Recently a friend of mine asked me to list my ten favorite films about the South and the War Between the States, and to discuss the reasons I would choose them. I had written several columns in the past about cinema that favorably portrayed the Southland and had dealt fairly with the War Between the States, including, most recently, the delightful early color Bing Crosby vehicle about Dan Emmett and his composition of the unofficial Southern national anthem, “Dixie” (1943), and also about “Firetrail,” on Sherman’s march through the Carolinas. Before that I authored an essay about the classic 1946 title, “Song of the South,” and where to find good DVD copies here in the United States, and, back in 2014, a piece for the Abbeville Institute on “Classic Confederate Hollywood.”
Earlier (July/August 2013) I reviewed a Blu-Ray copy of one of director John Ford’s finest classics, “The Sun Shines Bright” (1953) in Confederate Veteran magazine.
In each of those review essays I cautioned readers to snatch up copies before our modern totalitarian censors got round to interdicting them and locking them up in some inaccessible vault, away from the eyes and ears of viewers. For in contemporary America “cancel culture” has stretched its long tentacles into almost everything that in any way affects us. In a real sense it is the advance phalanx of the Revolution that seeks to completely and radically change our society and simply destroy the very memory of our past. This is true not only in how we examine and study our history, what we read and esteem as great literature, but especially in what is permitted (and what is banned) in our cultural accoutrements—in music, sports, and film.
The controversies over such classic films as “Gone With the Wind” and Disney’s “Song of South” (1946) as racist and examples of “white supremacy” continue to generate discussion and fierce debate. But in many ways, the forces of progressive “wokism” have already been successful. Of course, “Gone With the Wind” is far too significant a film to ban outright, but cautionary messages now surround it, and when it is screened (now uniquely) on TCM, there is always an introduction to let viewers know of its supposedly explicit and contextual racism. For “Song of the South,” once a crown jewel in the Disney film library, it was last dusted off and re-released to theaters in 1986. Disney’s executive chairman and former CEO Bob Iger recently affirmed (2020) during a shareholders meeting that the film would not be released officially in the United States in any format, even with an “outdated cultural depictions” label. The film was, he declared, “not appropriate in today’s world.” “Song of the South,” he added was “antiquated” and “offensive.”
It is available in some foreign DVD transfers, but most of those in a non-American format. But as I wrote in my Abbeville piece (July 25, 2019) “Song of the South” still can be had here in the United States in a good transfer and in the American DVD format.
There are a number of other films which treat the historic South fairly, even favorably, and which our modern-day cultural totalitarians have either not gotten round to or perhaps don’t realize exist…yet. But they do exist, for the time being, in the DVD format.
To begin our chosen ten, any list of films specifically about the Southern War for Independence must include special mention of director Ronald Maxwell’s two blockbuster extravaganzas: “Gettysburg” (1993) and “Gods and Generals” (2003). Both run in excess of four hours, and both pay minute attention to historical detail, seamlessly weaving in personal vignettes and narratives that might well have occurred at the time. “Gettysburg” is based on Michael Shaara’s historical novel, The Killer Angels, and “Gods and Generals,” on his son Jeff Shaara’s novel of the same name. The younger Shaara’s novel The Last Full Measure was intended to be the basis for the third film in a trilogy, one leading to Appomattox, but never made it to the screen due to lack of funding and faltering interest from Ted Turner and Warner Brothers.
Both films attempt to portray well-known events with comparative fairness, with a degree of objectivity, even sympathy, for the various historical players and their actions. In particular, the character of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, played memorably by Stephen Lang, becomes the central personage in “Gods and Generals,” around which much of its action takes place. “Gettysburg,” despite its length, is a much tighter-knit film, the action and events leading up to the third day of that momentous battle; “Gods and Generals” is more episodic and was criticized for that very reason—it becomes almost a docu-drama in its treatment of the beginning years of the War. Yet, Robert Duvall’s General Lee (preferable to Martin Sheen in “Gettysburg”) and the moving scenes involving the death of “Stonewall” Jackson are not to be missed.
Both films are available singly on Warner DVDs, but my advice is to snatch up the beautiful commemorative box containing both, in director’s cut editions, expensive, yes, but a genuine keepsake.
I’ve always been a fan of the classic American Western film genre, basically from the beginning of the “talkie” era (around 1929) until the early 1970s (with a few exceptions since then). In fact I have written about the classic Western on various occasions, most recently for Chronicles magazine (December 2021) and for the Abbeville Institute, LewRockwell.com, and Reckonin.com.
