Couch Potato Briefing: U.S. Civil War Special Edition

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In a slight departure from our usual international fare, this week’s installment of rental movies to watch over the weekend is all about the U.S. Civil War — the country marked the 150th anniversary of the war’s eruption on April 12. 

Glory

There is no more stirring a story from the Civil War than that of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first free black regiments to fight for the Union. Glory, powered by terrific performances from Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, takes us through the regiment’s recruitment by Boston abolitionists, their training in often abject conditions, and their eventual heroic — and tragic — assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. The soldiers of the 54th marched South knowing that if captured they faced immediate execution. Yet, while the courage they showed was greater than most, the collapse of the Confederacy and the emancipation of enslaved blacks proved an almost shallow victory. Decades of life under Jim Crow were to follow and there’d be many more battles to fight.

Gettysburg

This 1993 four-hour epic — it has an intermission — reprises Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Killer Angels. Though the vast majority of the Civil War took place below the Mason-Dixon Line, its most famous engagement occurred in the north, in this hilly, wooded stretch of Pennsylvania. Gettysburg faithfully works its way through the proceedings of the three-day battle — its defiant last stands, its futile charges. Though generally well received, the film was criticized by some for its supposed over-emphasis on the natural camaraderie between both sides. Indeed, the story’s most dastardly character seems to be a British observer, scheming his own nation’s gain from a perch behind Southern lines.

The Red Badge of Courage

Based on the famous 1895 Stephen Crane novel of the same name, the 1952 film The Red Badge of Courage is classic Hollywood pomp, leading us along the journey of a young raw recruit who quivers in cowardice when first plunged into the tumult of battle. His redemption, of course, will also come on the field of war.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The U.S. Civil War is heavily cloaked in myths of valor and sacrifice, but that doesn’t mean it lacked in war’s less romantic qualities — namely, the ruthless opportunism of many involved. In this legendary Western, three men on the sidelines of the Civil War cast off that wool façade of their uniforms and chase lustily after a hidden cache of gold. To get to it, they have to trick, betray and kill. Then, with the booty in their sights, they start digging up the dead of a cemetery where the treasure is buried. It leads to a rather cynical view of war and patriotic duty. It also leads to one of the greatest showdowns in cinema history.

Ken Burns’ The Civil War

This month, PBS has been screening episodes of Ken Burns’ iconic 1991 mega-documentary The Civil War. Above, Burns elaborates the special virtues of the “Ken Burns’ effect” to a videographer from the New York Daily News.