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Civil War POWs’ Tale of Horror

“The Civil War” was a landmark documentary series that achieved surprising popularity on PBS in an era when Americans still were being served the past mostly on thin patties of McHistory at the drive-through counter. Its success in 1990 not only nourished general interest in the North-South conflict but also made it easier for its filmmaker-creator, Ken Burns, to gain even thicker slabs of PBS time for other long-form narratives connecting history to the present.

As thorough as it was, however, what even the Burns documentary didn’t convey was the terrible plight of POWs on both sides of the war amid the appalling conditions of prison camps--those sickening, wormy, putrid swamps of humanity where men died en masse of disease and starvation while their comrades in the field perished in battle.

Nearly 50,000 men died in these prison camps, 10 times the number killed at Gettysburg.

Thus comes “Andersonville,” TNT’s oft-worthy, oft-flawed two-part story about men struggling to survive and retain hope at the worst of these camps: 26 stockaded acres that the Confederacy set aside in early 1864 for 8,000 Federal prisoners. By August, it held 32,000.

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Nearly 13,000 men died at Andersonville. Its poor, teeming wretches lived mostly out in the open, in holes they gouged from the ground, sheltered from the elements only by tent flies and other patches of cloth they rigged up. They subsisted on a daily ration of a teaspoon of salt, three tablespoons of beans, half a pint of unsifted cornmeal and a trickle of drinking water from a polluted creek.

No wonder that many of these men were walking, crawling, atrophying cadavers, a ghetto of living dead even before they actually succumbed, so hideously corpse-like that seeing them in antique photos evokes images of Nazi concentration camps.

Depicting their physical shrinkage on film with able-bodied actors would be nearly impossible. And so it is for “Andersonville,” whose prisoners are a relatively hearty looking lot, in the main.

What “Andersonville” does do, though, is restage the environs of this infamous camp with a stunning visual potency (Ric Waite was the photography director and Michael Z. Hanan the production designer) that has you immediately empathizing with the ruin and hopelessness wearing down its fictional prisoners and cheering their small triumphs over crushing adversity.

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“Andersonville” is directed by veteran John Frankenheimer and written and produced by David W. Rintels, whose fine record for using TV to present history as serious entertainment is probably unmatched by any other present dramatist (“World War II: When Lions Roared,” “Sakharov,” “Fear on Trial,” among others).

Typically, Rintels’ script is prodigiously researched. There was, indeed, a civil war inside Andersonville, perpetuated by a large group of ruffians known as the Raiders, who bullied their fellow prisoners and beat, robbed and even murdered camp newcomers known as “fresh fish.” And, as unlikely as it seems, the group’s six ringleaders were, indeed, tried and hanged by their fellow prisoners with the blessing of the Confederates.

Just as real was Henry Wirz, the camp’s ruthless German Swiss commandant (played with a mad intensity by Jan Triska), who, despite being the only person tried and executed for war crimes after the great conflict, may himself have been a victim of “forces largely beyond his control in this fourth year of a grinding war,” author James McPherson writes in the forward to Rintels’ recently published “Andersonville” screenplay. Such forces included severe shortages of food, supplies and medicine that crippled the entire Confederacy, its leaders choosing to allocate their slim resources to armies rather than prisons.

Unlike the lethal camps run by the Nazis, in other words, Andersonville and other prison sites operated by the Confederacy appeared less an expression of evil policy than tragic spinoffs of war. “Andersonville” says as much when a quasi-demented Wirz makes excuses for its conditions in a scene with a Confederate colonel who is outraged by what he sees while inspecting the camp.

Of course, the carnage was horrific no matter the reason, a point that “Andersonville” expresses quite incisively. Yet good history does not necessarily translate to consistently good drama.

A captured outfit from Massachusetts is at the center of “Andersonville,” whose fleeting early combat sequences are nicely done, and Frederic Forrest, Jarrod Emick, Ted Marcous, Tom Aldredge, Carmen Argenziano, Jayce Bartok and Frederick Coffin are some of the ensemble cast that performs ably.

With the exception of Forrest’s gritty sergeant, however, it’s often difficult separating one prisoner from another, and even he isn’t the dominant character that this story needs so that you would be pulling for an individual instead of for a tormented blur.

Moreover, even though “Andersonville” features a tunnel to potential freedom a la “Stalag 17" and other elements common to such POW movies as “The Great Escape” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” it fails to punch up much suspense. Instead you’re faced by a repetition of angst by inspirational men living from hour to hour that, while surely capturing the true spirit, ultimately desensitizes after initially evoking emotion. And efforts to push the pace (one fight sequence seems especially gratuitous) are futile.

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“Andersonville” ends by showing row after row of actual grave markers that attest to the many lives that ended on this site. It’s a grim story that should be told, but too often it’s also a slow one.

* “Andersonville” airs Sunday and Monday at 5, 7 and 9 p.m. on TNT cable.


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