Five of the best American Civil War films

Five American Civil War movies worth seeing

Free State of Jones / credit: Murray Close

With Free State of Jones failing to set the box office alight, here are some better takes on the conflict

The movies love war, and since the history of movies is tied up with the history of America, you might think that there are a lot of great films about America's own Civil War. Yet there aren't. While the war itself contained plenty of incidents you could hang a movie on – Abraham Lincoln's increasing disenchantment with original Union commander George McClellan; the daring escape of Robert Smalls, who smuggled himself and seven other slave crewmen over to the Union side in a gunboat; the entire military career of Ulysses S Grant – Hollywood has been generally reluctant to tackle the Civil War head-on.

One reason is that, as TS Eliot said, civil wars never really end (he was thinking of the English one, but it's more true of the American one.) Its meaning is still a hot topic in America, with one side contending that it was about the Union crushing the Southern defence of states' rights, while the other side argues that if it wasn't about ending slavery then it wasn't about anything at all. The truth is more complicated: Lincoln undoubtedly had a lifelong aversion to slavery, but he didn't actively push for it to be abolished until his party made doing so part of its official platform.

The difficulty in making a Civil War movie lies in Hollywood's preference for strong heroes and clear villains, as against real life's infinite shades of grey. The currently-on-release Free State of Jones has been criticised for making its hero Newton Knight into a saint, but strangely enough, this is where reality itself is unrealistic: the historical record shows that Knight wasn't significantly more complicated than the film makes him out to be. General William T Sherman, on the other hand, was technically one of the good guys, but his army's famous march to the sea in the winter of 1864 deliberately caused millions of dollars of damage and ruined much of the South's infrastructure. In 1952's How The West Was Won, Sherman may have been played by the ultimate Western hero John Wayne, but in the South to this day, he's still a hate figure.

Convincing heroes being hard to find, the movies have looked elsewhere, or made them up. Here are five civil war movies worth a look.

1. The General (1926), dir. Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman

Buster Keaton thought that The General was his greatest film, but at the time, it killed his career; it got lame reviews, barely broke even, and MGM boss Joe Schenck rewrote his contract so that he was never as creatively free again. Keaton writes, directs and stars as Johnnie Gray, a Georgia railwayman. When war breaks out, he tries to enlist in the Confederate army, but they won't let him in because they need him on the railroads, which is bad enough, but then his girl refuses to respect him because he's not a soldier. Johnnie ends up a hero, but not before some high-speed railway-related shenanigans, including a still-breathtaking stunt where a runaway locomotive passes over a burning trestle bridge which then collapses, in the single most expensive stunt of the silent era. 1924's Sherlock Jr may be more dazzling, but The General is truly heroic.

2. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), dir. Sergio Leone

That iconic whistle ('oo-ee-oo-ee-oooo'). That harmonica. Leone's ferociously intense story of betrayal and vengeance takes place during the war is centred around a McGuffin: $200,000 of Confederate gold, which the three main characters all want. Once again, the closest the film has to heroes, Eastwood and Wallach's characters, are Confederate soldiers. It climaxes with the famous Mexican standoff, the most exciting moment in cinema history to consist of three men standing still and looking at each other for four minutes.

3. Gettysburg (1993), dir. Ronald F Maxwell

Originally intended as a miniseries, and it shows it, being at four and quarter hours one of the longest Hollywood films ever made. This sprawling tale of the most famous battle of the war has a starry cast including Jeff Daniels, Tom Berenger and Martin Sheen, but what'll really grab your attention are the actors' truly epic beards: Sheen as Robert E Lee looks like a badger has been taped to his jaw. It's a manly tale of manly men being manly, and the re-creation of Pickett's Charge, a brave but ultimately doomed Confederate assault, captures much of the sheer labour and chaos of war.

4. Lincoln (2012), dir. Steven Spielberg

Like Free State of Jones, Spielberg's snapshot of the last days of the 16th President got some flak for making Lincoln too folksy and sympathetic, but again, reality is sometimes unconvincing. The film is based on Doris Kearn Goodwin's brilliant 2005 book Team of Rivals, and both the book and Lincoln's own writings reveal that he was pretty much like the film shows him; funny, down-to-earth, prone to irritating his subordinates with inappropriate humour and a genius at manipulation.

5. Glory (1989), dir. Edward Zwick

The story of one of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first units of the Union Army to be made up largely of African-American men is both inspiring and depressing, but it helped make stars of Denzel Washington as the simmeringly angry escaped slave Silas Trip, and Morgan Freeman in what we now recognise as a classic Morgan Freeman role, military gravedigger-turned-NCO John Rawlins. Watch out for the great Andre Braugher (of Brooklyn 99) as the bookish Thomas Searles, too. And get the handkerchiefs ready for the end.