It’s now been over 150 years since the sureender at Appomattox Court House, which was the first step toward the end of the Civil War (May 10, 1865 marked the final march with the capture of Jefferson Davis). In the following century and a half, the effects of the war, and the original sin that propagated it, are still felt every day in the news, and with every election cycle that sees familiar lines of division amongst the states that participated in America’s bloodiest conflict. And it has lived on in our fiction and our art.
As the most utilized era for American literature in the 20th century, the Civil War has captured the imagination in many a book and story. It has even occasionally found its way to the big screen. In this vein, we have assembled 12 of the best Civil War movies right here.
12. The Red Badge of Courage (1951)
A good place to start with any study of Civil War films is with the one that adapted arguably the definitive Civil War novel: The Red Badge of Courage. Named after its central hero’s greatest desire, Red Badge follows a young private in the Union army that wishes to wash away his shame with a crimson gush after fleeing the field of battle in an act of cowardice.
The 1895 novel by Stephen Crane is considered iconic by many, not least of all because it was published before Southern revisionism transformed the conflict for several generations as a Lost Cause romance between Southern gallantry and Northern aggression. Crane’s narrative instead focused on the psychological effects of the war from the perspective of a universally poignant young soldier, who is depicted as a human and not a Yankee carpetbagger.
Hence why this 1951 film is considered a mutilated classic in some circles. Hard-living John Huston had returned from the great war of his lifetime, of the WWII variety, and his cynical outlook crystallized in films like The Maltese Falcon (1941) became only bitterer, such as in The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948). With Red Badge, Huston utilized “crime picture” (film noir) techniques with his black and white photography and vision, creating a darker chaotic atmosphere for hardly vainglorious war.
However, The Red Badge of Courage film remains mostly a curiosity now given its visual style but undeniably slight influence. After the film tested poorly with early screenings, MGM cut the film down to a barebones running time of 69 minutes, stitched together only by voiceover narration lifted straight from Crane’s prose. The result is a fascinating, frustrated mess.
11. Horse Soldiers (1959)
Not exactly John Ford’s best film, Horse Soldiers is one of the few times the legendary director ever directly dealt with the Civil War. The conflict informed characters from many of his classics, including Stagecoach (1939), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and The Searchers (1956), but Horse Soldiers is the rare instance he addressed the war head-on for a full feature length film.
As it stands, Horse Soldiers is mostly a “men on a mission” adventure film that sugarcoats bloodshed as something closer to John Wayne pageantry. Still, William Holden is terrific in the film, and it shines a light on the Vicksburg campaign where a Union cavalry unit led by Wayne and Holden disrupt Confederate supply lines.
10. Cold Mountain (2003)
Adapted from Charles Frazier’s 1997 book of the same name, Cold Mountain was a prestige picture intended to bleed Oscar gold. With a cast that included Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger at the height of their awards darling fame, and from director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley), Miramax wanted this saga of a North Carolinian deserter and the woman he left behind to be a modern day Gone with the Wind, even if it was shot in Romania.
The film didn’t live up to such lofty aspirations, but it did net Zellweger her much sought-after Oscar. Also, I actually think despite its more cynical elements, it is still a wonderfully harrowing tale that, much like Frazier’s novel, recounts another side of the Civil War.
As a North Carolinian myself, it is admirable to see a Southern Civil War experience far from the plantation life that is reminisced or mocked in so many other narratives. North Carolina, one of the last states to join the Confederacy and one of the least loved by its Virginian capital, was relatively poorer than its neighbors and the leader in deserters. With so many rural young men sent to die for an institution they could not afford, the state’s futile suffering was only compounded.
More than in the scenes of Kidman and Zellweger, this is embodied by Jude Law’s moody performance as W.P. Inman, a fleeing soldier that will cross his devastated homeland to find his lady love. It is also in the people he meets on his odyssey that make this truly stand out, such as a new mother and fresh widow played by Natalie Portman. Ray Winstone also wonderfully embodies the viciousness of the Confederate Home Guard in the picture, an organization not known for its mercy toward deserters or their families.
9. How the West Was Won (1962)
Hollywood’s big grand love letter to the mythology of the West (note: not history), How the West Was Won is a hodgepodge pastiche of conflicting ideas, daydreams, and an all-star parade that includes Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Lee J. Cobb, Carolyn Jones, Richard Widmark, and many more. The best sequences in the film involve Debbie Reynolds running off from her frontier-settling sister to the pains of “Greensleeves,” becoming a riverboat dancer and falling for Peck’s sheepish gambler.
