Selected Documentaries & Movies on the American Civil War

Documentaries and Movies

 

It is the task of every student and teacher to analyze the listed documentaries, movies, and television series critically. Especially – but not only – some of the older productions in the chronologically organized overview are, according to contemporary standards, not politically correct, biased, and sometimes overtly racist and sexist.

We nevertheless included these films to foster important discussions in the classroom about the historical change in the construction and perception of war in film and its intersection with notions of class, race and gender. Therefore, all films need to be seen and studied critically as a reflection of the time of their production, including more recent movies. A good introduction into the study of the history of movies and critical film analysis is:

 

Especially interesting films for the subject of gender and war are marked with an *.

 

Documentaries

 

(United States, PBS, 1990) (9 episodes, 1h 15 per episode)
Director: Ken Burns

This award-winning PBS documentary by Ken Burns brings the American Civil War (1861–65) to life through the use of archival photographs, maps, diaries, letters, and other sources. It covers the politics, military campaigns, and the so-called home front before, during, and after America's bloodiest conflict. With archival images of 16,000 photographs, taken from a total of one million pictures of the Civil War, this documentary is extremely detailed. Along with period paintings, lithographs, and headlines, there is a combination of moving newsreel footage of Civil War veterans, evocative live cinematography of the now quiet battle sites, interviews with distinguished historians, and first-person accounts.
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IMDb
PBS Website

 

(United States, 2006) (1h 30m)
Director: Robert Child

The documentary Lincoln and Lee at Antietam: The Cost of Freedom, directed by Robert Child, vividly brings to life the story of America's fight for freedom in a battle that changed the course of the American Civil War (1861–65). Through first person accounts, an original music score from composers Steve Heitzeg and Nicholas Palmer, and rare Antietam commemorative battle footage from the 125th, 135th and 140th Antietam Reenactments, this film tells the tale of the 14-hour epic Battle of Antietam at Sharpsburg, Maryland, which turned out to be the bloodiest single battle day in American history.
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IMDb

 

Movies
 

(United States, 1939) (3h 58m)
Director: Victor Flemming

The Oscar-winning adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel, Gone with the Wind, directed by Victor Flemming, focuses on an elite white southern woman's life before, during, and after the American Civil War. Scarlett O'Hara, favorite daughter of a Georgia plantation owner, pursues love, lust, and wealth as the men in her life leave her or fall to war. The film presents an overly romanticized version of the Old South and a flawed interpretation of Reconstruction, best exemplified through the maintenance of white supremacy and racist stereotypes of slaves and freed people who remain committed to their masters. Nonetheless, Scarlet's thoroughly modern woman defies gender norms of the era.
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Wikipedia

 

(United States, 1957) (2h 40m)
Director: Edward Dmytryk

Raintree County is a 1957 American Technicolor melodramatic film set during the American Civil War (1861–65), directed by Edward Dmytryk. The film was adapted from the 1948 novel of the same name by Ross Lockridge Jr. and stars Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Eva Marie Saint, and Lee Marvin. The film follows the story of a student who falls in love with a Southern belle, but their relationship is complicated by her troubled past and the on-set of the American Civil War.
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(United States, 1965) (1h, 45m)
Director: Andrew V. McLaglen

The 1965 American Civil War film Shenandoah, directed by Andrew V. McLaglen is starring James Stewart and featuring Doug McClure, Glenn Corbett, Patrick Wayne, and, in their film debuts, Katharine Ross and Rosemary Forsyth. The American folk song “Oh Shenandoah” features prominently in the film's soundtrack. The film centers around a family, who vows to remain neutral in the conflict. However, when one of the sons is captured by Union soldiers, the family goes to the rescue. Though set during the American Civil War (1861–65), the film's strong antiwar and humanitarian themes resonated with audiences as attitudes began to turn against the Vietnam War (1955–75) in the United States in the mid-1960s.
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(United States, 1989) (2h 2m)
Director: Edward Zwick

Glory is a 1989 American Civil War film directed by Edward Zwick about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the Union Army's second African-American regiment in the American Civil War. It stars Matthew Broderick as Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the regiment's commanding officer, and Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, and Morgan Freeman as fictional members of the 54th. The screenplay by Kevin Jarre was based on the 1965 book, One Gallant Rush, by Peter Burchard, and the personal letters of Colonel Shaw. The film depicts the soldiers of the 54th from the formation of their regiment to their heroic actions at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner.
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(United States, 1993) (4h 31m)
Director: Ronald F. Maxwell

