Best Review - Top 6 American Civil War Movies


he American Civil War is a period in history that helped define the USA as it is today. This period where the states split into North and South is a fascinating time, and both the history and people of the period as well as the famous battles have been immortalized in some classic movies. Whether it's the futility of lines of infantry lining up at point blank range and firing at each other, the massed cavalry charges, or the despair that follows defeat on the battlefield, movies about the Americal Civil War are spectacular to watch. These are some of the top movies in this genre.

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Three days in the summer of 1863, at a place called Gettysburg. Although it received a theatrical release, this four-hour depiction of the bloody Civil War battle was shot as a made-for-television film. But no taint of cheapness or shortcuts should stick to this magnificent picture (well, except maybe for those phony-looking mustaches). Based on Michael Shaara's book The Killer Angels, this film takes a refreshingly slow, thorough approach to the intricacies of battle. In ordinary circumstances, those intricacies might seem of importance only to fans of military strategy or Civil War enthusiasts, yet in Gettysburg they come across as the very stuff of life, death, and unexpected heroism. If the film has a problem, it's that it climaxes too early: the first long segment, detailing the struggle of a "civilian soldier," Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), to hold his ground against long odds, is an enthralling piece of moviemaking. Daniels, in a heartbreaking performance, does his best film work. Other cast members include Tom Berenger, Sam Elliott, and Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee. Richard Jordan, in his final role, gives a powerhouse performance as Confederate general Lewis A. Armistead. Oh, and you can also try to spot Ted Turner, whose company produced the film, as a Confederate soldier. Writer-director Ronald F. Maxwell seems inspired by the gravity of the battle; long as it is, every moment of Gettysburg is informed by a nobility of purpose.

Top 2


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One of the finest films ever made about the American Civil War, Glory also has the honor of being the first major Hollywood film to acknowledge the vital contribution of African American soldiers to the country's historic struggle. Based on the books Lay This Laurel, by Lincoln Kirstein, and One Gallant Rush, by Peter Burchard, and the wartime letters of Robert Gould Shaw, the film tells the story of the 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an all-black unit comprising Northern freemen and escaped slaves. Under the command of Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick), the 54th served admirably in battle until they made their ultimate demonstration of bravery during the almost suicidal assault on the Confederate Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863. Glory achieves its powerful impact by meticulously setting up the terrible conditions under which these neglected soldiers fought, and by illuminating the tenacity of the human spirit from the oppression of slavery to the hard-won recognition of battlefield heroism. Although Denzel Washington deservedly won an Oscar for his supporting role as a runaway-slave-turned-soldier, Glory faced some tough competition at the 1989 Academy Awards (against popular hits like Driving Miss Daisy and Dead Poets Society) and was shut out of nearly all the major categories. Since then, it's been duly recognized by historians and critics as a classic film of its genre.

Top 3

Cold Mountain

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"Cold Mountain" tells the story of Inman (Law), a carpenter working in Cold Mountain, North Carolina in 1861 when the alluring, elegant, and well-educated Ada (Kidman) and her father, Reverend Monroe (Sutherland), move to the Blue Mountains from the city. Inman and Ada, in true Hollywood fashion, are instantly taken by each other and engage in restrained flirtation, Ada's preacher father and their different social classes being the bulwark from romance. Soon the Civil War begins and the entire young male population of Cold Mountain departs in eager anticipation of glorious battle.

Top 4

Gone With The Wind

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David O. Selznick wanted Gone with the Wind to be somehow more than a movie, a film that would broaden the very idea of what a film could be and do and look like. In many respects he got what he worked so hard to achieve in this 1939 epic (and all-time box-office champ in terms of tickets sold), and in some respects he fell far short of the goal. While the first half of this Civil War drama is taut and suspenseful and nostalgic, the second is ramshackle and arbitrary. But there's no question that the film is an enormous achievement in terms of its every resource--art direction, color, sound, cinematography--being pushed to new limits for the greater glory of telling an American story as fully as possible. Vivien Leigh is still magnificently narcissistic, Olivia de Havilland angelic and lovely, Leslie Howard reckless and aristocratic. As for Clark Gable: we're talking one of the most vital, masculine performances ever committed to film.

