It always seems that Americans do their best when things are at their worst. Few of the living among us remember the Great Depression, and most of us over the age of 25 have still not forgotten the horrific events of September 11, 2001. As a nation, we survived those challenging setbacks (and other minor ones) and we will eventually conquer the COVID-19 epidemic, but its rippling after-effects are likely to be felt for generations to come.
Arguably the closest our country has ever come to total collapse was during the Civil War, and there's no shortage of movies that chronicle the events of those four years — both the darkest and brightest in our long history.
While not as great in numbers as productions about World War II, the back catalogue of movies dedicated to the Civil War is equally as rich and rewarding. The following 11 titles are all available on multiple streaming and/or on-demand platforms.
10. "Gettysburg" (1993) — Based on the novel "The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara, writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell's four-hour epic mini-series chronicles what is considered by most historians to be the most significant event of the entire war. Martin Sheen (as Robert E. Lee), Tom Beringer (as James Longstreet) and Jeff Daniels (as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain) all turn in riveting yet measured performances and the battles scenes are spectacularly choreographed.
9. "Rio Lobo" (1970) — The final film directed by Howard Hawks (and his third starring John Wayne), "Rio Lobo" is a "fringe" title — meaning it takes place during the war but with few non-fictional references. A box office and critical disappointment upon release, the movie has aged far better than most of the era and is regularly referenced by filmmakers (Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino among them) as a major influence on their works.
8. "Sherman's March" (2007) — One of the few History Channel productions not overwhelmed by clunky re-enactments, writer/director Rick King's 100-minute TV film (narrated by Edward Herrmann) is noted by war historians for its accuracy and lack of "manufactured" drama. The five-week "March to the Sea" from Atlanta to Savannah led by General William Tecumseh Sherman is regarded by most to be the final crushing blow to the Confederate cause.
7. "Gone with the Wind" (1939) — The third film on this list told from the Southern P.O.V., "GWTW" is the highest-grossing movie of all-time (based on inflation) and remains a revered sacred-cow. Regardless of one's politics or opinions of history, it remains an undisputed classic of American cinema and, without perhaps intending to so do, became a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement.
6. "The Beguiled" (1971) and "Dances With Wolves" (1990) — Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner star in these films as Union soldiers attempting to find acceptance in different societies for radically different reasons. In "The Beguiled," Eastwood plays an injured and AWOL soldier who is cared for by the staff and students of a Southern girl's school. In "Dances," Costner's character interacts with a branch of the Lakota tribe, eventually taking on a Native American lifestyle.
5. "Shenandoah" (1965) — The first movie I ever watched in a theater, "Shenandoah" might just be the least well-known James Stewart film of his career. Released at the time when the Vietnam War began to become a social friction point, director Andrew V. McLaglen's film was able to please both old and new school audiences while also taking bold and daring narrative chances.
4. "Lincoln" (2012) — Steven Spielberg's relatively spare semi-biography of Abraham Lincoln (Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis) concentrates solely on the president's effort to pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery while dealing with a divisive Congress. Sally Field (as Mary Lincoln) and Tommy Lee Jones (as abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens) also received multiple industry award nominations.
3. "Cold Mountain" (2003) — The follow-up to late director Anthony Minghella's multi-Oscar winner "The English Patient," "Cold Mountain" was a relative commercial flop, which is unfortunate as it is by far his best effort. Nicole Kidman and Jude Law are the leads in a heartbreaking story of love, longing, loss and monumentally bad timing.
2. "Glory" (1989) — Director Edward Zwick ("Courage Under Fire") takes what have could have been just another rote, by-the-numbers exercise and turned it into a throttling and bittersweet drama of near-epic proportions. Matthew Broderick stars as William Gould Shaw, a New England officer in charge of an all-black regiment of volunteer soldiers determined to make a difference in the war effort. Co-stars include Cary Elwes, Andre Braugher, Morgan Freeman, and a fierce Denzel Washington in a career-defining performance which resulted in his first Oscar.
1. "The Civil War" (1990) — Quite simply and bar none, this is the finest documentary movie of any kind ever made, period. Longtime PBS director Ken Burns' 11-hour mega-epic is a genre unto itself; a melding of history, emotion and enlightenment which has no cinematic equal. Redefining the genre, Burns' painstakingly detailed, yet emotionally-balanced mix of photos and voice-overs along with period and original music and has become the standard unlikely to ever be matched.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets, is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017. Over the last 25 years, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film related articles and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. film critics. Read Michael Clark's Reports — More Here.
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