When people think of Civil War movies, Glory and Gone With the Wind usually come to mind. Both are classic movies, for sure, but Westerns have also focused their fair share of attention on the conflict — albeit in somewhat subtler ways. (Well, subtle for the genre, anyway!) Most Westerns tend to be set in the elegiac post-Civil War period, full of broken souls moving Westward for a new lease on life, but not a few frontier dramas planted themselves in the midst of the bloody conflict between the States. With brother battling against brother, there were opportunities aplenty to mine the tense period for drama and moral ambiguity. Who doesn’t love a little drama and moral ambiguity?
Dances With Wolves (1990)
It’s easy to forgot that this idyllic Best Picture winner took place in the middle of the Civil War — more memorable are Wolves‘ lush natural landscapes, its moving story of cultural understanding, and Kevin Costner sinking his teeth into gelatinous buffalo liver. (Nasty.) But of course the war’s what propelled it all into motion, as seen in the film’s prologue in which Union officer Lt. Dunbar (Costner) makes a suicidal Hail Mary on the battlefield, for which he’s rewarded with a post at the dilapidated Fort Sedgwick where the Native American-White Man lovefest begins.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1968)
Westerns put the Civil War on center stage, here it takes a back seat
to Sergio Leone’s directorial pyrotechnics. The war mainly serves as a diversion for the double and triple crosses
of its picaresque cast of money-hungry bandits. But that doesn’t mean
the conflict doesn’t affect their quest: A well-timed cannonball allows
Blondie a quick escape from a hanging. And in one of the film’s more
amusing scenes, Tuco and Blondie masquerade as Confederates, only to
get taken prisoner by Union soldiers whose blue uniforms were turned
gray by the dust.
Western Union (1941)
This innovative Western was the second such outing from director Fritz Lang, best known for his Metropolis,
one of the first films to foresee the future as a high-tech nightmare.
As usual with Lang this tale of colliding masculinity has plenty of
outré touches and takes lots of historical liberties. Among them is the
idea that the Confederacy feared one technology above all: The
telegraph! Yes, while Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott) is set to make the
frontier abuzz with Morse code, his old rebel chum Jack Slade will stop
at nothing to make sure America ain’t unified by the latest in
telecommunications. Wonder what he’d think of the Internet!
Major Dundee (1965)
Dundee (Charleton Heston) and Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris) are
opponents in the Civil War who put their grievances aside to hunt down
a common enemy — murderous Apaches! Well, actually, it’s not that easy.
Staunch Confederate Tyreen makes this reasonable counteroffer to
Dundee’s overtures at joining the effort: “I damn its flag and I damn
you. And I would rather hang than serve.” Will these two ever get
along? A similar plotline was used in John Wayne’s The Undefeated, except the mutual enemy in that one was murderous Mexicans. Westerns are nothing if not politically correct.
isolationism gets ported to
the war between the States in this solid Jimmy Stewart oater. The
drawling thespian plays a Virginia farmer who, both anti-slavery and
anti-war, gets caught in the crossfire of the fighting. Can he walk the
middle route while not compromising his own ethics? Er, not really.
Like many a reluctant hero before him, Stewart’s gradually pulled into
the conflict. Interestingly enough, Stewart himself was desperate to ship out during World War II.
After getting rejected for military service when he was
drafted, Stewart lobbied successfully to enlist. He was even allowed to
enter combat missions (uncommon for a big Hollywood star) as a bomber