The Top 10 Most Important Civil War Movies

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Gone With the Wind (1939)

Gone With the Wind.

One of the best reviewed war films of all time (well, best reviewed of any film of any genre, actually), it doesn't get anymore classic than Gone With the Wind.  This is a film that everyone has heard of, but has largely only been seen by folks of an "older generation."  To younger film fans, I say this:  Yes, it's three and a half hours and it's old, but it's also excellent.  Stick with it and you will be rewarded.  This film is not only one of the most important films of all time, but easily the most important film about the Civil War, as Scarlett, a pampered socialite, experiences the destruction of the south and her genteel way of life, as the war destroys everything she holds dear.  (One of the first films to have a woman in a leading role.) 

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Birth of a Nation (1915)

D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation is not a film that can be rated for entertainment value; it's production date of 1915 makes it purely a historical artifact.  And it's historical value is one of racist propaganda:  This is a film that presents the Ku Klux Klan in a heroic light, as fighting against the evil scourge of the African-Americans that populated the south following the Civil War.  I present this film as the second most important, only because of it's influence on American culture; at the time of its release, it was very popular, as it reinforced the racist and horrific beliefs of an entire segment of the population.  It's an important film, though neither a good one or a moral one.

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Glory (1989)

At number three is the almost perfect Glory, telling the true story of an all black continent (the first) in the Civil War.  Unlike most films of this type, the lead isn't a white man who "recognizes" the value of the black soldiers; the leads in this film are the black soldiers themselves.  It stars a very young and as of yet undiscovered Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington.  The ending will leave you dazzled.  An amazing film from start to finish.  (For other war films showing the long, sad journey for African-Americans to be considered as equal soldiers, click here.)

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Lincoln (2012)


Spielberg's biopic about as he attempted to end the Civil War is enthralling and Daniel Day Lewis' performance is mesmerizing.  The Civl War is relegated to the background here; this is not a film with battles, but it's about the Civil War from the first frame to the last.  Focusing on the politics surrounding the closure of the war is a fascinating tale in its own right, and this is the film to tell that story.

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Red Badge of Courage (1951)

Based on the novel of the same name, this seminal film focuses on a single soldier in the war and his failing courage.  Whereas Lincoln is a big film about the power structure and the arc of history, this film is small, focusing on one soldier's experience.  But it's an experience worth telling, as through this soldier's perspective, we get to see fighting as it occurred during this era, with soldiers marching in formation and firing into one another's position.  (I was in the Army and in the infantry, but we got to move around, hide behind cover and use concealment; I cannot personally fathom the idea of marching straight into enemy fire.)  (Click here for other films about regretful infantrymen.)

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Gettysburg (1993)

Number three of the most important Civil War films belongs to Gettysburg, a four and a half hour film that focuses in intense detail on the events leading up to the battle of Gettysburg, and the battle itself.  This is not a film for everyone, but for Civil War buffs, finally there is a film that goes into granular detail about one of the most pivotal and historically important battles in the war.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Set during the Civil War, this is one of the most iconic Clint Eastwood western roles where he perfected a vision of manliness that would be oft-repeated:  Sparse talking, no nonsense tough guy.  The film itself doesn't have a lot to say about the Civil War, but historically it's important as a good stand-in for an entire genre of spaghetti Westerns that took place in and around the period of the Civil War.  It's also a damn good action film.  It's not overly important, but for historical nostalgia it's good for spot number seven.

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The Searchers (1956)

This John Ford directed film, starring John Wayne, is one of the all-time great iconoclastic American cinema experiences.  The film's story is simply about a Civil War veteran that heads into Comanche country to rescue a niece that was long ago kidnapped by the Indians.  But on a larger level, the film is about much more than that:  About the closing of the American West, and, most importantly, about the way the Civil War transformed men, and the nation.  The Civil War is not in this film, but its impact is on every scene.

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Dances With Wolves

Dances With Wolves.

Number nine belongs to another film showing the way the Civl War impacted men, men that would go onto the frontier and engage in other parts of history.  In this classic film, Kevin Costner plays a Civil War officer that finds himself in the frontier in the final years before its disappearance, and ends up be-friending and eventually joining a local tribe of Native Americans.  Not unlike The Last Samurai, this is a film where a white protagonist learns the true value of a local indigenous culture under threat and emerges as a hero to save the day.  This is a classic white savior film, but it's one that's excellently done with superb production values (and it's also pretty emotionally moving!)

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Cold Mountain (2003)

This epic film has it all:  Intense battle scenes, star-crossed lovers, and a Confederate soldier that deserts and manages his way across the southern landscape, along the way encountering a great many strange characters and scenes, each representative of some aspect of the war, or the destroyed society that existed in the immediate aftermath.  It's part Civil War romance, part Odysseys journey home.  It's well made and has top notch production values.  A film about the Civil War that is as much about the south and the people that populate it.