Hollywood goes to the Civil War GETTYSBURG

October 09, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

The Civil War is the great trauma of the American past and yet it has inspired surprisingly little in the way of great filmmaking. Few movies about the war could be called "great," with the exceptions of the first, "Birth of a Nation," and "Gone With the Wind," which is more great soap opera than confrontation with history. Here's a look at the better films dealing with the war.

* "Birth of a Nation" (1915): Arguably the most peculiar great movie ever made. It's a soaring epic that is inconveniently racist. The first two-hour movie, it features some of the most believable re-creations of Civil War combat ever seen. It also features a glowing tribute to those flowers of Southern manhood, the night riders of the Ku Klux Klan in whose gallant raidings, D. W. Griffith maintains, the nation was truly born.

* "The General" (1927): Another silent film of note dealing with one of the war's most intriguing episodes -- a Union guerrilla raid in which saboteurs kidnap a locomotive and race across the South, tearing up the track behind them. What they failed to count on was a heroic conductor who went after them with a track crew, repaired the damage and ran them down (Buster Keaton's role).

* "Santa Fe Trail" (1940): Set in Kansas and West Virginia, it stars Errol Flynn as J.E.B. Stuart and Ronald Reagan as George Armstrong Custer, who are on the trail of Raymond Massey's satanic, charismatic John Brown. It re-creates -- or rather re-invents -- Brown's prewar rampage in Kansas and his raid on the Arsenal at Harper's Ferry in 1859, but it's an extremely enjoyable movie that moves with great brio and passion as well as consummate professional precision.

* "The Red Badge of Courage" (1951): John Huston's adaptation of the Stephen Crane book. Star Audie Murphy gave it a peculiar resonance as Henry Fleming -- Murphy having been the most decorated American soldier of World War II. Murphy never learned how to "act," but his awkwardness gave the movie a poignancy that a more accomplished star might never have brought off. Alas, the thing was hacked apart in the editing room, and no one has ever seen the true cut.

* "Friendly Persuasion" (1956): William Wyler used the war as a backdrop for the moral dilemma of country vs. conscience in this film, which followed a Quaker family as it dealt with these issues. The very young Anthony Perkins plays the son who must decide whether killing an enemy soldier is acceptable to his refined conscience.

* "Raintree County" (1957): Based on the Ross Lockridge best seller with Montgomery Clift, Eva Marie Saint and Elizabeth Taylor, this lush and romantic film follows an Indiana youth who goes off to battle.

* "The Horse Soldiers" (1959): John Ford's tale about a Union cavalry raid on a Confederate rail junction behind the lines, starred John Wayne. Somehow the film never jelled and became passionate and pointed.

* "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (1967): During the '60s, the Civil War seems to have disappeared from the agenda. One exception is a melancholy episode in this Sergio Leone epic where Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name conspires with Eli Wallach to blow up a bridge where Southern and Northern troops are about to battle. It's unrelated to the rest of the movie, but a brilliant bit laden with a sense of war's desolation and pointlessness.

* "Glory" (1989): In the '70s and '80s, Civil War pictures all but dried up. So it was an utter astonishment that one of the best and most moving of them all appeared in 1989. This Edward Zwick tale evokes the life and times of the 54th Massachusetts, an all-black infantry unit that suffered horrendous casualties. Matthew Broderick plays the idealistic colonel who perished with so many of his men. The majestic cast also includes Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington.

BALTIMORE IN THE CIVIL WAR

PRATT STREET/PRESIDENT STREET RIOTS

On April 19, 1861, six days after Fort Sumter's surrender, troops of the Sixth Massachusetts traveling to Washington clashed with a mob on Pratt Street. Four soldiers and 12 civilians were killed. Hours later, a mob attacked Pennsylvania volunteers at nearby President Street Station. Five soldiers died.

FEDERAL HILL

Less than a month after the riots, Union troops set up artillery on Federal Hill aimed at Monument Square. The occupation began military rule over the city that continued through the end of the war.

FORT McHENRY

A military post when the war started, the fort served as a prison during wartime for troops and Southern sympathizers. After Gettysburg, it housed almost 7,000 Confederates before they were transferred to Point Lookout in St. Mary's County and other camps.

MILITARY HOSPITALS AND CAMPS

Hospitals included Patterson Park; Jarvis Hospital in West Baltimore; National Hotel near Camden Station; Hicks Hospital at Lafayette Avenue and Pulaski Street; McKim Mansion near Greenmount Cemetery.

There were camps at Carroll and Druid Hill parks; Charles Village; Lafayette Square at Madison and North Avenue; Cold Spring Lane at Jones Falls; and Millington Avenue at Gwynns Falls.

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