Top 5

Gods And Generals

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The more you know about the Civil War, the more you'll appreciate Gods and Generals and the painstaking attention to detail that Gettysburg writer-director Ronald F. Maxwell has invested in this academically respectable 220-minute historical pageant. In adapting Jeffrey Shaara's 1996 novel (encompassing events of 1861-63, specifically the Virginian battles of Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville), Maxwell sacrifices depth for scope while focusing on the devoutly religious "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang), whose Confederate campaigns endear him to Gen. Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall, giving the film's most subtle performance). Battles are impeccably recreated using 7,500 Civil War re-enactors and sanitized PG-13 violence, their authenticity compromised by tasteful discretion and endless scenes of grandiloquent dialogue. Still, as the first part of a trilogy that ends with The Last Full Measure, this is a superbly crafted, instantly essential film for Civil War study. For all its misguided priorities, Gods and Generals is a noble effort, honoring faith and patriotism with the kind of reverence that has all but vanished from American film - but provides abundant proof that historical accuracy is no guarantee of great storytelling.

Top 6

The Horse Soldiers

John Wayne teams with William Holden and eminent western director John Ford for this frontier actioner "packed with laughter, romance and thrills" (The Hollywood Reporter)! Written by John LeeMahin and Martin Rackin, this faithful representation of one of the most daring cavalry exploits inhistory is both a moving tribute to the men who fought and died in that bloody war and a powerful, action-packed drama.Based on an actual Civil War incident, The Horse Soldiers tells the rousing tale of a troop of Union soldiers who force their way deep into Southern territory to destroy a rebel stronghold at Newton Station. In command is hardbitten Colonel Marlowe (Wayne), a man who is strikingly contrasted by the company's gentle surgeon (Holden) and the beautiful but crafty Southern belle (Constance Towers) who's forced to accompany the Union raiders on perhaps the most harrowing mission in the war.

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I hope you enjoyed this list of great American Civil War movies. If you have a personal favorite that is not on the list and deserves to be, please leave a comment and let me know.

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warmoviebuff's picture

"Brokeback Mountain"? Did

"Brokeback Mountain"? Did you read the title of your post? In what universe is that a Civil War movie? Talk about destroying your credibility. Also, "Gods and Generals" should be disqualified for its offensive depiction of a slave who idolizes his master Jackson. "The Red Badge of Courage" belongs on the list.

poddys's picture

Oh dear it just goes to show

Oh dear it just goes to show you can't please everyone... Brokeback Mountain is a Civil War period movie is it not, and it has some battle scenes as well, plus a lot of scenes about the horrors that were going on back home in some parts of the country during the war. If you disqualify Gods And Generals (which is actually not one of MY favorite movies actually), then pretty much all war movies would have to be excluded from lists for some reason or other. What has the depiction of a slave who idolozes his master got to do with anything?

warmoviebuff's picture

Poddys, you have got to be

Poddys, you have got to be kidding me! This is very perplexing. Your comment leads me to believe you are referring to "Cold Mountain" which would make sense because it is an excellent movie and is set in the Civil War and does cover the home front as well as some combat. However, your review is clearly about "Brokeback Mountain" which is undoubtedly not a movie that is in any way about the Civil War. What the heck is going on here? This is bizarre.
Secondly, I stand behind my comment about "Gods and Generals" and feel I have the cred to dis it. I am a Southerner and have read extensively about the Civil War. I always "rooted" for the Army of Nothern Virginia in my reading. I made a special trip to see "Gods" on opening day and was very disappointed in it and appalled by its idealization of slavery. It is nowhere near as good as "Gettysburg" and does not belong in the top 5 Civil War movies. Not when you have "Red Badge of Courage", "Shenandoah", "Ride with the Devil", and "Andersonville" out there. In conclusion, "Gods and Generals" got a 8% on Rotten Tomatoes. Nuff said.

poddys's picture

I stand corrected my friend,

I stand corrected my friend, it was indeed Cold Mountain that I was thinking about. Unfortunately as some of us get older we suffer with what can best be described as "brain farts", and this was one of mine! Thanks for putting me right.

I waited anxiously to see Gods and Generals and saw it when it came out too. Based on the high quality of Gettysburg it had to be a great movie, right! Wrong! I think there was some good acting, but Jackson's speeches just seemed to drag on, the battles were rather confusing at times, and overall it was sadly very disappointing.

I guess because I was born in the UK and lived in Indiana for 12 years that the views of slavery that came across in Gods and Generals didn't hit me the same way as they hit you. To me I saw the attitude and beliefs of the Confederates regarding slavery, which I assumed to be as they were back in the day. I don't know enough to tell if this was accurate or not.

Looks like I have a review to fix, and since I can't change the number of movies (6) I will add another for some classic Civil War movies, or which there are a number.

There is only one other really awful one that I recall, but I can't remember the name of it. I saw it in the UK when it came out, and then on video in the USA a few years ago under a different name. It's about a renegade Confederate company who at the end of the war did not realize it was over, kidnapped 2 women and did quite a bit of killing if I remember correctly. It was just an awful movie though.

warmoviebuff's picture

I appreciate your candor. I,

I appreciate your candor. I, too, have my senior moments.