THR’s film critic assesses the best movies about the bloodiest fight in American history as Matthew McConaughey’s ‘Free State of Jones’ enters theaters.
1. The Birth of a Nation
Two families on opposing sides of the Civil War and Reconstruction are shown in D.W. Griffiths’ highly controversial silent film milestone An ugly but necessary history lesson is imparted through the usage of racist symbols like blackface and heroic Klansmen. Nate Parker, the actor and director behind the popular slave rebellion drama, just reclaimed the title.
2. Ride With The Devil
Brokeback Mountain-producer Ang Lee used this handsomely-shot epic to explore the complicated, contradictory race relations in American history during the bloodiest conflict in the nation’s history.
An beautiful young cast includes Tobey Maguire, Jeffrey Wright, and the folk singer Jewel.
3. Cold Mountain
Anthony Minghella’s Civil War romance is a flawed but sumptuous story that features an all-star ensemble and several masterfully planned set-piece fights. Actor Jude Law portrays a wounded Confederate soldier, played by Nicole Kidman, who is trying to return home to his sweetheart. Renee Zellweger won an Academy Award for her raucous supporting role in the film.
To begin with conceived as a television mini-series for Ted Turner’s TNT network, director Ronald Maxwell transformed Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the 1863 battle of Gettysburg into a four-hour-plus movie epic. Martin Sheen, Jeff Daniels, Tom Berenger, and Ken Burns all star in this massive cast, which also includes an appearance by Turner himself.
5. The Outlaw Josey Wales
Clint Eastwood directs and plays as a Missouri farmer who joins a Confederate guerrilla group after his family is killed by Union militias in this elegiac revisionist Civil War western. Asa Earl Carter, a Ku Klux Klan adherent and brutal white supremacist, was the inspiration for Clint’s pacifist allegory for the national pain of Vietnam.
6. The Red Badge of Courage
Audie Murphy plays Henry Fleming, a Union private who deserted his unit in order to prove that he is no coward. The film is based on Stephen Crane’s classic Civil War novella. Edits by Huston were known to be mutilated by MGM but even the cut-down version remains an iconic work of cinematic art.
7. The Civil War
An unprecedented 40 million viewers tuned in to Ken Burns’ highly layered tapestry of expert commentary, poetry, music, art, and vintage images. This series set a new standard for historical documentary. This nine-hour audio-visual symphony has a star-studded vocal cast featuring Sam Waterston, Morgan Freeman, Jeremy Irons, and Arthur Miller. It is not precisely a feature film, but it is richer than most documentaries.
Denzel Washington plays a volunteer soldier in Edward Zwick’s rousing paean to valor and fraternity, partly based on the letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who is represented here by Matthew Broderick.
To honor the 37,000 African-Americans who gave their lives for the Yankee cause, Glory does not shy away from displaying the Union ranks’ prejudice and inequity.
Filmmaker Steven Spielberg earned an Academy Award for a Mount Rushmore-sized portrayal of Abraham Lincoln by Daniel Day Lewis, who narrates the President’s arduous efforts to bring about the freedom of the slaves in 1865. Lincoln is a political thriller at its core, but it also boasts a stunning reconstruction of the Petersburg, Virginia, battlefield.
10. Gone With the Wind
David O. Selznick’s brilliantly overblown, multiple award-winning Civil War extravaganza had three directors and some torturous Hollywood deal-making behind it. Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American actress to win an Oscar, plays Scarlett O’Hara in a sumptuous historical melodrama that romanticizes slavery in the Old South.