'Andersonville' breathes, bleeds TV preview: Everything wrong with TNT's sloppy, previous Civil War drama is right with this one.

March 02, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

This time, Ted Turner and his folks did it right. And the result is one of the finest historical dramas, if not one of the finest movies, period, to show up on TV in many a year.

The two-part "Andersonville," works on pretty-much every level: It's good history, good drama, good filmmaking and -- provided you don't mind being made a little uncomfortable -- good entertainment.

As such, it succeeds where Turner's earlier Civil War-epic, "Gettysburg," failed. That monolith had scope, fine battle scenes and a wonderful performance from Jeff Daniels. But it also had trite dialogue, horrendous makeup and direction that was pedestrian at best.

So Turner wised up, hired a first-rate director in John Frankenheimer ("Birdman of Alcatraz," "The Manchurian Candidate") and screenwriter in David W. Rintels (television's "Clarence Darrow" and "Fear on Trial"), then put together a cast short on names, but long on talent.

The result is four hours of gripping television, a film Civil War buffs should treasure and everyone else can sit back and admire.

Andersonville was a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in central Georgia that became a barely-living hell for the 45,000 Union soldiers sent there in 1864 and 1865.

Built to hold 8,000 prisoners, the prison was outmoded almost from the start. For it quickly fell victim to twin blows: the increasing depravations of the Confederacy, which was having trouble feeding its own citizens, and Ulysses S. Grant's decision to stop exchanging prisoners.

The result was disaster for the Union prisoners held at what was known officially as Camp Sumter. Food was nearly non-existent, a tiny stream that was the only regular source of water became so fouled that drinking from it practically guaranteed disease and shelter was whatever hole a man could dig in the ground.

Nearly 13,000 men would die at Andersonville, a higher number and percentage than at any other POW camp, on either side. After the war, its commandant, Captain Henry Wirz, was tried and hanged in Washington, the only soldier executed for war crimes committed during the Civil War. Like history itself, the film seems uncertain whether to condemn Wirz as a tyrant or excuse him as a victim of circumstance.

"Andersonville" spares little in its depiction of this human tragedy; the rotting teeth and bleeding gums of scurvy are up there for everyone to see. As such the film is not easy to sit through.

The most compelling story in "Andersonville," however, is that of the Raiders, a group of Union men who take over the camp, terrorizing and beating fellow prisoners, robbing new arrivals and acting more like the devil than Wirz or any of the Confederates.

As their leader, Frederick Coffin is all bluster and bravado, a swaggering force for evil that practically jumps off the screen. The movie's emotional flashpoint comes when the prisoners decide they've had enough and stage their own revolt, subduing the Raiders and eventually bringing them to trial. The Confederates, realizing true evil when they see it, agree to abide by the camp's wishes when it comes to the Raiders' fate.

Acting accolades for "Andersonville" go to one of the few real names in the cast: Frederic Forrest. Most famous as the cook in "Apocalypse Now," Forrest plays Sergeant McSpadden, the ranking officer among the Massachusetts prisoners and the man charged with somehow bringing them out on the other side of this hellhole.

McSpadden's health is not good, and his own belief in their possible salvation ebbs and flows. But he never lets the men see that. Forrest, an actor who can do wonders with the right part, grabs the film's moral center and never lets go. You understand why his men willingly follow McSpadden's lead, and trust that if anyone can see them through, he can.

"Andersonville" is probably not perfect history, and some people will no doubt argue it comes down too hard on the Confederacy. But that's a debate best left to scholars -- and one that will, no doubt, rage well into the next millennium.

What isn't open to debate is the craftsmanship and artistry on display throughout "Andersonville." This is one compelling film.


What: Two-part series on a Confederate prisoner-of-war-camp

Where: TNT

When: 8 p.m.-10 p.m. tomorrow and 8 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday

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