A Southerner’s Movie Guide, Part IV

Symbols Used

** Indicates one of the more than 100 most recommended films.  The order in which they appear does not reflect any ranking, only the convenience of discussion

(T)   Tolerable but not among the most highly recommended

(X)   Execrable.  Avoid at all costs

 6. The War for Southern Independence

**Gone with the Wind  (1939). What to say about this Southern icon that is as immortal as any of the works of man can be? GWTW, book and movie, were in their day at the pinnacle of international best-seller fame. After three-quarters of a century they stand up well, despite disparagement, and ring true.  And even with elements of soap opera, they provide a vivid re-creation of  the tribulations of Southerners in The War and “Reconstruction.”  GWTW is primarily a women’s story that ought to be a hallmark of a genuine feminism.  I will note that there is a scarcity of real Southern accents and that three of the main characters are Brits. Perhaps  that was good box office. Do yourself a favour and avoid the terrible pretended sequel (X) Scarlett.

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Ronald Maxwell’s Civil War films are achievements for the ages. They are a  glorious and courageous homage to real American history.  They show that at least one American filmmaker is still capable of creating an epic and still has an authentic respect for the American past. (I understand that Maxwell has sought to raise funding for the final film of his War between the States venture, to be called “The Last Full Measure,” but has so far been unsuccessful.)

**Gettysburg  (1993).  It is interesting that Confederates get a bit more screen time and the main Confederate characters are highlighted while the only featured Union characters are (Southern-born) Sam Elliott as Brig. Gen. John Buford (also Southern), and Jeff Daniels as a well-played Col. Joshua Chamberlain. Chicagoan Tom Berenger’s Longstreet is about as good as can be hoped for.  After many viewings and the passage of time I do see a few weaknesses in Gettysburg. These are due to the script following the Shaara  novel The Killer Angels as a source rather than actual history. Important parts of the battle are overlooked but that is probably unavoidable from time limits. While Pickett was not the brightest star in the galaxy, I don’t think he was as great a buffoon as he is played. Some of the conversations do not ring true, although I grant they provide useful information that otherwise could not be worked in. I don’t care for the bit of Yankee superiority where the Irish immigrant makes fun of the speech of  Southern soldiers whose grandfathers founded the U.S. As the biographer of General Pettigrew, I can assure you that the scene in which he offers Longstreet a copy of his book before the great charge is very implausible. The film could have used more genuine rousing Southern music to portray the Confederate spirit.

Get the tar and feathers ready, boys. Here goes:  I know that Martin Sheen is rightly disliked for his personal politics, but allowing that no one living can possibly represent Lee, I think he does not do too bad a job, much better than Robert Duvall’s Lee in Gods and Generals.  Sheen’s Lee is believable  as a deeply moral and great man.

**Gods and Generals  (2003).  This is somewhat more satisfying of Maxwell’s two, in my always humble opinion, because it covers more time and has a remarkable portrayal of Stonewall Jackson as a man and a great leader.  The New Yorker Stephen Lang does well in the part.  It also illustrates Yankee atrocities and makes clear that Southern soldiers are defending their homeland.  The music is good.  It would have been well to show more of Jackson at his height in the Valley campaign, but only so much can be done in a few hours.  As I said above, I don’t think Robert Duvall is successful as Lee, although he is a great actor of Southern demeanour who has played many parts superbly.  In 1861 Lee was a man  in vigourous late middle age with a daring military genius lurking just below the surface. Duvall, in my opinion, makes him too old and has the wrong accent. Duvall is too redneck to be Robert E. Lee, as pleasing as it is to have him aboard.  

While Yankee atrocities against civilians are shown there is one misleading  note. A Fredericksburg family has their black maid claim that the house is hers on the theory that the Yankees would therefore not loot it. This is pure phony Yankee righteousness. Anyone who has looked closely at the behaviour of Yankee soldiers in the South knows that they were more likely, not less likely, to abuse and rob black people than white.  Black people had less hope of an effective protest. 

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**The Littlest Rebel  (1935). Who can possibly forget “America’s sweetheart” Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in this pleasant bit of Americana. Of course, there is the obligatory falsely benevolent Lincoln.

**Hunter’s Raid:  The Battle of Lynchburg  (2010).  This  is an excellent  docudrama, independently and locally created by the Historic Sandusky  Foundation of Virginia. It portrays the massive Union raid of 1864 and its defeat by the old men and boys of Virginia. Remarkable and ought to be imitated all over the South. The subtitle is “Defending Hearth & Home.”

**Rocky Mountain (1950). A rare and moving Hollywood treatment of Confederate chivalry.  Errol Flynn leads a small party of Southern soldiers on a mission in the California outback.  In the end they die fighting defending Northern women from hostile redskins.  The last scene shows a  Northern officer raising a Confederate flag on a mountaintop in honour of  these heroic  Southern men. It is said that Ronald Reagan wanted Flynn’s role.

 **Ride with the Devil  (1999). A compelling and realistic picture of Yankee depredations in Missouri during the War Between the States and the Southern resistance. It is faithfully based on the novel Woe to the Living  by  Arkansas novelist Daniel Woodrell who also wrote the book on which the  acclaimed Winter’s Bone was based.  The Northern stars Tobey Maguire, Jewel, and Jeffrey Wright and the Brit Jonathan Rhys-Myers seem to have no trouble playing Confederates. The film was created by the Chinese director Ang Lee, with a remarkable freedom from the usual Yankee righteousness.

