NEW YORK — On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on Union troops stationed in Fort Sumter, S.C. The barrage marked the opening shots of the Civil War, a national tragedy that killed more than 600,000 people, destroyed the South economically and left a legacy of divisiveness that persists to this day.
The war has also inspired several hundred films and TV shows, the latest of which, “The Conspirator,” starring Robin Wright and James McAvoy and directed by Robert Redford, opens Friday. Based on the true story of Mary Surratt, who was hanged for allegedly being part of the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, the film is based heavily on court transcripts of her trial, and has astonishing parallels to the present-day terrorist trials at Guantanamo — Surratt was convicted by a military, not civilian, tribunal; she was not allowed to testify in her own behalf; and her defense attorney was not allowed to see the prosecution’s evidence against her.
“What this film speaks to is how moments in history do have a tendency to repeat themselves,” says James Solomon, screenwriter of “The Conspirator.” “So this is a timeless story.”
Timeless, and for the most part, historically accurate. Which is not the case with most films about the War between the States.
Filmmakers “almost never get it right,” says Gary Gallagher, author of “Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War.”
“They get it right in terms of maybe getting the book right,” Gallagher says, “like ‘Gone With the Wind’ or ‘The Killer Angels,’ but there aren’t many films that are accurate regarding what happened during the war.”
Filmmakers “don’t ever get it right from the historical point of view; inaccuracies always creep in,” adds Brian S. Wills, who has written “Gone With the Glory: The Civil War in Cinema.”
“A lot of times, time compression forces a story to be tighter for cinematic purposes,” he says, “and you put in language of what you thought people might say. Movies have to create something that’s plausible and realistic, but they also have to appeal to the audience, so they don’t want to go through the complications of history.”
What this means is that everything from the intricacies of tactics, to what uniforms looked like can be historically incorrect. This even extends to battlefield sequences in films like “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals,” which used Civil War re-enactors as extras, many of whom, said Gallagher, “are too old and larger than the average Civil War soldier (who was between 18 and 29, 5-foot-8 and 143 pounds).”
But it’s not just this historical minutiae that Civil War films get incorrect. There’s also a question of interpretation, themes about the war that have come and gone over the years.
“Movies will tell you more about the times in which they were created,” Wills says. “You have to understand the context in which that film appeared. Interpretation is not just a historical word, it’s a creative word, too.”
So before World War II, films like “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” reflected the “Lost Cause” sentiment — that the South was simply fighting for states’ rights — and were very pro-Confederate.
This was what Gallagher calls “Hollywood’s default interpretation” into the 1950s, when more nuanced treatments began to appear. Things changed “with the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s,” he says. “‘Glory’ (the 1989 film about black Union soldiers) really signaled the dramatic shift, and every film since then reflects a more modern sensibility on race and the Emancipation Proclamation.”
And now “The Conspirator” takes Civil War — or, technically, post-Civil War — interpretations to a new level, although Solomon is quick to point out that he began working on his screenplay in 1993, before both World Trade Center attacks. But in the film, Union concerns about possible Confederate plots to commit acts of terrorism like poisoning Washington’s water supply are distant echoes of contemporary fears.
“When I started this,” he says, “I thought the story was Booth shoots the president, end of story. Issues of safety and security were abstract notions, because I wrote this long before 9/11. When I first wrote the piece, people would say ‘What an interesting story, but what is its relevance to today?’ After September 11th, I never heard that.”
Whether future Civil War projects will be able to reflect contemporary issues and fears like “The Conspirator” does is a question yet to be answered. And there are other aspects of the conflict — the war on the high seas, the war in the West — that have barely been touched by Hollywood.
Yet “The Conspirator” may be plowing fertile ground for future film projects. “The fears back then were genuine,” Wills says. “They had real fears about assassinating leaders, real fears about burning cities, about crossing a line and violating civil liberties. These things that happened in the past still resonate.”
A BRIGADE OF CIVIL WAR MOVIES
Several hundred movies and TV shows have been made featuring the War Between the States. Ken Burns’ massive 1990 PBS documentary “The Civil War” is generally regarded as the most comprehensive and accurate work about the conflict, but here are some of the best cinematic depictions:
“The Birth of a Nation” (1915) — Racist to the core, but also a cinema milestone, D.W. Griffith’s astonishingly accomplished film glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, and vilifies freed slaves and Northern carpetbaggers. A real curio, this is a classic piece of revisionist history, justifying Southern myths.
“Gone With the Wind” (1939) — The 500-pound gorilla of Civil War movies, this hugely successful and much beloved film is spectacular in every respect, but its racial stereotyping and benign view of plantation culture now seems dated and reactionary.
“The Red Badge of Courage” (1951) — Director John Huston’s film, starring real-life World War II hero Audie Murphy, is probably the finest depiction of what it was like to be a common soldier during the war. Based on Stephen Crane’s classic novel.
“Friendly Persuasion” (1956) — Gary Cooper’s Quaker family tries to maintain its ideals during the chaos of the war. Director William Wyler’s film is a four-star winner.
“The Horse Soldiers” (1959) — Union cavalry led by John Wayne slashes deep into the South in John Ford’s action-filled drama. Along the way, macho Wayne clashes with pacifist doctor William Holden.
“Shenandoah” (1965) — Widower James Stewart is indifferent to the war until his family becomes involved. Sentimental, but moving.
“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) — The classic spaghetti Western uses the war as a backdrop, as three lowlifes search for stolen Confederate treasure.
“Glory” (1989) — Outstanding story of the first unit of black soldiers fighting for the Union. A multiple Oscar winner, featuring Denzel Washington’s best supporting actor performance.
“Gettysburg” (1993) — Title says it all. Long, monumental and utterly mesmerizing film about the battle that turned the war. Fantastic combat sequences.
“Ride With the Devil” (1999) — Director Ang Lee’s film about Southern guerrilla fighters raiding Union farms and towns along the Kansas–Missouri border. Top-notch cast includes Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich and Jeffrey Wright.