Civil War Memory Through Film

video_littlest-rebelIam in the process of finalizing my elective for the next trimester, which begins after we return from Thanksgiving break.  It’s a course that I am calling Civil War Memory.  Last year I taught it as a straightforward readings course and this year the plan was to use it as a platform for doing some digital history.  Unfortunately, I am nowhere near to being ready to teach this kind of course.  I simply don’t feel comfortable enough with some of the technology necessary to make this a successful course.  Hopefully I can implement it next year.  This leaves me with the question of how to structure this year’s course.  As successful as last year’s version of the course was, I prefer to stay away from a readings course.  So, I am planning on teaching a course that emphasizes Civil War memory and popular culture through film.  This way, I can still utilize the books that have been ordered, especially Blight’s Race and Reunion, along with selections from recent books by Gary Gallagher and Brian Wills.

I guess a traditional film history course would emphasize the big Hollywood movies; however, I want to cast my net much wider.  It would include YouTube videos on the Civil War.  Yes, most of them are absolutely ridiculous, but they brilliantly capture a number of narrative threads in our collective memory of the Civil War.  I absolutely love this one.  I also want to include National Park Service videos such as the civilian film at Fredericksburg as well as the new introductory film at Gettysburg.  This will allow us to talk about issues related to public history.  As a final project students could work in small groups to create their own Civil War film as entertainment, documentary, etc.

Now for your help.  The course runs for ten weeks and in regards to feature films I anticipate being able to show one movie per week, in addition to discussions about the film.  I would love to hear your choices for top Hollywood films on the Civil War.  We all know the high profile films such as Gone With the Wind and Shenandoah.  Feel free to emphasize those films, but I am more interested in those films that fall somewhere off the beaten path.

I leave you with a scene from a movie that was released by a small independent company.  It’s called Wicked Spring and it tells the story of a Confederate and Union soldier who find themselves cut off from their units duirng the battle of the Wilderness.

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation if you are so inclined. Follow me on Twitter and join the Civil War Memory Facebook group for continuous updates and additional links to newsworthy items from around the interwebs. Stay up to date by subscribing to this blog’s feed. You can also check out my recently published book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.

40 comments… add one

  • Vicki Betts Oct 28, 2009

    Pharoah's Army (1995), produced and directed by Robby Henson, starring Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Kris Kristofferson, Richard Tyson, Huckleberry Fox, Will Lucas

    “Five Union soldiers are foraging for food at a small Kentucky farm when one young soldier (Fox) is badly injured and his captain, John Abston (Cooper), is forced to stay put while he treats the wounds. The farm is home to Sarah Anders (Clarkson) and her young son (Lucas), while her husband is off fighting for the Confederates. Sarah isn't happy about the arrangement but the decent Alston, a farmer himself in peacetime, begins slowly to win her over. Their friendship, however, doesn't sit well with either his men nor Sarah's son. Fine performances in a restrained drama.”

    Vicki Betts

    • Kevin Levin Oct 28, 2009

      A wonderful film that is definitely on my short list.

      • Vicki Betts Oct 28, 2009

        I was told, but I don't know if it is true, that the photograph of the soldier used in the film is an actual ancestor of Robby Henson from Kentucky. His grandmother (?) was convinced that he was a Confederate soldier, but the man was actually wearing a federal shell jacket. Supposedly Henson didn't have the heart to tell his grandmother otherwise. If the story is true it says even more about Confederate memory, particularly in Kentucky, where, it is said, the citizens (white) only joined the Confederacy after the war was over. It has been too long since I saw Pharoah's Army to remember exactly what the photo looked like.

  • karenlcox Oct 28, 2009

    Well, let me add “The Littlest Rebel” (1935) starring Shirley Temple. She was the biggest box office star of the time and it came out before GWTW. All the stereotypes of African Americans are there, and even little Shirley appears in blackface as she hides from the marauding Yankees. For something even earlier, try “The General” (1925, I think) with Buster Keaton. I just wrote the film chapter in my book so these are on my mind.