Gettysburg is a 1993 American epic war film about the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, one of the largest battles of the American Civil War (1861–65). Written and directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, the film was adapted from the 1974 historical novel, The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. The massive three-day conflict begins as Confederate General Robert E. Lee presses his troops north into Pennsylvania, leading to confrontations with Union forces, including the regiment of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. As the battle rages on and casualties mount, the film follows both the front lines and the strategic maneuvering behind the scenes. Originally filmed as a miniseries for TNT, Gettysburg received a limited theatrical release from New Line Cinema. It is one of the longest films released by a major film studio in the United States.
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(United States, 1999) (2h 18m)
Director: Ang Lee

Ride with the Devil is a 1999 American revisionist Western film directed by Ang Lee starring Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, and Jeffrey Wright. Based on the 1987 novel, Woe to Live On, by Daniel Woodrell, the film follows a group of men who join the First Missouri Irregulars, also known as the Bushwhackers—guerrilla units loyal to pro-Confederacy units of the state—and their attempt to disrupt and marginalize the political activities of Northern Jayhawkers allied with Union soldiers during the American Civil War (1861-65).
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(United States, 2002) (2h 47m)
Director: Martin Scorsese

This historical drama directed by Martin Scorsese was inspired by Herbert Asbury's 1927 non-fiction book, The Gangs of New York. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Cameron Diaz. The drama centers on the long-running Catholic–Protestant feud in New York, which erupts in 1863 into violence, just as an Irish immigrant group is protesting about low wages caused by an influx of freed slaves, as well as the threat of conscription into the American Civil War. Citywide draft riots break out just as the two rivaling Protestant and Catholic gangs are preparing to fight. Union Army soldiers are deployed to control the rioters. As the rival gangs face off, cannons from naval ships are fired directly into Paradise Square, where the fighting takes place, interrupting their battle before it begins. Between the cannons, soldiers, and rioters, many of the gang members are killed.
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(United States, 2003) (2h 34m)
Director: Anthony Minghella

Cold Mountain is a 2003 epic war film written and directed by Anthony ` Minghella. The film is based on the bestselling 1997 novel of the same name by Charles Frazier. It stars Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renée Zellweger with Eileen Atkins, Brendan Gleeson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Jack White, Giovanni Ribisi, Donald Sutherland, and Ray Winstone in supporting roles. The film tells the story of a wounded deserter from the Confederate army close to the end of the American Civil War who journeys home to reunite with the woman he loves. The film was a co-production of companies in Italy, Romania, the United Kingdom and the United States.
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(United States, 2011) (2h 2m)
Director: Robert Redford

The historical drama The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford, is based on an original screenplay by James D. Solomon. The film tells the story of Mary Surratt (1820–65), a wife, mother, and boarding house owner in Washington D.C., who was the only female conspirator charged in the Abraham Lincoln assassination and the first woman to be executed by the United States federal government. The movie stars James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Justin Long, and Evan Rachel Wood.
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(United States, 2012) (2h 30m)
Director: Steven Spielberg

Lincoln is a 2012 historical drama film directed and produced by Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as United States President Abraham Lincoln. The film also features Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, and Tommy Lee Jones in supporting roles. The screenplay by Tony Kushner was loosely based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and covers the final four months of Lincoln's life, focusing on his efforts in January 1865 to abolish slavery and involuntary servitude by having the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution passed by the United States House of Representatives.
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(United States, 2013) (2h)
Director: Ron Maxwell

Copperhead is directed by Ron Maxwell and stars Billy Campbell, Angus Macfadyen, Augustus Prew, Lucy Boynton, Casey Thomas Brown, and Peter Fonda. The film is based on the 1893 novel, The Copperhead, by Harold Frederic. It tells the story of the farmer, Abner Beech, an antiwar Democrat in a rural community in upstate New York in 1862. While his neighbors take up the Union cause in the ongoing American Civil War, Beech believes that coercion in resisting the secession of the southern states is unconstitutional. His neighbors harass him for his views and Beech, eventually earns the derisive nickname, “Copperhead”.
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(United States, 2014) (1h, 36m)
Director: Sean McNamara

Field of Lost Shoes is a 2014 American war drama film directed by Sean McNamara and written by Dave Kennedy and Thomas Farrell. The film stars Nolan Gould, Lauren Holly, Jason Isaacs, Tom Skerritt, Keith David, and David Arquette. It is based on the true story of a group of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute who participated in the Battle of New Market against Union forces during the American Civil War.
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(United States, 2016) (2h 20m)
Director: Gary Ross

Free State of Jones is a 2016 American historical war film inspired by the life of Newton Knight (1829-1922), an American farmer, soldier and Southern Unionist in Mississippi. Knight was best known as the leader of the Knight Company, a band of Confederate army deserters and former slaves who led an armed insurrection against the Confederacy, leading to the creation of the Free State of Jones within Mississippi during the American Civil War. Written and directed by Gary Ross, the film stars Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, and Keri Russell.
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