What movie/TV program about America’s Revolution was a blockbuster? Strangely, the Spirit of ’76 rarely struck box office gold. Excluding remembering the Alamo, the War of 1812, Mexican-American War and Spanish-American War produced few notable screen adaptations. But the Civil War is the conflict America fought prior to cinema’s invention that’s most recreated onscreen. Along with productions about both World Wars, the struggle between the North and the South is our most filmed war and second only to Vietnam in controversy. Featuring major Tinseltown talents the War Between the States spawned the USA’s biggest hits of the silent screen, Hollywood’s Golden Age and TV, playing a central role in our television/motion picture patrimony.
April 9 – the 150th anniversary of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia – is an ideal time to ponder why Blue versus Grey productions remain perennially popular. As the sesquicentennial of the end of the clash between Yankees and Johnny Rebs is observed the Top 10 Civil War-Era film/TV works – selected due to their popularity, artistry, influence and historical significance – are explored to answer these questions. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, here’s Hollywood’s “filmic fiery trial”:
1) The genre began during cinema’s infancy. In 1903 – the same year his The Great Train Robbery launched Westerns – Edwin S. Porter directed Uncle Tom’s Cabin for Thomas Edison’s company. The static photoplay adapted the antebellum novel by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, whom Pres. Lincoln called “the little lady who caused the big war.” Using painted backdrops and miniatures the one-reeler compressed Stowe’s 500-page 1852 book into 14 minutes, retaining scenes such as the slave auction where Simon Legree purchases Tom, later flogged at a whipping post – indelible impressions of the South’s “peculiar institution.”
2) When it came to filmmaking technique, with masterful close-ups, crosscutting, thrilling battle scenes and Lincoln’s assassination (future director Raoul Walsh played John Wilkes Booth), D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation appealed to the Lincolnesque “better angels of our nature.” But in terms of propaganda, Griffith pandered to our worst devils with the most racist movie ever made. Celluloid stereotypes of watermelon chomping, banjo strumming “Darkies” (many actually Caucasian actors in blackface) contrast sharply with heroic Klansman riding to the rescue of Lillian Gish’s virginity (threatened by a sex crazed “mulatto”) or preventing Blacks from voting during Reconstruction. After a White House screening Pres. Woodrow Wilson likened Birth to “watching history written with lightning.” The three-hour, big budget $110,000 extravaganza triggered NAACP protests and spurred a KKK revival. Despite – or, because – of its racism Birth reportedly grossed $18 million-plus, more than any other silent movie. However, what’s overlooked is that more than any other theatrically-released Hollywood feature, Birth showed African-American empowerment during Reconstruction – with Black armed soldiers, legislators, jurors, voters, etc. – albeit skewed by Griffith’s bigoted, caricaturish demented depictions.
3) A real life wartime escapade about Union spies stealing a train in Dixieland inspired Buster Keaton’s 1927 comedy The General. The “Great Stone Face” plays Johnny Gray, an engineer on the greycoats’ side who crosses enemy lines to retrieve his locomotive and impress his belle, amidst hilarious sight gags and hi-jinks. A train crash into a burning bridge is considered the silent era’s costliest stunt. (During the 1930s Shirley Temple and the Little Rascals also made lighthearted Civil War-set features: The Littlest Rebel, The Little Colonel and General Spanky.)
4) Hollywood’s 1939 adaptation of Georgia-born Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind vividly captures the “war is hell” ethos of General William Tecumseh Sherman, who memorably burns Atlanta to the ground onscreen, as Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler heroically saves Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara. David O. Selznick’s nearly four-hour, $4 million Technicolor epic starts way down yonder in the land of cotton, sprawls across the war and Reconstruction to become one of the top grossing flicks ever. Told from a distinctly pro-Southern viewpoint, GWtW depicts racially-charged, cringe-inducing caricatures, especially Butterfly McQueen’s buffoonish Prissy, who knows “nothing ’bout birthing babies.” Hattie McDaniel became the first Black Oscar winner; while the NAACP criticized her Mammy, Southerners wouldn’t let McDaniel attend GWtW’s Atlanta premiere at the segregated Loew’s Grand Theater on Peachtree Street – although actual Confederate veterans were invited.
5) Based on Northerner Stephen Crane’s novel, John Huston’s 1951 The Red Badge of Courage is decidedly pro-Bluecoat. Real life WWII hero-turned-actor Audie Murphy played a Union soldier who loses – then finds – his nerve. The viscerally rendered battle sequences in glorious black and white are unforgettable.