  • msimons Oct 28, 2009
  • msimons Oct 28, 2009

    The Blue and the Gray mini series might have some stuff you could use. I remember it because part of it was filmed in Arkansas and used students as extras from the UA.

  • Kevin Levin Oct 28, 2009

    Excellent suggestions so far. Keep them coming.

  • Terry Johnston Oct 28, 2009

    Kevin:

    Without a doubt, Ride with the Devil, which focuses on the border war in Missouri. It didn't do well at the box office, but it's a great film—one of my favorites, regardless of genre, of the past ten or so years. Ang Lee directed. Some great performances.

    Depending on which direction you end up taking with your class, you might want to contact Rob Hodge at Wide Awake Films. He would be a great source, I'd think, on the modern-day Civil War documentary.

  • CraigS Oct 28, 2009

    A little outside of the strict Civil War category, but are you familiar with “Media Made Dixie” by Jack Kirby? I hear a revised/updated edition was released a few years back. I recall he spent a chapter or two specifically focused on how the Civil War was portrayed on film.

    I would second “The Undefeated”, but would also mention the Duke in “The Horse Soldiers.” Just a lot of generalizations and characterizations in those two movies. And as long as I'm plugging John Wayne's work, why not consider “Dark Command” and “Ride with the Devil” for compare/contrast?

  • Andrea Oct 28, 2009

    I'll preface this by saying I'm a horror buff when it comes to movies, so I'm not sure how entirely applicable these may be, but I thought they both said something sort of interesting about how That War is used in pop culture.

    You might want to use the first half-hour or so of Dead Birds. It's a horror flick and I'm not sure the majority of it would be applicable, but the main characters are a group of Confederate deserters on the run, along with the wife?girlfriend? of one of 'em and an escaped slave. The beginning scene-setting says some interesting things to me about the portrayal of Confederates, mostly because it opens with a blood-bath and I think part of the reason we're supposed to find it shocking is the Lost Cause party line about noble Confederate soldiers.

    Grey Knight is the director's cut of The Lost Brigade (aka The Ghost Brigade and The Killing Box, apparently they couldn't make up their minds on a title) that attempts to “deal sensitively with the core issues” of That War while simultaneously introducing zombies. No, seriously, I'm not kidding. I didn't think it did either of those things particularly *well* but it sure made me giggle a bunch.

  • markrcheathem Oct 28, 2009

    C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is a great satirical look at what might have occurred had the Confederacy won.

  • Bob_Pollock Oct 28, 2009

    There was a film released not too long ago called American Drummer Boy. I haven't seen it, but it looks interesting. Anyone seen it?

    Also, I don't know how you could do a CW film class without showing at least some of Birth of a Nation and some of Griffith's shorts like The House with Closed Shutters.

  • chrismeekins Oct 28, 2009

    Not a film but a short feature – Looney Toons: Southern Fried Rabbit. Goofy Bugs humor a has enough stereo-types along the way to get discussion going…

  • Brookdalian Oct 28, 2009

    How about “The Beguiled,” with Clint Eastwood?

  • margaretdblough Oct 28, 2009

    Kevin=You really have to leave room for the actively historically awful movies. My favorite, in that regard, is “The Santa Fe Trail” featuring JEB Stuart (played by Erroll Flynn) and George Armstrong Custer (played by Ronald Reagan; I'm NOT kidding) as classmates & best friends at West Point (yes, I know Stuart was Class of 1854 and Custer graduated (barely) in June of 1861, but don't be picky<g>) vying over a totally fictional female character played by Olivia deHavilland. It's only really historically redeeming portrayal was the Raymond Massey channeling John Brown. The quality of Massey's acting actually throws the cheerful tackiness of the rest of the movie somewhat out of kilter, although I think it would have pleased Custer no end to know that he was being portrayed by a future US President.

    • toby Oct 29, 2009

      Loved the film … it is Hollywood Historical Hokum at its best … other “classmates” of Custer and Stuart include Sheridan, Hood, Pickett, & Longstreet.

