of the best. But the historical revision coupled with the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan make this film a must-skip for anyone not in film school.
3) "Ride with the Devil:" Ang Lee's plodding piece covers the battle for bleeding Kansas between the border ruffians and the Kansas Jayhawkers. Or it tries to, though it is amazing how someone as accomplished as Lee could make an exciting border war so dry. Lee should stick to tigers in boats with shipwrecked survivors ("Life of Pi"). See Clint Eastwood's "The Outlaw Josey Wales" instead.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, GA who has taught classes on the Civil War as well as American Government.
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