Over the years I’ve discussed my passion for old Westerns and films about the South with my friend Dr. Clyde Wilson, who is, without doubt, the country’s leading expert on Southern and Confederate-themed films. Some time ago in our discussions of a “Southern canon of best films,” he made an observation that the classic Western in many ways was a “Southern,” in that so many Westerns from even before the advent of the sound era to more contemporary times essentially treat the War or post-War periods with a western twist. Former Confederates go west and fight new battles to open the plains and uplands to settlers and prospectors, fend off rustlers and crooked bank presidents, bring law and order to areas beset by disorder, and sometimes, as in the case of the numerous films about Jesse James and the Youngers, continue fighting the War as guerillas and Border Bushwhackers. Randolph Scott, Audie Murphy, Joel McCrea, and others made dozens of such “Southern Westerns.” And who can forget John Wayne in “The Searchers”?
So a list of good films treating the Confederacy will need to also consider the “Confederacy out West.” Indeed, some the finest movies on the War and its aftermath are set beyond the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, in Texas, Kansas, Colorado, Arizona, and even California.
Two of the finest are: “Jesse James,” in Technicolor, released in 1939 by 20th Century Fox, and starring some the most notable actors of the period: Tyrone Power as Jesse James, Henry Fonda as his brother Frank, Southerner Randolph Scott as Will Wright, John Carradine as Bob Ford, and the inimitable Henry Hull as Major Rufus Cobb, CSA. Very successful at the box office, 20th Century Fox followed it in 1940 with “The Return of Frank James,” with Fonda, Hull, and Carradine reprising their earlier roles, and directed by Fritz Lang. I must admit that I like “The Return of Frank James” even more than “Jesse James.” There is one scene—it takes place in a court room when Frank goes on trial—where War veteran Colonel Jackson is called to testify. Played by legendary actor, Edward McWade (1865-1943), the unreconstructed colonel humorously taunts the Yankee attorney.
Both “Jesse James” and “The Return of Jesse James” are on 20th Century Fox DVDs.
After their success with the James brothers movies, Fox followed in 1941 with another major Technicolor adventure set in the border Missouri-Kansas region, “Belle Starr – The Bandit Queen.” Featuring Randolph Scott as guerilla leader Sam Starr, Dana Andrews as Yankee Major Thomas Crall, and with Gene Tierney as Belle Starr, it is perhaps the most unabashedly pro-Confederate film of the period. Of course, its depiction of contented slaves and evil carpetbaggers is not acceptable to our “woke” cultural censors these days. Copies can be had in non-USA DVD formats from Great Britain, Spain, and France, but these require a universal or PAL DVD player. But a good American format copy may be obtained from Vermont Movie Store; the DVD print is fine. If you desire a rousing good story, “Belle Starr” fits the bill. Criticized for romanticizing events and distorting history, in the movie’s defense I would reply as did the freedmen at the end of the film: Belle Starr may be largely mythic, but as they explain: “It’s what the white folks call a legend…[and] a legend is the best part of the truth.”
Two fine films are set in the east during the War, and are based on actual—and remarkable—events: “Alvarez Kelly” (1966), starring William Holden and Richard Widmark, and based on General Wade Hampton’s famous “Beefsteak Raid” in September 1864 around Union lines at Petersburg to capture some 2,000 cattle intended for eventual Yankee consumption. Completely successful, even Lincoln remarked that the feat was “the slickest piece of cattle-stealing” he had ever heard of. “Alvarez Kelly” is available on Sony DVDs.
“The Raid,” from 1954 and directed by Hugo Fregonese, is a largely underrated film, portraying the famous and incredibly daring Confederate raid on St. Albans, Vermont, in October 1864. With a solid cast headed by Van Heflin (as Confederate Major Neal Benton, the leader of the twenty-one raiders), Anne Bancroft, Richard Boone (as the hard-nosed and suspicious Yankee Captain Lionel Foster), and a wonderfully expansive Lee Marvin, whose character hates all Yankees but can’t keep silent when he has a few too many drinks, “The Raid” illustrates the nobility of Major Benton at the end, despite his orders to burn public buildings in the town. “The Raid” is available on a 20th Century Fox DVD.