      Michael Curtiz also diected Errol Flynn in The Charge of the Light Brigade (Crimean War), in which incidents from the Indian Mutiny (a major rebellion British Rule in India, “mutiny” is an understatement) are introduced as a prequel to the Charge. However, the Mutiny took place about five years after the famous Charge!

      In those days, a historically correct narrative sequence was not allowed to screw up a good plot! The film itself is a brilliant spectacle, with Flynn at his swashbuckling best.

      • margaretdblough Oct 29, 2009

        It's like “historical” films about Elizabeth I & Mary Queen of Scots. You'll never see one without an confrontation between them which NEVER happened. Elizabeth refused to for a complex mix of reasons, including knowing she might have to someday execute Mary to elimiinate her as a rallying point for Catholics in England who wanted Elizabeth dethroned.

      • Bryan Cheeseboro May 18, 2012

        One interesting note about Santa Fe Trail…

        The movie begins with a cadet horse riding drill at West Point. When the cadets turn in their saddles after riding, they are called by name. The first two names called are William Dorsey Pender (North Carolina) and Charles Greene Sawtelle (Maine), two of the ACTUAL members of the Class of 1854. Neither man, nor anyone else except for Stuart, who was actually in the ’54 class, is ever mentioned again in the film. Anyway, I’ve always taken the mention of Sawtelle and Pender to mean that the producers of SFT actually had knowledge of the real history but chose to reject it for their own story.

        Pender served in the 1st US Artillery after graduation, resigned in 1861, fought in all the major engagements of 1862 with the Army of Northern Virginia and died a couple of weeks after Gettysburg of wounds received there.

        Sawtelle began his career as an army quartermaster in 1857 and served in that department throughout the war. In 1896, he was made Quartermster General of the US Army, retiring from service at that rank in 1897. He died in 1913.

  • woodrowfan Oct 29, 2009

    How about the Twilight Zone episode “”The Passersby”? it might be a good example of the reconciliation theme that was emphasized during the Centennial. (It aired in late 1961)

    • toby Oct 29, 2009

      Was that the one where a woman waits for her son?husband?brother? while a line of exhausted soldiers shuffle past? Finally there appears … Abe Lincoln, “the last casualty of the Civil War”. The soldiers are the Civil War dead, going home.

      If that is the episode, then it was a memorable one, because I only saw it once, and still recall it after nearly 50 years!

      • woodrowfan Oct 29, 2009

        That's it. There's also another one where a man with a time machine tries to change history but finds that he can't. I think one of the things he tried to do is save Lincoln at Ford's Theater…..

  • Kevin Levin Oct 29, 2009

    Thanks again everyone for the suggestions. It's not going to be easy to narrow the list down. Keep them coming.

  • Vicki Betts Oct 29, 2009

    “The Private History of a Campaign that Failed” (1981)

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0081377/

  • Terry Johnston Oct 29, 2009

    Kevin:

    In the category of so-bad-it's-kinda-good, I'd nominate “Massacre at Fort Holman.” It's basically a Civil War based, Spaghetti Western version of The Dirty Dozen. If I recall correctly, a bunch of condemned men are given a reprieve from the gallows in exchange for participating in a commando-like mission, led by James Coburn and ostensibly to retrieve a cache of gold hidden in a CSA fort. But Coburn's really out for revenge, against CSA officer and the fort's commander, Telly Savalas. No basis in fact, of course.

  • Tim Abbott Oct 29, 2009

    Cold Mountain?

  • Matt Oct 29, 2009

    Johnny Shiloh was a Disney movie about the very young Union drummer boy.

    Disney also did something about Mosby. I remember because the guy who was “book
    em Dano” from Hawai Five O was a Union soldier.

    Disney also did an episode with Richard Anderson as an escaped Union officer who shelters with a southern family, with their father(Ralph Waite, the dad from the Waltons). Later the family is driven from their homes by some sort of gang of ruffians. Dad comes home, rounds up some of his ex confederate friends, but they can't shift the better armed ruffians. A company of Union soldiers shows up, lead by. wait for it. Richard Anderson. Spencer rifles are featured. Reconciliation as north and south unite against villians.