But for a film that attempts to narrate the entire 19th century American experience, it could not skip the Civil War, which appears as a segment directed by John Ford, and features Harry Morgan as Ulysses S. Grant and, of all people, John Wayne as William Tecumseh Sherman. The irony of this being only a few years after Wayne played Yankee-hating Texan hombre Ethan Edwards in The Searchers is alone worth the price of admission.
Both men are there when a Confederate soldier attempts to gun down Grant after the Battle of Shiloh. Ultimately, a Union private (George Peppard), who is the son of a previous generation of characters from earlier segments, saves his commander by being forced to kill a spy. It is heavy handed, and not the film’s best segment, but like so much else with the Civil War, it feels torn between its loyalties.
8. Gangs of New York (2002)
Gangs of New York was the masterpiece that Martin Scorsese never got to make. At least that was the project’s reputation when Harvey Weinstein gave the Goodfellas filmmaker carte blanche (save for final cut) to make whatever picture he wanted. The result is a big budget opera that is as messy as the cultural melting pot it idolizes with nostalgia and disdain—it is also just as undeniably fascinating.
Set in a New York that was only beginning to fall into the clutches of Boss Tweed, most of the film takes place during the height of the Civil War in 1863. While the greater American conflict is mostly a stage for a blood and tears passion play between a young Irish immigrant (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the contradictory, bigoted father figure he swore to assassinate (Daniel Day-Lewis), it comes crashing into the overall narrative in fitting fashion.
Either too long or too short (again, the editing is chaotic), Gangs of New York is still a marvelous film that allows Scorsese to explore the immigrant experience that is mostly forgotten about when it was the Irish who endured Nativist prejudice and violence, as opposed to the filmmaker’s own Italian roots from the more cinematically represented early 20th century (or what Hispanics are facing today).
It also allowed Scorsese to showcase a major incident during the Civil War that is often overlooked due to its ugliness: the Draft Riots of 1863. As the first generation forced to deal with the draft, the working poor were understandably galvanized to frenzy when they’re youth are conscripted at gunpoint to join the Union army while the sons of New York’s rich and elite could buy their way out of the draft for $300 (about $5,000 by today’s standards). But it takes on a horrific, bloody visage when the protests turn to violence, and African-Americans are lynched in the street by a community meant to be on the side of Our Better Angels.
Like so much in life, petty squabbles and small-minded racisms are laid bare for their pointlessness when history and political realities are confronted, as seen in the film’s closing moments when the riots and reacting Union army obliterates petty gang rivalries.
7. Friendly Persuasion (1956)
Despite its light-hearted title and often even lighter frivolity, Friendly Persuasion is in many respects about how persuasive the call to violence and war tends to be. Set in Indiana during the Civil War, the film centers on a family of Quakers overseen by a doting and deeply religious mother/minister (Dorothy McGuire) and her slightly more worldly and apprehensive husband (Gary Cooper). While the film is mostly a comedy about staying above violence and familial life bearing many similarities in all generations, be it the 1950s or 1860s.
However, war finally comes to town when Confederate Bushwhackers and Johnny “Rebs” slaughter a nearby community, incentivizing the family’s oldest son, a pre-Psycho Anthony Perkins, to pick up a gun and fight back. It tears the family apart, and forces a father to find his son after he is injured on the frontline.
I am not sure how accurate the Bushwhacking/Jayhawking is to Indiana in this era (please let me know if you are well versed), but whatever the historical accuracy, this is a wonderfully poignant family dramedy that makes great use of its setting.
6. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Inarguably one of the best films on this list, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly also is quite arguably a Civil War film. Hence, this relatively low ranking on a Civil War list. Nonetheless, it represents an interesting reason as to why there are so few true blue Civil War movies in the latter half of the 20th century: a genuine distaste for the subject.
Director Sergio Leone fancied himself as something of a history buff and had studied with great enthusiasm the horrors of the Andersonville camp years before the third part of his “Dollars Trilogy” came about. Thus, he claimed to understand the American Civil War, but scoffed at the concept that only the “losers” of the conflict committed such mistreatment to prisoners of war. Granted, much of it had to do with the dwindling supplies and resources in the southern states as the war dragged on than it did with any sort of pure malevolence, but Leone (with heavy revisionism) imagined that the better-funded Union was just as cruel to prisoners out of spite.
So when Clint Eastwood’s good anti-hero and Eli Wallach’s not-so-good, ugly bandit are captured by Union troops, they are tortured within an inch of their lives. Other Union soldiers are depicted better when feuding over a bridge with a Confederate army commanded by Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley—who incidentally really did engineer a failed campaign from Texas into the American Southwest in 1862 in an attempt to take Santa Fe, gold resources along the Rockies, and cut off California—but all parties are ultimately presented as moronic, fighting over a bridge that neither side truly needs.
