Critic's Picks: The 10 Best Civil War Films

9:30 AM 6/23/2016

by Stephen Dalton

As Matthew McConaughey starrer 'Free State of Jones' hits theaters, THR's film critic ranks the top movies about the bloodiest battle in U.S. history.

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  1. 10
    10

    The Birth of a Nation

    1915

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    D.W. Griffiths' hugely controversial silent movie landmark follows the fortunes of two rival families on opposing sides during the Civil War and Reconstruction. The use of blackface, racist stereotypes and heroic Klansmen grates horribly today, teaching modern audiences an uncomfortable but necessary history lesson. With heavy irony, actor-director Nate Parker recently reclaimed the title for his acclaimed slave rebellion drama.

  2. 9
    10

    Ride With The Devil

    1999

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    Future Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee probed the complex, contradictory racial politics of America's bloodiest conflict with this handsomely shot epic about a youthful band of Missouri outlaws fighting for the Confederate cause. Tobey Maguire, Jeffrey Wright and folk singer Jewel lead an attractive young cast.

  3. 8
    10

    Cold Mountain

    2003

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    Aspiring to the grand historical sweep of Gone With The Wind, Anthony Minghella's Civil War romance is a flawed but sumptuous saga featuring an all-star cast and some brilliantly orchestrated set-piece battles. Jude Law stars as a wounded Confederate soldier struggling to make it back home to his sweetheart, played by Nicole Kidman. Renee Zellweger won an Oscar for her rambunctious supporting role.

  4. 7
    10

    Gettysburg

    1993

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    Originally planned as a TV miniseries for Ted Turner's TNT network, director Ronald Maxwell's painstaking adaptation of Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the 1863 battle of Gettysburg eventually became a forensically detailed cinematic epic spanning more than four hours. The huge ensemble cast includes Martin Sheen, Jeff Daniels and Tom Berenger, plus cameos by Civil War documentarian Ken Burns and Turner himself.

  5. 6
    10

    The Outlaw Josey Wales

    1976

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    Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this elegiac revisionist Civil War western, playing a Missouri farmer who joins a Confederate guerrilla group after his family is murdered by Union militias. Ironically, Clint's pacifist allegory for the national trauma of Vietnam was based on a novel by Asa Earl Carter, a Ku Klux Klan supporter and violent white supremacist.

  6. 5
    10

    The Red Badge of Courage

    1951

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    Adapted from Stephen Crane's definitive Civil War novella, director John Huston's visually striking battlefield drama stars real-life WWII hero Audie Murphy as Henry Fleming, a Union private desperate to prove he is no coward after deserting his regiment. Huston's darker, longer edit was notoriously cut to ribbons by MGM, but even the mutilated version remains a flawed classic.

  7. 4
    10

    The Civil War

    1990

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    Ken Burns set a new high bar for historical documentary with this record-breaking PBS series, drawing 40 million viewers with his densely layered tapestry of expert commentary, poetry, music, paintings and vintage photos. Not strictly a feature film, but richer than most documentaries, this nine-hour audio-visual symphony features a starry vocal cast including Sam Waterston, Morgan Freeman, Jeremy Irons and Arthur Miller.

  8. 3
    10

    Glory

    1989

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    An Oscar-winning Denzel Washington portrays a volunteer soldier in Edward Zwick's stirring paean to heroism and brotherhood, partly based on the letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, played here by Matthew Broderick. Glory pays overdue tribute to the 37,000 African-Americans who died fighting for the Yankee cause, but does not shy from showing the racism and inequality that existed in the Union ranks.

  9. 2
    10

    Lincoln

    2012

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    Daniel Day Lewis won an Academy Award for his Mount Rushmore-sized depiction of Abraham Lincoln in Spielberg's brainy historical epic, which deftly unravels the President's fraught maneuvers to push through the emancipation of slaves at the end of the Civil War. Though a talk-heavy political drama at heart, Lincoln features a spectacular recreation of the battlefield at Petersburg, Virginia.

  10. 1
    10

    Gone With the Wind

    1939

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    Three directors and some tortuous Hollywood deal-making lay behind David O. Selznick's magnificently overblown, multiple award-winning Civil War blockbuster. Vivien Leigh plays proud Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara in a lavish historical melodrama which overly romanticizes the slave-owning Old South, but also features the first African-American Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel.

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