At the Movies with the Civil War

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
battle of gettysburg

The following is a list of movies featuring the Civil War

by Jennie Wood

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Over the years, Hollywood has made some epic films about the Civil War. Many of them have been based on best-selling novels. Some of them were highly successful TV mini-series. One even evolved into a Broadway musical. From 1915's The Birth of a Nation to 2003's Cold Mountain, from legendary author Margaret Mitchell to indie rocker Jack White, the American Civil War has provided a back drop for some of the biggest films in Hollywood's history, involving a wide range of authors, actors, and musicians. Here's a look at some of the major works about the Civil War.

Gone with the Wind
Still considered one of the greatest films of all time, Gone with the Wind was based on Margaret Mitchell's 1936 best-selling novel about a woman hopelessly in love with a married man before, during and after the civil war. Both the book and the movie show the impact that the Civil War had on the south. The film won ten Academy Awards, a record at the time, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress (Vivien Leigh). The film's success created many records and milestones including the first Oscar for an African-American (Hattie McDaniel, Best Support Actress). The film cost 3.2 million to make, which was by far the biggest budget at the time. It grossed nearly 192 million dollars and held up against the other highly successful films of 1939, which is the year many still consider the greatest in film.
Glory explored the subject of the Civil War heroes ignored by history. They were ignored by history because of racism. The movie focused on the all-black members of the 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The film hit home the irony that even though the war was being fought on their behalf, black soldiers were not given the same amenities or privileges that the white soldiers in other regiments had. The film won multiple Academy Awards, including a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Denzel Washington.
Gettysburg was filmed as a television miniseries, but also received a limited release in movie theaters. The epic film was based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. The movie, as with the book, followed the major players leading up to the battle at Gettysburg. The film showed how General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) argued with his top advisor, General James Longstreet (Tom Berenger) on how to fight the battle at Gettysburg. The film was the last for Richard Jordan who played General Lewis Armistead. Armistead was wounded, captured and died during the battle at Gettysburg.
Dances with Wolves
Kevin Costner's directorial debut, Dances with Wolves won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. In the film, Costner played a Civil War soldier, who after failing to kill himself, was reassigned to a post in South Dakota where he encountered a band of Sioux Indians. After interacting with them, the soldier chose to leave his life behind and join them, taking the name Dances with Wolves. The film was criticized for the simplistic take on the Sioux tribe, but that did not stop the film from doing well at the box office and during awards season.
Cold Mountain
Based on the novel of the same name by Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain was a love story set during the last days of the Civil War. Inman (Jude Law) was an injured young soldier attempting to make his way home to his love, Ada (Nicole Kidman), in Cold Mountain, North Carolina. Meanwhile, in an attempt to save her late father's farm, Ada enlisted the help of Ruby (Renée Zellweger). The movie was directed by Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) and was nominated for several Academy Awards. Zellweger won the Oscar for Best Support Actress. Jack White, of the White Stripes, wrote the music for the film.
North and South
A very popular miniseries for television, North and South was based on the novels of John Jakes. It told the story of the friendship between South Carolina based Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) and George Hazard (James Read) from Pennsylvania. The two became close friends while at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Later, during the Civil War, the two found themselves on opposite sides. As of early 2013, North and South remained the seventh-highest rated miniseries in television history and was a popular rental on Netflix. Two more mini-series based on the same series of books followed in 1986 and in 1994.
The Birth of a Nation
After its release, The Birth of a Nation sparked riots and protests due to the racial subject matter in the film. Even in 1996, Turner Classic Movies cancelled a viewing of the restored print because of racial tensions surrounding the O.J. Simpson verdict. The film, artistically advanced at the time of its release, told the story of the Civil War and its impact through two families. One family, the Stonemans, came from the North, while the other, the Camerons, from the South. In the film, Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) organized the Ku Klux Klan in an attempt to restore order in the South. In the original version of the movie, director D.W. Griffith suggested via the film that the black population should be shipped to Liberia, which caused boycotts and picketing right after the movie premiered.
How the West Was Won
Three directors (John Ford, George Marshall, and Henry Hathaway) combined forces to make this classic film. The movie was divided into five segments. In the third segment, entitled "The Civil War," a Union soldier (George Peppard) was forced to kill his Confederate friend while fighting for the union. The film won three Academy Awards.
Shenandoah starred James Stewart as Virginia landowner Charlie Anderson. Anderson refused to take sides during the Civil War, but that resolve gets tested when his youngest son is taken prisoner by the Confederate army and his daughter falls in love with a Confederate Soldier. The movie was a hit at the box office. Later on, it was adapted into a successful Broadway musical. John Cullum, from TV's Northern Exposure, played the James Stewart role on Broadway.
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