    I saw that maybe forty years ago. But I can't find my cell phone.
    Matt M.

  • Matt Oct 29, 2009

    It wasn't Ralph Waite….damn it…I can see his face.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Oct 29, 2009

    “Santa Fe Trail,” already mentioned, would achieve many of the goals you would desire, as would a certain film by D. W. Griffiths … no, not “Birth of a Nation,” but his 1930 “Abraham Lincoln.” “Shenandoah's” also wonderful.

  • toby Oct 30, 2009

    I think “Glory” is the best Civil War movie of them all .. great production values, great acting, and tackling a big theme.

    You could look at “Missouri-based” movies as an interesting sub-genre. The exemplar is “The Outlaw Josey Wales”, Clint Eastwood as a fleeing Confederate guerilla seeking refuge/ redemption and eventually finding it. Eastwood's later “Unforgiven” (a better movie, but I have a sneaking love for the shoot-em-up epic Josey Wales) has him play Will Munny, a Confederate ex-guerilla who ultimately spurns redemption for violence.

    Confederate ex-guerillas often turn up as the James and Younger gangs, as in The Long Riders. After being captured, one of the Youngers (played by Keith Carradine) tells a reporter about the Northfield Minnesota raid, apparently with no irony intended, “We did it for Dixie”. The ex-guerilla movie may give a more honest appraisal of the Lost Cause than movies like Gods and Generals.

  • CraigS Oct 30, 2009

    How about “Red Badge of Courage” – the one with Audie Murphy. Granted there was some studio politics that prevented Huston from making the most of the movie, but I consider it among the best made from a soldiers point of view.

  • msimons Oct 30, 2009

    From what has been suggested your going to have a fun time with this class. Hopefully you will keep us posted on what you use and the studnets reactions to it.

  • Matt McKeon Oct 30, 2009

    The Outlaw Josey Wales and Cold Mountain have virtually the same plot. Except that Jude Law looks distressed as he kills people, and Clint Eastwood seems to be enjoying himself.

    What's the Abe Lincoln one about him as defending a murder suspect.? Henry Fonda plays Lincoln I believe.
    Matt

    • toby Oct 30, 2009

      To give a classical spin: the plot of Cold Mountain is from the Odyssey: the warrior making his way home to his devoted loved one through many adventures. Josey Wales is Aeneas, driven from his home and wandering to find a new one, similarly through many adventures.

      Cold Mountain is a good movie; how accurate a portrayal of the Confederate Home Front I do not know. But it should be on the list.

      Referring back to Confederate guerilla movies, another one is True Grit. Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) affirms proudly he rode with Quantrill, the cool clean Glen Campbell character served (he tells us) under Edmund Kirby Smith. Cogburn laughs – this exchange is meant to tell us something about the characters of both men.

    • toby Oct 30, 2009

      The Henry Fonda film is Young Mister Lincoln. I suppose it has a Lincoln connection with the Civil War. Fonda was a bit too handsome to play a convincing Lincoln, but it is a very good movie.

      If you let in Young Mister Lincoln, then why not Amistad, as a prequel to the Civil War? Also a first class movie, almost making a matinee idol of John Quincy Adams in the process.

  • toby Nov 2, 2009

    You might like to check out Raintree County, a 1957 vehicle for a new star Elizabeth Taylor. Might be good for a perspective between Gone With the Wind & the Civil Rights Era, which was just beginning.

    I remember seeing it some years ago and thought it was awful.

    Montgomery Clift as a callow young poet is torn between tempestuous Southern belle Taylor and dewy-eyed Indiana lass Eva Marie Saint, against a backdrop of the Civil War. Maybe Clift represents a conflicted USA, but it does not help much.

    I cam across one comment when I checked the film on the internet – the novelist whose work was used as the basis for the movie died before it was screened. One of his friends commented: “It helped me accept his death, because at least he was spared this.”

