Also exploring the limits of courage, Cold Mountain (2003) depicts the Confederate experience during the final gruelling stretch of the war, when the prospect of defeat loomed constantly over everyone’s lives. A wounded soldier deserts to return home to the love of his life. The Home Guard, set up to defend southerners, devolve into violent vigilantes. And in a nation depleted of so many adult males, the women left behind struggle to get by.
Ride with the Devil
Focusing on the start of the war, Ride with the Devil (1999) shows the escalating guerilla violence that struck many rural communities. Confederate Bushwackers and pro-Union Jayhawkers fight for Missouri, as the line between war and crime dissolves. Incredible attention to detail brings to life the messy, inglorious local violence that was as integral to the war as pitched battles between professional armies.
Spies and saboteurs were important to the war, as shown in Secret Service (1931). Two Union officers are sent behind enemy lines to feed false information to the Confederacy. Incredible danger and divided loyalties plague their lives in this unusual depiction of a neglected part of the war.
Gods and Generals
Flawed as it is, Gods and Generals (2003) is a bold attempt to bring to life the early years of the Civil War, and in particular the career of Stonewall Jackson. Featuring the battles of Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, it was intended as a prequel to Gettysburg. While lacking that film’s sense of power and purpose, it still provides an opportunity to see some of the war’s most important battles played out in big budget glory.
While many films have focused on the action of the Civil War, few tackle its politics in such detail as Lincoln (2012). Featuring Daniel Day-Lewis as perhaps the most famous President in American history, it portrays the struggle within the Union for full emancipation, the peace negotiations that were its background, and the lead-up to Lincoln’s assassination. Like Glory, it acts as a reminder of what was at stake for African-Americans, and of the chilling fact that, even by the end of the war, racism remained endemic within the Union’s political institutions. Worth watching for Day-Lewis’s performance alone, which makes Lincoln a sympathetic and intriguing character.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Most films about the Civil War try to appear realistic, however much they bend the truth to dramatic effect. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) is no such film. Turning Lincoln’s life and the Civil War into a monster hunting story, it uses vampirism as a metaphor for slavery, drawing out the darkness of the era. Action packed and stylishly shot, it’s not to be taken seriously, but shows how history can create a space for wilder flights of fancy to thrive. After eleven films that strive to show the war as it was, it can be refreshing to take a change and see it brought to life as it most definitely wasn’t.