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Battle for the Big Screen: The Best Civil War Movies

The Civil War is a subject that has fascinated filmmakers—and the country—for over 100 years. The drama of brother fighting brother in the bloodiest war on American soil has provided a backdrop for countless movies. Here’s our list of the most compelling of the bunch—all featured in 1001 Movies to See Before You Die.

1. Lincoln (2012)
Daniel Day-Lewis’ towering performance notwithstanding, every member of the huge ensemble cast in Steven Spielberg’s excellent drama delivers. Covering the short period leading up to bill that abolished slavery, Tony Kushner’s screenplay immerses us in Washington politics, a world where a brutality with words echoed the horrors of the conflict as it unfolded across the nation.

2. Gangs of New York (2002)
What do the thieves, murderers and the lowlifes of NYC’s Five Points have in common? The answer is The Draft. As the Civil War progressed, the best way to avoid conscription was to have a few hundred dollars to pay off some official or get someone to replace you. But the underworld of Bill “the Butcher” Cutting was unimpressed with efforts to get them to join a war they didn’t care about.

3. Glory (1990)
Edward Zwick, the Stanley Kramer of modern times, produces a sweeping account of the only all-black unit—albeit led by a white major—to fight in the Civil War. Zwick handles the politics with ease, never allowing us to think that such a unit was ever anything more than a PR stunt. And yet the soldiers’ actions go well beyond the expectations placed on them.

4. Dances with Wolves (1990)
Admittedly, Kevin Costner’s multiple-Oscar winner lies on the margins—only the opening pertains to the war directly. Yet at the movie’s core lies a study of a man destroyed by conflict and whose contact with another culture heals those wounds.

5. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966)
Like Gangs, the third part of Sergio Leone’s “Dollar Trilogy” might not register as a Civil War flick but that conflict is the canvas upon which this movie is set. The story revolves around a missing chest of Yankee gold and the rapacious greed of three men set on acquiring it. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach are perfectly cast as the eponymous trio; Leone’s direction is extraordinary; and Ennio Morricone’s score shifts from the ecstatic to the sublime. Most disturbingly, the movie details life at the Andersonville prison, an early concentration camp which was home to unspeakable acts against Yankee prisoners.

6. Gone with the Wind(1939)
David O. Selznick’s lavish production has everything. Two stars that sizzle together on screen. A script packed to the seams with memorable lines. Great action scenes. But this adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s sweeping bestseller excels largely in part because of one amazing person: Hattie McDaniel, who received an Oscar for her performance as house servant Mammy. Throughout the pic, director Victor Fleming cuts to her, allowing a dismissive look or condescending comment to respond to the pointless conversations of the white Southern folk. If McDaniel weren’t present, Gone with the Wind wouldn’t be as palatable today.

7. The General (1926)
This is easily one of the best movies set in the Civil War and without a doubt the funniest. Buster Keaton’s and Clyde Bruckman’s explosive adventure finds Keaton’s deadpan engineer battling to return his stolen train and his girlfriend, who was on board, from the enemy. There’s a deliciously extended chase and a series of visual gags—most memorably the actual destruction of a steam locomotive and the bridge it’s traveling across.

8. Birth of a Nation (1915)
A problematic movie, D.W. Griffith’s war epic is nevertheless a landmark in narrative and technique. Visually breathtaking and emotionally powerful, it’s also racist, with Lincoln portrayed as an imbecile and the Southern slave-owners as victims. Some white actors are in blackface; some play slaves as if that were the best option for black Americans. Worst of all, the movie’s success among some audiences resulted in the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan.

See when Glory is airing on SundanceTV.

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