With today marking the 150th Anniversary for the start of the American Civil War (April 12, 1861 – April 9, 1865), I thought it apt to begin a project to mark the occasion. For most of my years, this event was just plain old history — something from a high school and/or college course for me to learn, get through, and move on. And so it was as I passed into and out of the 70s and the 80s. That is, until one Sunday in 1990. The 23rd day of September began something that had my unheard of attention for the next five days: the phenomenal PBS documentary by Ken Burns, The Civil War. It’s still one of the most popular series ever to air on public television. The series spawned renewed fascination to the events of the War Between the States, and it sparked mine. The series was significant in that it used mostly still photographs, talking historian heads, and outstanding voice work to singularly convey its history in a very personal way. The most notable and moving example was the reading of Sullivan Ballou’s letter home:
The broadcast ultimately changed the perception many felt toward the historical documentary to that point. So, because of it and the anniversary, I plan on viewing thirteen (my lucky number) television and film works that have The Civil War as the subject or as a meaningful storyline element. If at all possible, I will include my son for all, and my daughter for some (if she’s willing), of these screenings. The project is my hope to promote some discussion with my children on the context of this focal conflict. The war that took 600,000 to 700,000 U.S. lives continues to echo in our history. And its aftereffects persist into the 21st century, and I believe, has an impact on my kids’ lives. While the real war lasted almost four years, I plan to wrap this up by the end of 2011. I may post something on each, but I’m undecided on the format, or the aspect it’ll take (it may only be a quiet acknowledgement). We’ll see.
Here is my screening list which includes a mix of seen/unseen works for the project:
- The Good, The Bad & The Ugly – Sergio Leone’s 1966 spaghetti western is a sweeping culmination to the Man With No Name trilogy. While the story covers the exploits of three gunslingers vying for their fortunes, it does so through the backdrop of Civil War battles and prison camps while chasing Confederate gold.
- The Red Badge of Courage – John Huston’s 1951 feature adaptation of Stephen Crane’s great war novel (required reading in my day) is considered, sadly, a mutilated film (cut down to barely 70 minutes by the studio). It is faithful to the story, nevertheless.
- The Andersonville Trial – George C. Scott (yes, the actor) directs the dramatic 1970 teleplay of the trial of Henry Wirz, the notorious commander of the Confederate POW camp in Andersonville, Georgia. The Broadway play by Saul Levitt served as its basis (like Burns’ documentary, it was originally shown on PBS).
- The Horse Soldiers – John Ford’s 1959 Union cavalry tale covers the historic Grierson’s Raid of 1863, that climaxes at the Battle of Newton Station, and is an underrated classic. While overly melodramatic in spots, it nonetheless examines the effect of the war on the South through the eyes of Union and Confederate soldiers.
- The General – Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton’s 1926 film will be the only comedy and silent film on this project’s docket. Based upon another real military raid, the 1862 Andrews Raid, the story’s perspective is shown distinctly through Confederate eyes. I’ve never seen it, but it is considered one of the greatest films ever made.
- Ride With The Devil – Ang Lee’s 1999 drama, based upon Daniel Woodrell’s Woe to Live On novel, detailing some of the aspects of the clannish border war between Missouri guerrillas and Jayhawk Union soldiers of Kansas. It is one of a small handful of films by this director I’ve not yet seen.
- The Outlaw Josey Wales – Clint Eastwood’s seminal 1976 western covers similar feuding ground in Missouri, like the above film, but examines the post-war period as it follows the saga of the revenge-filled Josey Wales as he makes his way to Texas, and ultimately a settling of debts and forgiveness.
- Gods & Generals – Ron F. Maxwell’s 2003 prequel to the next film on the list that primarily examines General Stonewall Jackson brief and brilliant war career as a Confederate officer. It’s based upon a Jeffrey Shaara (Michael’s son) novel of the same name. This will be my first viewing.
- Gettysburg – Ron F. Maxwell’s 1993 depiction of the decisive battle of the war at Gettysburg, PA. The film is based upon Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel, The Killer Angels, and takes the perspective of the commanding officers involved in this pivotal engagement.
- Shenandoah – Andrew V. McLaughlin’s 1965 anti-war story centering upon a Virginia farmer trying not in get involved, but in the end caught in the middle of the Civil War. This will be the last of my first screenings.
- The Beguiled – Don Siegel’s 1971 survival drama of a wounded Union soldier falling into the hands of an all-girl boarding house in Louisiana remains an odd but effective film. It’ll be interesting to see how my children view and handle the ambiguity presented in this southern gothic tale.
- Glory – Edward Zwick’s remarkable 1989 film that chronicles the true story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, the first black soldier infantry regiment. The real Colonel Shaw’s letters, and the two books by Lincoln Kirstein (Lay This Laurel) and Peter Burchard (One Gallant Rush), were the foundation. This one will undoubtably be the most emotional of this screening project.
- The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns – though PBS just finished its re-broadcast of this documentary series, I’m saving this for summer when things like homework won’t get in the way of my children’s first viewing. I hope to recreate the presentation by screening it over consecutive days.