War movies have attracted audiences since the earliest days of filmmaking. There is something about the brutality of battle and the bravery of the soldiers that fascinates us. And one of the most fascinating wars to explore on film is the American Civil War.
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The Civil War remains one of the bloodiest wars America has been involved in. As a setting for a film, the it offers so many storytelling opportunities. From the amazing true stories of the time, to the differences that divided the country, to the ugly history of slavery, civil war films have much to explore. Though a difficult subject to tackle, a number of films have told excellent stories set during this tragic time. Here are the best Civil War movies of all time.
10 The Horse Soldiers
For many years, John Wayne was looked at as the quintessential American actor. It only makes sense then that he would make a film about this important time in the country’s history.
The film is loosely based on the Grierson's Raid in Mississippi during the war. But like most of Wayne’s films, historical accuracy is mostly brushed aside for a more crowd-pleasing adventure. While it might not be the most informative film of the Civil War, it is an entertaining ride that uses the setting to its full advantage, including some great action sequences.
The Battle of Gettysburg was the deadliest battle on American soil and is largely seen as the turning point in the war that would lead to the Union Army’s victory. Curious then that the most comprehensive film on the battle would focus on the Southern side of the conflict.
This perspective has led some to criticize the film. However, it’s hard not to applaud the epic telling of this very significant encounter. At over four hours in length, the movie is not easy to take in one sitting but it’s an informative film filled with great performance from its cast.
8 Cold Mountain
Love and war seem to go together surprisingly well. There are countless movies revolving around the epic romances during the uneasy times of war. Cold Mountain, based on the best-selling book, is one of the great examples of that subgenre.
Set during the end of the Civil War, the story follows a deserter trying desperately to make his way back home to his love who waits for him. The film boasts a stellar cast and beautiful photography along with its engaging story. Few things are as compelling as hoping to see two people in love finally reunited.
7 The Beguiled
Few Civil War movies focus on the women of the time. That perspective alone makes this Sofia Coppola film a refreshing take on the setting. The film is a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood movie. However, this film wisely keeps the focus on the women.
The story follows the women of a girls boarding school who come across an injured Union solider. Taking pity on the man and helping him heal, his presence soon brings trouble. It is a gothic and suspenseful tale headed by an incredible cast who make it a delight to watch.
6 The Outlaw Josey Wales
Many of the greatest Westerns are set right alongside the event of the Civil War. The trend of so-called “revisionist Westerns” used the wartime themes to great use. These film differed from the more heroic Westerns of the past by highlighting the loose morals of even the “heroes” of the time.
Clint Eastwood was an icon of this subgenre and he directed this brilliant entry. Eastwood’s Josey Wales is a man seeking revenge against the Union soldiers who killed his family. The film features all the excitement expected in an Eastwood film, but also examines the bleak nature of mankind at times like this.
President Abraham Lincoln is a perfect subject for the basis of a film. When Steven Spielberg came onboard the project, he intended to make a straight bio-pic. As the production moved forward the direction changed to focus on the creation of the Emancipation Proclamation as the Civil War raged.
Led by an amazing performance by Daniel Day Lewis, the film is a thrilling courtroom drama about one of the most significant times in United States history. The movie also depicts Lincoln’s struggle with whether to end slavery or end the horrors of the war. It results in a fascinating look at this time in history.
4 Gone With The Wind
This is the movie that proved Hollywood epics could be a big part of filmmaking. The epic romance centers around a strong-will daughter of a plantation owner in the South during the war. Despite its troubled production, the film would become an enormous success. In terms of attendance, it remains the most successful movie of all-time.
The film’s depiction of the time causes some fair criticism, such as the soft depiction of slavery. However, the film was ground-breaking, leading to the first African-American Oscar winner and its immense scope is still a marvel of filmmaking to this day.
3 The General
The Civil War was hardly a good setting for a comedy but leave it to a genius like Buster Keaton to show that laughter can be found in all kinds of places. This hilarious and thrilling silent film follows an engineer pursuing a Union solider who stole his train.
The simple set-up works as the perfect avenue for Keaton’s amazing physical performance. It features some the most impressive stunt sequences ever put on film. The film was not well-received in its day, but years later we have grown to appreciate it for the masterpiece that it is.
Sadly, what so many Civil War films fail to explore is the lives of the African-Americans at the time. Like in Gone with the Wind, these characters are mostly used as supporting characters in the larger stories. Glory is one of the rare exceptions as it deals with the real-life all Black Union infantry in the war.
Though it focuses too much on the infantry’s white commander, the film is a gut-wrenching portrait of why these men were so willing to fight in this war. It is also a film willing to show the brutality of this war in an uncompromised fashion.
1 The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
One of the greatest Westerns of all-time is also an amazing Civil War film. This spaghetti Western follows three very different men all in search of a buried gold as the Civil War rages around them.
The movie is classic Western now but was a game-changer for the genre at the time. Clint Eastwood’s nameless hero, the inventive direction by Sergio Leone and an unforgettable score from the great Ennio Morricone are all instantly iconic. The setting of the Civil War only adds to the chaos of the movie. Not only the greatest Civil War movie of all time, but one of the greatest movies, period.