There have plenty of movies involving the Civil War that have been produced over the last century. But does anyone really have hundreds of hours to weed through titles? We’ve compiled a list of some of the most well-regarded Civil War movies ever produced. While not a comprehensive list, these four movies spotlighted - ‘Gettysburg’, ‘The Red Badge of Courage’, ‘Glory’, and ‘Lincoln’ - take a look at different aspects of the Civil War. All four are praised for their accuracy and detail when portraying historical events. So sit back, grab some popcorn, and read on to learn more about some of the best war films Hollywood has to offer.
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I. Gettysburg, 1993
‘Gettysburg’ is a 1993 war film staring Jeff Daniel and Martin Sheen. It begins with the Confederate Army invading the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania - the site of the three-day turning point of the Civil War - and the Union army’s efforts to defend the high ground. The first day of fighting - July 1st - is shown in a series of bloody battles, particularly by Union troops under Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. However, as the film continues, the movie shifts to the human element of the war: Stories about the lives of both officers and soldiers alike. The second half of the movie focuses in on General Robert E. Lee - the head of the Continental Army - and his plans to launch a disastrous frontal assault on Union forces, culminating in the infamous Pickett’s Charge. The movie ends with revealing the fates of those major figures on both sides of the war.
The four-hour movie is considered by critics to be one of the most accurate and realistic depictions of the Civil War. This is due to the film’s consultation of historians and Civil War experts so that the battles and historical figures were portrayed as accurately as possible. Additionally, the film filmed on location, meaning that moviegoers were looking at the same scenery that Union and Confederate soldiers would have encountered 130 years prior to the film’s release. On top of this, the movie used reenactors dressed in period uniforms and equipped with period weapons to help immerse the audience in the experience.
By all accounts, Richard Jordan’s gives a standout performance as Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, his final role before succumbing to a brain tumor. According to movie critic Roger Ebert, Jordan’s monologue about death is a powerful moment during the 4.5 hour movie.
Something that is notable about the movie is the fact that director Ronald F. Maxwell made the concerted effort to only tell the story of the people and events of the Battle of Gettysburg; there’s no romantic subplot (in fact, there are no women cast in the movie at all). The 4.5 hour movie is focused on accuracy, so much so that casual viewers might be overwhelmed with the plethora of information. However, the attention to detail is such that this film is a boon to Civil War buffs and an valuable tool to teach novices about the turning point in the four year war between the states.
II. The Red Badge of Courage, 1951
‘The Red Badge of Courage’ is a 1951 war film directed and written by John Huston. The movie chronicles the story of Henry Fleming, a soldier in the Union Army who deserts during an engagement with Confederate soldiers. Ashamed of his actions and wishing that he also had a “red badge of courage” (battle wound), Fleming returns to his regiment with more bravery than in the beginning. In fact, after he and his friend Tom overhear of a planned Confederate attack, the two men inform their regiment.
The regiment attacks, and Fleming takes up the United States flag and charges into battle. After meeting the Confederate flag bearer on the field and witnessing his demise, Fleming briefly carries both flags as Union troops subdue the rebel soldiers. When he reveals to one of his fellow soldiers that he had originally deserted, his friend also admits that he deserted as well. However, the difference was that Henry returned on his own, while his friend was caught and forced back to battle.
Here's some of our favorite quick facts about the movie:
It's known for its haunting and realistic portrayal of the carnage of war.
It's full of battle scenes with smoke and gunfire, disorienting both soldiers and audience alike.
The soldiers’ horror is on full display, and the director uses close-up shots of the actors’ faces as they show fear and panic on the battlefield.
The film depicts the wounded and dying soldier covered in blood as they die where they stand or shortly after their skirmishes with rebel troops.
In the midst of the horrors of war, the film also focuses on the ideas of courage and redemption. Fleming learns that courage is not just charging into battle, but courage is also about overcoming fear itself.
Audie Murphy was cast as Henry Fleming, and his performance is considered to be one of the highlights of the film. This is due to his convincing portrayal and transformation from cowardly novice to courageous and experienced soldier. The supporting cast of Bill Mauldin, Douglas Dick, and Royal Dano play Fleming’s comrades in arms. They too help demonstrate the themes of courage and bravery as the grapple with things like their own feelings of fear and the death of their comrades.
