Civil War historian Dr. Steve Woodworth at Texas Christian University, reviewed the film Gods and Generals for the Journal of American History in 2003. The American Historical Association (AHA) recently posted a copy of that review that appeared on the website Teachinghistory.org. I have met Dr. Woodworth in the past and have found him to be a friendly and capable scholar, and enjoyed his take on the movie, as he summed up many of the problems with the film. Being in both the reenacting community and the scholarly community, I have heard both extremes on the film, with reenactors, especially Confederate, being largely praiseworthy, while scholars are more critical. I feel that this review is a rather balanced evaluation of this Civil War film.
With recent Civil War based movies not being up to snuff (Gods and Generals and Cold Mountain), one wonders if any good Civil War movies will ever be made, or if one could have success. I believe, if done right and without Ted Turner financing, that such a movie is possible. I think, however, that a new Civil War movie should focus on the Western Theater because all too often Civil War films focus on the East, even when exciting things were happening in the West. The two films that come to mind that deal with the Western Theater are the classic John Wayne film The Horse Soldiers, which is based on Grierson’s Raid in Mississippi in support of Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign, and The Blue and the Gray, which is actually a miniseries dealing with the entire war and its effect on a family with sides serving both sides of the war. Both of these works are dated and the time has come for a great new film on the war.
With that said, I would like to submit the following suggestions for interesting plots for a new Civil War movie:
Vicksburg-this idea would attempt to replicate the greatness and balance that was Gettysburg, but with a focus on one of the most important battles in the West. The only issue with this idea would be compacting a lengthy siege into a two or four-hour long movie, but the effort would be worthwhile, as I would love to see someone Grant and Sherman on the silver screen again.
Gunboats-this concept would focus on the story of the Union gunboats patrolling the Mississippi and her tributaries in support of the various campaigns in the West. This film would fill a niche, as there really have been no good films on the navy in the Civil War, and no, the movie on the Hunley does not count. One wonders who would make a good David Farragut.
Grant-sorry Confederate sympathizers, you have your glorification film for Stonewall Jackson (Gods and Generals), now it is the Union’s turn. Much like the dismal Ted Turner glorification of the South, this concept would focus on Grant the general, while providing a supporting cast of other prominent characters to discuss a period and section of the war, particularly Grant’s career through Vicksburg, focusing on Shiloh and Vicksburg. It would be the Gods and Generals that we all would have liked to have seen.
Georgia Howling-this idea would not show well in the South, but it would be a hit with all hard-core Union men and women. As the title suggests, this film would deal with Sherman’s “March to the Sea” and would be more focused on the history and not a love story (this is not to say that Gone With the Wind was not a great film).
Antietam-yes, the other ideas have a Western focus, but I want what was omitted from Gods and Generals. Antietam has such historical significance, but militarily was a draw that it is worthy of a film. Since I do not really care about George McClellan, I can come up with some interesting ideas for who would play him. In any event, this battle is one that should be adapted to film.
So, there you have it, five ideas for possible great Civil War films. While I could have thought up more, I decided to limit it to five. One honorable mention would be a film based on a novel. One of the best novels I read on the war as a boy (well before Newt Gingrich wrote his wonderful counter factual history trilogy) was Rifles for Watie, which follows one Kansas soldier’s adventure fighting the war in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) and Arkansas. While the general Stand Watie was a real person and some events in the book actually happened, it would be nice to see this great work of fiction adapted to the screen. After all, we have Gone With the Wind and Cold Mountain, so why not Rifles for Watie? If you have your own ideas for great Civil War films, share them by leaving a comment. Who knows, maybe one of these ideas can become a film someday.