6) Seven Angry Men is about John Brown’s failed attempt to trigger an armed slave revolt in Dixie. The abolitionist band’s 1859 seizure of Harpers Ferry’s armory, crushed by Gen. Robert E. Lee, is widely considered the Civil War’s first battle. Interestingly, Raymond Massey – cast as the Great Emancipator in 1940’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois, in TV productions and 1962’s Cinerama spectacle How the West Was Won – also repeatedly played Brown, in 1940’s Santa Fe Trail, on Broadway and in Angry. Massey depicted the outspoken anti-slavery militant as a wild-eyed fanatic, the inference being that any Caucasian willing to sacrifice his life for Blacks must be mad. However, Malcolm X said progressive whites should “be willing to do as old John Brown did.” Angry’s 1955 release reflected the Civil Rights Movement’s rise. (Liev Schreiber is reportedly slated to play Brown in an adaptation of James McBride’s National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird.)
Recommended for You
7) The 1977 miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel Roots scored one of the biggest ratings bonanzas in TV history. The candid generational saga followed Kunta Kinte’s (LeVar Burton) African abduction, his captivity in America and his descendants’ lives, from slavery through emancipation. America’s most watched miniseries ever, Roots triggered like-minded star-studded miniseries, including 1979’s Freedom Road (with Muhammad Ali and Kris Kristofferson); 1982’s The Blue and the Gray, with Gregory Peck as Lincoln; and 1985’s blockbuster North and South plus its 1986 sequel -- stretching for a total of 24 hours -- with Patrick Swayze, James Stewart and GWtW’s Olivia de Havilland.
8) The trend of sympathizing with slaves instead of owners reached its apotheosis in 1989’s Glory, based on the true story of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and their bold charge to capture a Charleston fort. Glory was Hollywood’s first feature highlighting the188,000 Blacks who fought for the Union and their liberation. In Glory – as on the battlefield – these mostly ex-slaves acquit themselves with valor, proving to Northerners and Southerners alike Blacks could and would fight. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ sons were among the first to join the fighting Fifty-fourth. Denzel Washington won his first Oscar as Private Trip; Matthew Broderick excels as Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the regiment’s real life white officer, who slashes watermelons with his saber, symbolically slicing “colored” clichés dating back past The Birth of a Nation.
9) When Ken Burns’ nine-episode, fact-based, Emmy Award-winning miniseries The Civil War aired in 1990, it was PBS’ most viewed program up to that date. For five nights 40 million people were riveted to their TVs, watching the comprehensive, evenhanded 11 hour-plus documentary unfold. (Burns played a cameo role as Major Gen. Hancock’s aide in 1993’s Gettysburg.)
10) Daniel Day-Lewis earned an Oscar for portraying the 16th president in 2012’s Lincoln, wherein the Great Emancipator struggles to abolish slavery forever. The biopic won another Academy Award and was nominated for 10 more, including for Best Picture, Steven Spielberg for Best Director and Tony Kushner for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay. Tommy Lee Jones was also nommed for depicting radical Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens, reconstructing the nefarious portrait Griffith painted of the ardent abolitionist 97 years earlier in The Birth of a Nation. Arguing for passage of the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Honest Abe thunders: “I can't accomplish a goddamn thing of any worth until we cure ourselves of slavery and end this pestilential war! …This amendment is that cure! …Now! With the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment now! Now! Now!”
Why so many cinematic/TV works about the War Between the States? Why has this genre attracted vast audiences and enjoyed enduring popularity? From plantations to Harpers Ferry to Fort Sumter to Gettysburg to Appomattox Courthouse to Lincoln’s assassination, Civil War cinema/TV runs the gamut, striking a national nerve.
This was America’s first modern, mechanized war (the naval battle between the Monitor and Merrimac was depicted in 1936’s Hearts In Bondage and the Delbert Mann-directed 1991 TV movie Ironclads) to be fought after photography’s invention. Matthew Brady’s wartime photos left a visual legacy inspiring filmmakers from Griffith to John Ford to Burns to Sergio Leone. More of our countrymen – 600,000-plus – died during the Civil War than in any other war: Combatants in both armies were Americans. Jefferson Davis, “Stonewall” Jackson, Lee, Grant, Sherman and Custer all attended West Point. Families and friends were divided by the conflagration, as NBC’s 1961 series The Americans – about brothers on opposing sides – depicted, as did Gettysburg, wherein two friendly Mexican-American War veterans, Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead and Major Gen. Winfield Hancock, were pitted against one another during Pickett’s Charge.
Reflecting different perspectives, certain productions evince malice to some and disparity to all. For secessionists, this was the “War of Northern Aggression.” Others believed it was fought to preserve the Union. A third big and little screen viewpoint was that this armed conflict led to the largest liberation of slaves in human history. At the heart of the Confederacy-Union oeuvre are race relations, something still bedeviling our body politic. In this age of an African-American President, some refuse to accept Barack Obama’s legitimacy: Call them “birthers of a nation.” Civil War issues resonate with other current concerns: states’ rights versus Federal government rule; religious fundamentalism; immigration and the 14th Amendment; the “Black Lives Matter” movement against police and vigilante excessive use of force.
America’s grand old obsession with Civil War-period pictures will persist as long as productions by the viewers, for the viewers and of the viewers shall not perish from the theaters and TVs.
Ed Rampell is a L.A.-based film historians/critics who co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.