  • Chris Evans Nov 13, 2009

    I would recommend also some three very good films from TNT:
    1)'Andersonville' from 1996 Directed by John Frankenheimer
    2)The Hunley' from 1999 with Armand Assante and Donald Sutherland as Beauregard
    3)'The Day Lincoln was Shot' from 1998 with a very good Rob Morrow as John Wilkes Booth and Lance Henriksen as Abraham Lincoln. One of the best depictions of the assassination done so far.

  • Chris Evans Nov 13, 2009

    To add to my last post:

    'Gettysburg' should also be shown ,at least segments of it, as it is very faithful to Michael Shaara's novel and I still think a very good movie that contains wonderful performances by Jeff Daniels as Chamberlain and Sam Elliott as John Buford.

    To show how history can be twisted someone brought up 'Santa Fe Trail' but also 'Horse Soldiers' with John Wayne and directed by the great John Ford is very historically inaccurate. Confederates charge down a single street and are almost killed to the man. Not good history at all but some find it entertaining. It is quite old fashioned but can be shown as an example of something historical such as Grierson's Raid being turned into Hollywood.

    Also 'They Died with their boots on' with Errol Flynn as Custer has a Civil War segment too. It's depiction of Custer at Gettysburg is fairly interesting even though it contains inaccuracies such as Winfield Scott commanding the Union armies throughout the whole war.

    'How the West was Won' has a Civil War segment set at the Battle of Shiloh with George Peppard, Harry Morgan as Grant, John Wayne as Sherman and this segment was directed by John Ford. This would also be worth watching.

    There is also the low budget 'Journey to Shiloh' with James Caan and a very young Harrison Ford that depicts some Texas boys being recruited by Braxton Bragg and thrown into the battle. It is not great history at all but it is kind of interesting. I think it contains the only cinematic depiction of Braxton Bragg however historically inaccurate it is.

  • Chris Evans Nov 13, 2009

    I would recommend also some three very good films from TNT:
    1)'Andersonville' from 1996 Directed by John Frankenheimer
    2)The Hunley' from 1999 with Armand Assante and Donald Sutherland as Beauregard
    3)'The Day Lincoln was Shot' from 1998 with a very good Rob Morrow as John Wilkes Booth and Lance Henriksen as Abraham Lincoln. One of the best depictions of the assassination done so far.

  • Chris Evans Nov 13, 2009

    To add to my last post:

    'Gettysburg' should also be shown ,at least segments of it, as it is very faithful to Michael Shaara's novel and I still think a very good movie that contains wonderful performances by Jeff Daniels as Chamberlain and Sam Elliott as John Buford.

    To show how history can be twisted someone brought up 'Santa Fe Trail' but also 'Horse Soldiers' with John Wayne and directed by the great John Ford is very historically inaccurate. Confederates charge down a single street and are almost killed to the man. Not good history at all but some find it entertaining. It is quite old fashioned but can be shown as an example of something historical such as Grierson's Raid being turned into Hollywood.

    Also 'They Died with their boots on' with Errol Flynn as Custer has a Civil War segment too. It's depiction of Custer at Gettysburg is fairly interesting even though it contains inaccuracies such as Winfield Scott commanding the Union armies throughout the whole war.

    'How the West was Won' has a Civil War segment set at the Battle of Shiloh with George Peppard, Harry Morgan as Grant, John Wayne as Sherman and this segment was directed by John Ford. This would also be worth watching.

    There is also the low budget 'Journey to Shiloh' with James Caan and a very young Harrison Ford that depicts some Texas boys being recruited by Braxton Bragg and thrown into the battle. It is not great history at all but it is kind of interesting. I think it contains the only cinematic depiction of Braxton Bragg however historically inaccurate it is.

  • marooned Dec 14, 2011

    By all that I can retrieve from history, this still underplays the sheer horror.

    When anyone talks about “glory” and “honor” in any war, they should be required to watch this.

    Stupidity, greed and disfunction in the ruling-class is all that operates.

Leave a Comment