**The Outlaw Josey Wales  (1976). Clint Eastwood is a Southern survivor of Yankee ethnic cleansing in western Missouri.  Like many such he heads to Texas to start a new life on the frontier. Based on a book by Asa Earl Carter, a speechwriter for Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama. Carter also wrote the “Native American classic” The Education of Little Tree.

 (T) Ambush at Cimarron Pass (1958). Clint Eastwood had one of his most substantial early roles as a Confederate.

**Drums in the Deep South  (1950). An OK war movie with good guy Confederates.

**The Guns of Fort Petticoat  (1957). Inspiring and well-told story of women, their men folk all away fighting for Dixie, organising and countering a big Indian attack.

**Pharaoh’s Army  (1995). The realistic experiences of a Kentucky mother and son after Yankees take over their homestead. 

(T) Ironclads (1991). A pretty good presentation of the historic battle between the Virginia and the Monitor in 1862 and of the Confederate Navy hero Catesby Jones. Alas, you have to wade through a lot of unreal Hollywood stuff about a female spy, romance, slavery, etc. to get to the battle.

**The Rose and the Jackal  (1990).  An interesting though fictionalised  account of the Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow as prisoner of the Yankees. Good on the darkness of Yankee-occupied Washington. 

**The Field of Lost Shoes  (2014). My take on this film will appear in a later chapter.

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**Firetrail  and  **The Last Confederate: Here are two excellent films that are surprisingly  recent.  These are largely the product of regional inspiration and regional talent on both sides of the camera and reflect genuine regional memory, a thing rare in America and even rarer in cinema. As renderings of historical experience they are faithful and subtly artistic. Costume, action, dialogue, and personalities carry conviction as a representation of the real experiences of real Americans in the horrors  of  Sherman’s  terrorist  campaign against  Southern  civilians.  Contemporary manners-challenged viewers might find the dialogue in Firetrail and The Last Confederate a little slow and stilted, but it captures truly the times and the people portrayed. In those days they understood what George Garrett has written: that manners are a recognition that our fellow human creatures, all of them, are made in the image of God.

**Firetrail (2007).  This gem about South Carolina during Sherman’s  criminal campaign has accurately been called “superbly directed” and “genuine and authentic.”  It is amazing that this vivid and truthful re-creation of history could be produced these days.  The little-known Southern actors, men and women, are wonderfully true.  A must see.  WARNING: a shortened version of Firetrail  was marketed in 2014.  This version is so hacked up it is not worth your time.

**The Last Confederate (2005).  Like the preceding item, this film seems to have been largely made by Southerners.  It is another great truthful  retelling of South Carolina during Sherman’s  March.  This and Firetrail come as close as is possible to showing the real experience  of Southern  soldiers and civilians.  Both are well-told and with appealing characters.   Amazing  achievements for this day and time. 

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 **So Red the Rose (1935).  A Mississippi plantation family in the war, based on the Stark Young novel. This film is admired by many Southerners.  It has many fine scenes. Randolph Scott is very good. The cast, mostly non-Southern, tries a little too hard on the accents.  Sometimes, in my opinion, it gets a little too precious in its portrayal of plantation life, although sound on The War. A major flaw is the plantation master played by a comic actor as almost a drunken buffoon. I suppose the creators of the film thought they needed some supposed humour.

**The Hunley (1999).  A pretty good rendering of the story of the innovative, heroic, and tragic Confederate submersible that tried to break the blockade at Charleston.  The only bad aspect is a truly ridiculous mis-portrayal of General Beauregard by the Canadian Donald Sutherland. He actually did not bother to learn anything about Beauregard before acting the role.

**Hangman’s Knot (1952).  A party of Confederates faces a dilemma when they realise they have seized a Yankee gold shipment not knowing the war was over.  They are, of course, honourable men, and led by Randolph Scott,  try to do the right thing.  In the process they fight bad Yankees and protect good ones.

**The Angel of Marye’s Heights  (2010).  A good treatment of Confederate soldier Richard Kirkland, who risked his life to tend Yankee wounded on the battlefield of Fredericksburg. According to the jacket he is an “American” hero. Strange, I have never heard of any “American”  Yankee doing anything comparable. Especially good because it shows Kirkland’s  family and background, giving a true idea of who Confederate soldiers were.

**Great Day in the Morning  (1956).  Southern miners in  Colorado outwit  the Yankees and get their silver to the Confederacy.

 (T) The Last Outpost , aka Cavalry Command  (1951).  Ronald Reagan, a second-string Hollywood actor of whom you may have heard, wears the gray and leads brave and honourable Confederates, flags flying, to the rescue.

(T) The Undefeated  (1969)  A mildly interesting account of Union and Confederate soldiers getting together to fight Mexicans at the end of the war—if you can stand “Rock Hudson” as a Confederate.

(T) Two Flags West  (1950). Another one about Confederate POWs helping  the Union fight Indians in the West.

**The Gray Ghost  (1957). A one season TV series about Col. John S. Mosby. Bold, smart, and honourable  Confederates. Too bad there are not more episodes.

(T) The Blue and the Gray  (1982). Somewhat watchable miniseries that  makes an effort to be even-handed.

(T) The Eagle and the Hawk (1950). Confederate John Payne helps Mexicans against the French invaders.

(T) Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and (T) Major Dundee (1965).  Sometimes interesting  accounts of Confederate POWs in imaginary far West prison camps.

More discussion of War for Southern Independence films will appear in the next several chapters.

Authors

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of www.shotwellpublishing.com, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

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