A few good Civil War movies can help any movie lover to get a better grip on the conflict that tore our nation apart one hundred and fitty years ago. During the current sesquicentennial celebration of the American Civil War some will chose to connect to that historic time by visiting battlegrounds, listening to presentations or reading relevant books. Even though I completed a history major in college and taught American history to high school students, I still plan to enjoy and make use of the valuable window into history that is provided by less scholarly Civil War movies.
Of course all Civil War movies pale beside the great Civil War epic, “Gone with the Wind”. Though I wouldn’t direct students to this movie as a factual reservoir, there is lots to be gained by allowing yourself to simply be immersed in this film. For me “Gone with the Wind” points to the clear reality that the Civil War wasn’t just about battles and generals. Throughout the Civil War, life, especially life in the South. was profoundly altered. A way of living that had been taken for idolized and taken for granted by some, suffered through by others and ignored by an entire half of the nation was slowly grinding to a halt. The Civil War marked a turning point in American history. In its own, sometimes less than accurate accounting, “Gone with the Wind” gives us a romanticized sampling of that pivotal time in our history.
Looking for a good Civil War movie that adheres more to the facts will could draw you to sitting down to view “Glory”. This film can open your eyes to what the Civil War meant in the eyes of black Americans. It traces the development of the Massachusetts 54th as a black company of Union soldiers under the direction of white officers. I have seen this movie multiple times and each time it has given me a window into the great differences in the life style of northern and southern, free and former slave African Americans. “Glory” requires us to look at the Civil War as more than a white man’s war. Celebrating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War should include taking time to wrap your mind around what that war meant not just to northern and southern white Americans but how it changed forever the lives of all African Americans from that time forward.. “Glory” can help you to do just that.
When you start assembling Civil War films that can help to enrich your understanding of that conflict, don’t leave out the John Wayne – William Holden film “The Horse Soldiers”. This film records one attempt made by Union forces to go behind Confederate lines to try to upset Confederate rail transportation. Though Wayne and Holden are both Union officers, they have very different views on war. Their constant bickering is entertaining, even amusing, but more than that it demonstrates the many different attitudes that make up a supposedly united army. When a charming white Southern woman appears in the story she only accentuates the truth that every person on both sides entered the Civil War with his or her own ideas of what war would mean, how long it would last and what changes it might bring. Talking about the war as between North and South as if both sides were unified bodies leaves out the human element so clearly presented in “The Horse Soldiers”.
Finally there is my personal favorite, “Shenandoah” with James Stewart. It’s a poignant tale of a peaceable man and his family living in violent times. Stewart stars as the widowed father of six sons and one daughter. The family lives in Virginia. When the Civil War begins Virginia determines to leave the Union and join the Confederacy. As a history teacher I have a special attachment to this movie because it spotlights the difficulties ordinary people encounter in times of war. The father in “Shenandoah” pronounces to his family that the Civil War has nothing to do with them. They are just farmers trying to make a living and survive from day to day on their farm. He insists they have no interest in politics or power, they just want to be left alone.
The position that this father takes is one that has been shared by people throughout time and one that deserves recognition as an honest and fair reaction to the violence that comes with war. As much as the father wishes to keep his sons out of harm’s way, the family is forced to get involved when the youngest son is kidnapped by Northern troops and taken away from the farm. “Shenandoah” gives history students and family members a fictional background against which they can discuss the meaning of neutrality and conscientious objection.
Of course during the sesquicentennial I will read some good Civil War books, watch pieces of Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” and maybe even visit a battlefield or two. But when it’s all over some of the strongest images and thoughts I will retain will be those that come to me from motion pictures. And that’s not a bad thing.
Civil war movies have been popular right from the days of World War II when people used to pine for such films and filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein obliged by making them in large numbers and apart from the ones mentioned above, here is a list of the best ones https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/lists/critics-picks-10-best-civil-905713.