More a general commentary on the stupidity and pointlessness of war during the era when America was just ramping up its Vietnam madness, the Civil War in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly does not bear broad similarities to any specific event. But it makes for a powerful backdrop in one of the best Westerns ever made.
5. Lincoln (2012)
The most recent Steven Spielberg film is also one of the most deliberate and thoughtful in his catalogue. While maintaining Spielberg’s patented sentimentality to mostly successful effect, Lincoln more importantly attempts to simultaneously demythologize the sixteenth U.S. president while deifying him as the patron saint for executive action.
The film succeeds on both fronts thanks to two secrets, Daniel Day-Lewis and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Day-Lewis gives another tour de force performance—in ironically a historic personage his Gangs of New York character despised—as a folksy and elaborately researched rendering of the president that preserved the Union and ended the institution that threatened it so greatly.
The second aspect that makes Lincoln rise above any inclinations toward hagiography is its basis on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Rather than attempting to chronicle Lincoln’s entire life, or even his whole presidency, which Goodwin meticulously researched for her biography, Spielberg and Tony Kushner zeroed in on a narrow window between Lincoln’s reelection and his second inauguration. During this period, Lincoln outmaneuvered the pro-slavery Democrats in Congress and incalculably passed the 13th Amendment.
Often, Southern Revisionists point out that the Emancipation Proclamation was a political document that only “freed” slaves in the rebelling South while maintaining those in the border states that sided with the Union. As a result, it had no real teeth and was (partially) designed to force anti-slavery Britain from intervening on the South’s behalf.
Lincoln correctly points out that as the war was winding down, the president recognized this and used his political clout, and some less than honest sausage making, to end slavery once and for all. Despite taking place during the Civil War, Spielberg is content with rarely visiting the battlefield here, and instead focuses on Lincoln’s genius in a Capitol submerged in discontent and disdain. By studying only a narrow timeline, Lincoln casts a large shadow about the political brilliance of its subject while demystifying the time and acrimony in which he lived. But with Day-Lewis’ performance and Spielberg’s heartstring pulling, it makes him all the more monumental.
4. Gettysburg (1993)
Long before the sleep-inducing, Stonewall Jackson-worshipping Gods & Generals, Ronald F. Maxwell had much better success at recreating a Civil War saga with Gettysburg, an epic version of the battle that turned the tides of the Civil War.
Focused on Lee’s first and only effort to invade the North, which ended in ruin after three days of battle near the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, the four-hour picture was originally intended to be a miniseries. After it got the axe mid-production at ABC, Ted Turner picked it up initially for TNT, but eventually persuaded a distribution deal out of New Line.
Divided over three days between three points-of-view, (primarily John Buford, Joshua Chamberlain, and James Longstreet respectively), Gettysburg is either the most faithful rendering of a battle onscreen or the greatest effort at a reenactment ever assembled.
To be sure, Civil War re-enactors from around the country assembled in Pennsylvania for the first film ever shot on the actual battlefield/National Park it is set in—and the results are a little too clean and beautiful with surprisingly aged soldiers (re-enactors) bravely dying without an ounce of fear or hesitation.
Nonetheless, the film captures the tenor and philosophy of the Union and Confederate leaders very well (save for Martin Sheen’s strangely enfeebled Lee), and has moments of true transcendence, such as the Union bayonet charge led by Chamberlain at Little Round Top, and moments of agony, like the Confederate decimation on the third day during Pickett’s Charge. It’s worth following over that wall.
3. Ride with the Devil (1999)
In what I consider to be the most underrated film on this list, and certainly its director’s most overlooked picture, Ang Lee studied an American conflict from an outsider’s perspective for Ride with the Devil. Based upon Daniel Woodrell’s Woe to Live On, Lee and screenwriter James Schamus turned the camera on the oft-forgotten about border wars of Missouri and Kansas. As the literal center stage for rising tensions during the Antebellum period before the war, including with the Bleeding of Kansas and the famed Missouri Compromise, these areas were too removed from the armies fighting along the east coast to significantly matter. Instead, neighbors slaughtered neighbors based upon political persuasions. It was guerrilla warfare between Americans.
