Monday, September 8, 2014

Top 5 American Civil War movies

5. Gangs of New York (2002)

Make no mistake, this Martin Scorsese masterpiece is about gang violence and sectarian violence, not about soldiers. However, this movie is very much about America at war with itself, and in more ways than one.

The defining event of this movie is the New York City Draft Riot of 1863 in which the immigrant and American-born working-classes simultaneously fought each other to settle old scores, and against the Union Army to resist the draft in a war they didn't believe in. 

Better yet, the antagonist William Cutting reminds me of so many of today's radical Republicans; zealously anti-immigrant, militantly patriotic, and rabidly pro-war despite having never served a day in the armed forces.

4. Glory (1989)

The overt pro-Union sentiment should be overlooked in favor of what the movie offers: a true account of black Americans who fought in the war. It is no small feat and no small accomplishment that most of the men of the 54th Massachusetts escaped slavery, made it north, and went back South as conquerers. These men proved to the world that black men could also fight, and that America is their country too. If only there were also a movie about the 50,000 black men who fought for the South!

3. Gettysburg (1993)

Gettysburg is a four-hour epic masterpiece that offers a detailed blow-by-blow of the biggest battle ever fought in North America. Director Ronald Maxwell also made the libertarian film Copperhead, so the standard is high here. The Gettysburg movie has an incredible instrumental soundtrack, epic panoramic battle scenes, and accurate depictions of army camp life. It offers equal attention to Union and Confederate forces, explains different people's motivations to fight, and best of all, the movie doesn't pick sides.

Let it be noted, Jeff Daniels was awesome as Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, but Martin Sheen steals the show as Robert E. Lee!

2. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

Clint Eastwood plays a gritty anti-hero that the viewer quickly understands and soon begins to root for. Josey Wales is a Confederate guerrilla with Quantrill's Raiders fighting the Union in the West. His family is murdered by pro-Union forces during the war, and his unit ambushed by Union troops when formally surrendering at war's end. His men dead, Josey Wales becomes a "bandit" fighting a new guerrilla war to punish those responsible.

Chief Dan George lends a commendable performance. George's character is based on Stand Watie, Confederate Army general and chief of the Cherokee nation. While the record about slavery has been worn out, this movie offers a fresh glimpse of Union atrocities, as well as Native American participation in the Southern war effort.

1. Shenandoah (1965)

"That war doesn't concern us. These aren't Virginia's sons, they're my sons!" So says the protagonist played by James Stewart. This hardworking farmer is intent on keeping his family out of the war, until the war comes to his doorstep. In a nutshell, Stewart's character is the living, breathing non-aggression principle. When his teenage son is mistaken for a rebel soldier and taken prisoner by the Union Army, neither hell nor high water will stop a father from getting his son back. However, the cost will be too high to bear.

This amazing movie is one of the best anti-war films ever made. The film has several battle scenes, a gripping plot, and gut-wrenching performances. It shows both sides utilizing underage soldiers and war's immediate economic effects due to the lack of productive labor. Most importantly, it shows the war's toll on civilians who get caught in the crossfire when war comes to their doorstep.

Next: Civil War movies that didn't make the Top 5 list. Coming Wednesday!

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All movie posters used here are the property of their respective film studios. The images were obtained from Wikipedia and are presented here according to Fair Use law.

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