Civil War movies -- ''Birth of a Nation,'' ''Gone With the Wind,'' and ''The Red Badge of Courage'' are some of the titles on our list

By Ty Burr
Updated October 19, 1990 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Civil War

  • Music

War movies abound, yet remarkably few exist about the Civil War. Perhaps that’s because, despite all the years and intervening conflicts, the wounds from that struggle are still tender, the issues not quite settled. Where the war does appear, it’s often as a kind of backdrop, providing a bit of uniformed color for movies as diverse as Little Women and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Still, a number of movies and documentaries (even a TV miniseries) have managed to approach the heart of the great conflict. Ken Burns’ PBS series The Civil War may be the high-water mark of Civil War representations (it’s available through Time-Life Video for home viewers and PBS Video for libraries and schools). But Burns’ documentary is joined by a handful of other important works available on video. Some are worth watching for their honest portrayal of the war; others, by capturing the way many would prefer to remember it, tell us more about ourselves.

Birth of a Nation (1915, Blackhawk)
This three-hour silent movie took the world by storm and turned film into an art form overnight. President Woodrow Wilson called D.W. Griffith’s epic of the Civil War and the aborted postwar Reconstruction ”writing history with lightning.” But this apologia for the Ku Klux Klan also demonstrated the new medium’s vast potential for distorting the facts. Birth compares with Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi documentary Triumph of the Will as a contradictory ground breaker, as repellent in content as it is breathtaking in style. C+

The Littlest Rebel (1935, Playhouse)
The oldest veterans of the Civil War were still alive when Shirley Temple tap-danced through this musical. But already the conflict had become — for Hollywood, at least — an occasion for cute nostalgia, full of hoop skirts, gallant Southern gentlemen, and wide-eyed slaves. Even the 7-year-old star knew better than to believe in these stereotypes. In her memoirs, she writes that Bill ”Bojangles” Robinson, with whom she dances so memorably, was more of a parent to her than her own mother. C

Gone With the Wind (1939, MGM/UA)
The red skies of the South and the black hulls of its pillaged plantations are what many Americans remember about the Civil War because of this most beloved of movie epics. Its sweeping pageantry doesn’t do justice to history — it portrays the Yankees as common criminals and the cause as purely economic — but it still succeeds as a stirring romance. And not all the lessons are false: Wind convincingly shows the South’s chivalric (if doomed) enthusiasm for the struggle; how the suffering of history’s first ”total war” engulfed the whole of Southern society, including its women; and, in the scene of the Confederate wounded spread out in the Atlanta rail yard, the vastness of the agony. B

The Red Badge of Courage (1951, MGM/UA)
In director John Huston’s hands, Stephen Crane’s deeply felt story about a young Union soldier becomes an even more powerful portrait of war. In an inspired bit of casting, World War II hero Audie Murphy plays the youth, and knowledge of the real horror of war shows plainly on his childlike features. But the movie also hints at what the war achieved. In one scene, when Murphy shares his canteen with captured Confederates, we see in microcosm how the war transformed the United States from plural to singular. ”I never spoke to nobody from Ohio before,” says a Tennessee man. ”I never spoke to nobody from Tennessee,” comes the reply; ”What’s your name?” A

Roots (1977, Warner, 6 Vols.)
Who would have thought that a TV miniseries on the lives of black slaves would become one of the the highest-rated TV programs of all time? Like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s great abolitionist tract, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (the book Lincoln once joked had started the Civil War), Roots was a cultural phenomenon. It too made the injustice of slavery tangible simply by giving human faces to the victims. Here the Civil War is shown (in Vol. 5) not as salvation for the slaves but as a new dimension to their plight that brought marauders, hunger, and forced military labor. B

The Divided Union: The Story of the Great American War (1987, Home Vision)
As a companion piece to Ken Burns’ The Civil War, this six-volume set by documentarian Peter Batty does quite nicely. It uses still photographs and, sparingly, reenactments to re-create the conflict. It also features historians from across the country (including Shelby Foote) who add the kind of details that redeem classroom lectures. The fine limited edition includes replicas of a period newspaper, letters from Lincoln and others, and Civil War-era paper money. B+

Glory (1989, RCA/Columbia)
Here is the Civil War movie by which all others should be measured. With its tight focus on the 54th Massachusetts — the North’s first black regiment — it gives a true picture of the whole war. From the carnage of Antietam to the 54th’s heroic attack on Fort Wagner in 1863, Glory captures the blisters, blood, and chaos of warfare with brutal accuracy. It also movingly conveys the reason for the struggle: freedom. A
Additional reporting by Steve Daly and Kelli Pryor

The Civil War

  • Music