In this bloodbath, the filmmakers study teenage rebels, who like so many other young men “enlist” for the adventure. By joining the Bushwhackers (Confederate sympathizers) they fought as insurgents against their Jayhawk neighbors (Union ones). The film’s central hero of Jake Rodel (Tobey Maguire) isn’t even an American; he’s a German immigrant who traveled with his father as a boy to Missouri. However, his best friend is Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), a man from a family with gentry pretensions, albeit only George Clyde’s (Simon Baker) family is rich enough to own slaves—including Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright). Ergo, Jake must be a Bushwhacker.
The most interesting character in the film is Holt, who fights alongside these boys even after Clyde dies, providing an enigmatic figure that despises the Bushwhacker cause but shows a kinship with the ones who set him free. It is a nuanced account of the war where the “heroes” are shown early to slaughter unarmed family men, but the opposing Union antagonists will also murder Jake’s pro-Lincoln German father simply because he was Jake’s father.
Eventually, the banality of violence is brought to a tipping when William Quantrill leads all of the above on his infamous ride to Lawrence, Kansas where stationed Union soldiers, free black citizens, and just about any male old enough to pick up a rifle is executed.
Ride with the Devil makes time for the randomness of life, continuing long after the war ended for its central characters, forcing them to move on, but it also strikes at a chord about the cultural differences between those in Lawrence who built a school that required the community to be educated, and those that think “freedom” means no social responsibility. A dense drama, it deserves more recognition than it has known.
2. Gone with the Wind (1939)
The most famous film about the Civil War, Gone with the Wind also represents why there are so few quality ones being made. But whatever reservations I have about Gone with the Wind’s politics, there is no ignoring that it is a masterpiece of cinema.
By adapting Margaret Mitchell’s novel of the same name, producer David O. Selznick labored to make the most sweeping epic ever realized, and quite frankly succeeded with a film that still holds the record for the most tickets ever sold to a moving picture (sorry, Avatar and Avengers fans). The legendary story of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), a Georgian Southern belle forced to survive the Civil War by any means necessary, Gone with the Wind transcends its potential melodramatic underpinnings and nightmarish cycling through directors to achieve a vision of plantation gentility, Northern carpetbagging villainy, and Southern apology.
Yes, like the much more abhorrent Birth of a Nation (1915) before it, Gone with the Wind rewrites the history of the Civil War to be one of Southern aggrievement, whitewashing the horrors of slavery along the way. But for its era, Gone with the Wind featured major progress from Hollywood and even earned Hattie McDaniel an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, the first time an African-American was ever recognized (though she was not allowed to attend the film’s earlier Atlanta premiere due to segregation laws). Such Southern revisionism is ironically why Hollywood shied away from the subject years later, but it served as a monument to it here.
Despite these issues, Gone with the Wind is a part of American history itself as an expertly told and harrowing romance between Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), Scarlett O’Hara, and her infatuation for herself, traversing several decades and four hours for a yawning journey. Scarlett goes from apathetic reveler to destitute survivor to triumphant schemer. She even finds time to pine for her supposed best friend’s husband during all these years. Forget Sherman, the biggest scorched earth left in this Technicolor wonder is Scarlett’s pleas for “Ashley Wilkes” behind a misty-eyed, backward-looking Max Steiner score.
Don’t worry Rhett, you still got the last word.
1. Glory (1989)
Robert Gould Shaw commanded the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry into only one full-fledged battle before he lost his life (and the 54th lost over half their numbers). But it was one gallant rush that has been eulogized and memorialized for generations. Indeed, it was also a nigh suicide mission issued to the first African-American infantry by the U.S. military, and they executed with valor and distinction.
This is also the basis of Edward Zwick’s wistful Glory, a film about this heroically doomed charge. The film is led by a competent Matthew Broderick as Shaw, but the real power comes from its cast of volunteers that includes Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, and Jihmi Kennedy. A multitude of experiences led to that fateful day outside of Fort Wagner, both for escaped slaves and free men, and all are explored and viscerally felt here.
If not the course of the war, their sacrifice changed the way the U.S. government viewed many of its citizens and altered the destiny for a nation. Washington won the Oscar, but all bring an A-game that swells with James Horner’s career best score, heightened even further by the ethereal voices of the Boys Choir of Harlem.
For a movie about war, it is in two moments away from the fighting that most linger. The first is when Washington’s Silas Trip stares down his colonel for having him whipped due to abandoning his post to find shoes. The second is when Shaw looks out at the South Carolina coast toward the sea, and then back again towards the oblivion of war and hellfire above Fort Wagner. He knows where his fate lies.
Both men are united in that wonderful common cause, as seen in the final frame when they’re buried in a mass grave together. For each, it’s a victory over the war’s original root cause.