Top Ten Civil War Movies For The Fourth of July

Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars, beginning with the First World War, did what it did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you are going to understand the American character in the twentieth century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.

                                                                                  Shelby Foote

Two years ago I compiled a list of the top ten movies for the Fourth of July which focused on films about the Revolutionary War.  Go here to view that post.  Last year I compiled a list of top ten patriotic movies for the Fourth, and that post may be viewed here.  This year we will focus on the top ten Civil War films for the Fourth of July.  I agree with historian Shelby Foote that it is impossible to understand the United States without understanding the Civil War, and it is “therefore fitting and proper” that over the Fourth Civil War movies come to mind.

10.   Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)-We begin with a non-Civil War movie with the video clip at the beginning of this post.  In 1908 English Bulter Charles Ruggles, well played by actor Charles Laughton, comes to work in the American West.  It is a hilarious fish out of water comedy, as Ruggles, with his culture and British reserve comes face to face with the Wild West.  While living in America, Ruggles becomes interested in American history, and becomes a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln.  When he recites the Gettysburg Address, the impact on his listeners is obvious, and reminds us that for Americans the Civil War will never be a matter simply relegated to books or memory, but is something that still has a vast impact on us to this day.

9.    Friendly Persuasion (1956)-Starring Gary Cooper as Jess Birdwell, the head of a Quaker family in southern Indiana during the Civil War, the film is a superb mix of drama and comedy as the Quakers have to determine whether to continue to embrace their pacifist beliefs or to take up arms against General John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate cavalry during his Great Raid of the North in June-July of 1863.  When the oldest son of the Birdwell family, portrayed by Anthony Perkins in his pre-Psycho days, takes up arms, his mother, played by Dorothy McGuire is aghast, but Cooper, as Jess Birdwell, defends him.  Although he remains true to his pacifist convictions, Birdwell understands that his son is acting in obedience to his conscience, and, as he tells his wife, ” A man’s life ain’t worth a hill of beans except he lives up to his own conscience.”

8.    Major Dundee (1965)-Sam Pekinpah’s flawed, unfinished masterpiece, the film tells the fictional account of a mixed force of Union soldiers, and Confederate prisoners, who join forces to hunt and ultimately defeat an Apache raider, Sierra Charriba, in 1864-65.  Charlton Heston gives an outstanding performance as Major Amos Dundee, a man battling his own personal demons of a failed military career, as he commands this Union-Confederate force through northern Mexico on the trail of the Apache, with fighting often threatening to break out between the Union and Confederate soldiers.  Use of Confederate prisoners as Union soldiers in the West was not uncommon.  Six Union infantry regiments of Confederate prisoners, called “Galvanized Yankees”, served in the West.   The final section of the film involving a battle between Major Dundee’s force and French Lancers, the French occupying Mexico at the time, has always struck me as one of the best filmed combat sequences in any movie.

7.    The Horse Soldiers (1959)-In 1959 John Ford and John Wayne, in the last of their “cavalry collaborations”, made The Horse Soldiers, a film based on Harold Sinclair’s novel of the same name published in 1956, which is a wonderful fictionalized account of Grierson’s Raid.

Perhaps the most daring and successful Union cavaly raid of the war, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a former music teacher and band leader from Jacksonville, Illinois, who, after being bitten by a horse at a young age, hated horses, led from April 17-May 2, 1863 1700 Illinois and Iowa troopers through 600 miles of Confederate territory from southern Tennessee to the Union held Baton Rouge in Louisiana.  Grierson and his men ripped up railroads, burned Confederate supplies and tied down many times their number of Confederate troops and succeeded in giving Grant a valuable diversion as he began his movement against Vicksburg.

John Wayne gives a fine, if surly, performance as Colonel Marlowe, the leader of the Union cavalry brigade.  William Holden as a Union surgeon serves as a foil for Wayne.  Constance Towers, as a captured Southern belle, supplies the obligatory Hollywood love interest.

Overall the film isn’t a bad treatment of the raid, and the period.  I especially appreciated two scenes.  John Wayne refers to his pre-war activities as “Before this present insanity” and Constance Towers gives the following impassioned speech:

Well, you Yankees and your holy principle about savin’ the Union. You’re plunderin’ pirates that’s what. Well, you think there’s no Confederate army where you’re goin’. You think our boys are asleep down here. Well, they’ll catch up to you and they’ll cut you to pieces you, you nameless, fatherless scum. I wish I could be there to see it. (more…)

Published in: on June 29, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Top Ten Civil War Movies For The Fourth of July  
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