In the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, reaction from the Federals was swift and merciless, and often involved overriding constitutional protections and flagrantly violating settled legal procedure. Such was the case with Mary Surratt. A devout Maryland Catholic and Southern sympathizer, Surratt was caught up in the frenzy to find and severely punish anyone even vaguely associated with the assassins. The story of her arrest, mockery of a trial and execution is told with unfolding intensity in “The Conspirator” (2010), starring Robin Wright (as Surratt), James McAvoy (as Surratt’s attorney, Captain Frederick Aiden), and the fine character actor, Tom Wilkinson, as Senator Reverdy Johnson, who advises Aiken. The Socialist journal, Jacobin, accused the film of promoting the “neo-Confederate Lost Cause.” Nevertheless, the vehemence of the film and its enveloping narrative held me spellbound when I first viewed it. It is available on a Lionsgate DVD.
My two favorite films about the War and the post-War South are both incredibly rich in storylines, plot and finely-etched acting. First, there is the John Ford classic, “The Sun Shines Bright” from 1953. In some ways it is a remake of Ford’s earlier classic, “Judge Priest” from 1934 (starring Will Rogers). Some critics prefer that earlier filmed version of the Irvin S. Cobb short story, but the later version with Charles Winninger’s inimitable portrayal as the judge for me is supreme.
Of all his great films—including “Stagecoach,” “Grapes of Wrath,” “My Darling Clementine,” “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” and “The Searchers”—Ford cited this one as his favorite. It combines all his classic traits—humor, pathos, well-developed characterization, an ensemble cast that worked effortlessly together, and something of Ford’s almost spiritual understanding of Americana, in this case the South after the War. The scene of the UCV veterans trooping past at the end is always memorable.
A marvelous, restored Blu-Ray version of “The Sun Shines Bright” was issued by Olive Films in 2013, and I would urge anyone interested in great-filmmaking and the post-War South to get this film.
And, lastly, an unheralded and unjustly neglected film in the Errol Flynn filmography: “Rocky Mountain,” from 1950. Of all the films I’ve cited, this one may be the most straightforward, major pro-Confederate cinematic release available. Set in the mountains of California in the waning days of the War, the story recounts the history and fate of a small eight-member band of Confederate soldiers sent west to raise Confederate supporters in that Pacific state. From the start it becomes a forlorn mission, supremely heroic but destined to fail. Starring Flynn (as CSA Captain Lafe Barstow) and Patrice Wymore (as Johanna Carter), the film also stars Slim Pickens, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, and other actors from Warner Brothers’ stable. During the movie, each of the Confederates, who were specially chosen for this impossible task, relates his history and background. Young Dickie Jones’ story of serving a meal for General Lee and about his little dog Spot, who came with him from Virginia, steal the show. And at the end, those eight Confederates, beset by hundreds of Shoshone Indians make one final, death-defying charge…so impressive and so moving, that even the approaching Yankee detachment salutes their fallen sacrifice, as the swelling strains of “Dixie” echo. And Spot? At the very end that little canine appears to have tears in his eyes!
The first time I saw it was with a friend, and we both had drunk a couple of shots of Tennessee Bourbon. I will admit that by the end of the movie we both had tears streaming down our faces.
“Rocky Mountain” (it’s in black and white) is available on Warner Archive DVD.
That’s actually eleven films, but there are many more out there, and many more that I could list. But for the moment, this will have to do. My hope is that good Southerners interested in their history and great cinema will purchase these and other such films. In our present age, there is no telling if they will be around tomorrow. Share them with your family and your friends, and by so doing keep our rich cultural heritage alive.
Wonderful and informative essay. I have one small suggestion: Mrs. Surratt was not a Southern sympathizer. She was a Southern woman, a patriot. Maryland, an occupied state, was considered a Southern sister by Lee, Jeff Davis and the South Carolina Secessionists in 1860, among many others–see The Secession Banner, December 20, 1860. But as always, Boyd Cathey’s essays are a treat.
It’s not exactly a Confederate movie, but I love True Grit – the 2010 version, not the John Wayne travesty. Rooster Cogburn is of course a veteran of the War of Northern Aggression, having ridden with William Quantrill. Mattie Ross is from “near Dardanelle” in Arkansas, and the action takes place in that state and in the Indian Nation, both of which were on the Confederate side during the war. As far as I’m aware none of the major actors are southerners, but they do creditable southern accents, and it’s a very southern movie. The same is true of O Brother Where Art Thou?, and some of the actors in that movie are in fact from the south, or at least originally from the south.