While ‘The Red Badge of Courage’ will sometimes be portrayed in local theatrical productions, the 1951 movie is the most faithful and famous adaptation of the book.
III. Glory, 1989
‘Glory’ is a 1989 war film directed by Edward Zwick. The movie depicts the deeds of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first African-American regiments in the American Civil War. The movie follows Captain Robert Shaw (Matthew Broderick) and the training of African-American soldiers in their regiment. When the men learn of the Confederacy’s policy of executing any black soldiers wearing Union uniforms, Shaw offers honorable discharge to any of his men who do not want to fight. However, not a single man takes up his offer.
Despite their willingness to fight for the North, the 54th continues to face racist policies ranging from subpar supplies to unfair wages. The regiment is finally given assignments, with the major campaign being capturing Fort Wagner at Charleston Harbor. Certain to face heavy losses, the regiment holds a religious service the night before, and on its way to the battlefield, the 54th is cheered on by other white Union troops. After the charge, the Confederate soldiers still hold the fort. However, Shaw and over half of the 54th lie dead. Still, the courage of the regiment helped convince Congress to allow for even more black soldiers to enlist.
‘Glory’ is recognized for its effort to accurately and respectfully portray African American soldiers during the Civil War. To begin with, historians who were experts on the Civil War and African American history were consulted during filming. Additionally, the film focuses on the real-life discrimination the soldiers faced in addition to their sacrifices on the battlefield. At a time when minority voices were often overlooked at this time in history, the movie ‘Glory’ served as a way to showcase the contributions of African Americans during the war.
Of notable acclaim are the performances by actors like Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick, Cary Elwes, and Morgan Freeman. Washington’s portrayal of runaway slave Trip netted him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Broderick was also lauded for his performance as Robert Shaw and his evolution as an inexperienced leader to a well-respected captain. Finally, Elwes’ Major Cabot Forbes demonstrated how prejudiced members of the Union army came around to respecting members of the African American soldiers.
If you are interested in viewing other movies that focus on African Americans who served in the Civil War, check out the 2014 film ‘Freedom’. ‘Freedom’ focuses on a group of runaway slaves - led by Samuel Woodward, and portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. - with their struggles and challenges fighting in the Union Army.
IV. Lincoln, 2012
To round out our list of suggested Civil War movies is ‘Lincoln’, which marks the final four months of President Abraham Lincoln’s life. Beginning in January 1865 with the Civil War winding down, Lincoln is determined to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolishes slavery in the United States. The movie explores the opposition Lincoln faced in both the Democratic Party and his own Republican Party, as well as political negotiations to secure votes for the passage of the amendment.
At the same time, the movie also focuses on the personal struggles of Lincoln during the end of the war, including his relationships with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, and his son Robert “Teddy” Lincoln. While political tactics eventually ensure the passage of the 13th amendment, the film ends with Lincoln’s assassination and details of its aftermath.
The movie ‘Lincoln’ focuses on the end of the Civil War and the politics that ensued to get the 13th Amendment added to the Constitution. Historians and film critics alike preface their praise with the reminder that some parts of the film are dramatized, but that for the most part the events and characters portrayed are relatively accurate.
Several actors cast in the movie received Oscar nominations, with Daniel Day-Lewis winning the Academy Award for Best Actor as Lincoln. Day-Lewis’ research into all aspects of Lincoln - including mannerisms and speech - helped him nab the Oscar. Also of note was the performance of Tommy Lee Jones, who received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor as Thaddeus Stevens, a prominent abolitionist.
While the movie is not in and of itself a war movie, it does focus on the politics revolving around the end of the Civil War itself.
The movies ‘Gettysburg’, ‘The Red Badge of Courage’, ‘Glory’, and ‘Lincoln’ all revolve around the horrors of war. However, they focus on the history of the brave men who took up arms for their country, or they focus on those in power who fought to truly establish that all men are created equal. Experiencing one - or all four - of these stories brings to light how human interactions and transformations can greatly affect consequential events in history.
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