The Civil War was perhaps the most tragic and heroic chapter in American history. So not surprisingly it has inspired countless artists, including many filmmakers, notably D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic “Birth of a Nation,” Victor Fleming’s “Gone With the Wind” in 1939 and Ken Burns’ documentary “The Civil War.”
As we get set to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War on April 12, here are four memorable movies and one TV drama about the bloody conflict that redefined the nation.
Now considered one of the greatest films from the silent era, this 1927 Buster Keaton Civil War comedy didn’t impress critics or audiences upon initial release. The subject matter was not the typical fare, and it left audiences confused. “The General,” which cost a then-exorbitant $400,000, is based on the true story of a Confederate train engineer (Keaton) who goes to extreme measures to save the love of his life as well as his beloved locomotive, “The General,” from Union spies. “I took that page of history and I stuck to it in all detail,” Keaton said long after he made the film. “I staged it exactly the way it happened.”
‘The Red Bad of Courage’
Audie Murphy was the most decorated soldier of World War II, winning the Medal of Honor as well as 32 additional awards and citations. After the war he became an actor, appearing in some 44 films. He earned his best reviews for John Huston’s 1951 version of Stephen Crane’s 1895 novel. The tale of the futility of war revolves around a young Union Army recruit who deserts his battalion. He eventually returns to his regiment and proves to be an able soldier, rising to flag carrier in his final battle.
Huston considered it one of his best films, but he soon left after he completed it to work on “The African Queen.” MGM studio head Dore Schary decided to cut the film to 69 minutes, and Huston’s director’s cut was destroyed. Murphy wasn’t fond of war movies because he felt Hollywood glamorized the fighting too much. But he felt the Crane novel was truthful: “Psychologically, wars don’t change; you’re all alone in a battle,” said Murphy.
‘The Horse Soldiers’
John Ford’s only Civil War film is based on the true story of 1863’s Grierson’s Raid. Col. Benjamin Grierson, who had been a music teacher in Illinois before the war, leads his Union troops across the Mississippi to destroy railway supply lines, bridges and commissaries, allowing Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his forces to get to the Mississippi River and eventually take Vicksburg. Though not acclaimed as Ford’s major classics such as “Stagecoach” or “The Searchers,” the 1959 film benefits from the star power of Ford veteran John Wayne -- who actually gets a romantic interest (Constance Towers) -- and William Holden and Ford’s staging of the battle sequences.
The same year that Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel scored a major success with 1971’s classic police thriller “Dirty Harry” they also collaborated on this Southern Gothic thriller. It is one of the most unusual films the duo made. Eastwood plays wounded soldier John McBurney, who is behind enemy lines in the South. He is found by a young girl (Pamelyn Ferdin), whom he kisses on the lips to keep her quiet when soldiers pass nearby, but she thinks he loves her. She takes him back to her home, the creepy Farnsworth Seminary for Young Girls, which seems to be filled with a group of emotionally scarred youth women and caretakers. Though he tells them he’s a Quaker, he is actually a manipulative charmer who romances these women to get what he wants.
‘The Andersonville Trial’
The multi-Emmy-winning 1970 adaptation of Saul Levitt’s 1959 Broadway play that aired on PBS’ “Hollywood Television Theatre.” George C. Scott directed this courtroom drama based on the 1865 trial of Henry Wirz, commander of the Confederate Andersonville prison, the infamous location where thousands of Union soldiers died. Scott was praised for the performances he elicited from his cast -- Richard Basehart as Wirz; William Shatner as the chief prosecutor, Jack Cassidy as defense counsel and Cameron Mitchell as Union Gen. Lew Wallace, who would later write the novel “Ben-Hur.”
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Honest, they all played Abe
Three actors, three big-screen portrayals of America’s 16th president.
The lanky Canadian actor scored on Broadway in Robert E. Sherwood’s historical drama “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” and earned an Oscar nomination for lead actor in the 1940 film version.
The Nebraska native perfectly captured Honest Abe’s early years as struggling attorney in John Ford’s 1939 drama “Young Mr. Lincoln,” which earned an Oscar screenplay nomination for Lamar Trotti.
The father of director John Huston and grandfather of Anjelica is the best thing about D.W. Griffith’s first talkie, 1930’s “Abraham Lincoln,” which chronicles the 16th president’s life from his early years to his assassination.