Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1860s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1860s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1860s

1. “Lincoln” (2012) – Steven Spielberg directed this highly acclaimed film about President Abraham Lincoln’s last four months in office and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to end slavery. Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, Oscar nominee Sally Field and Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones starred.

2. “Shenandoah”(1965) – James Stewart starred in this bittersweet tale about how a Virginia farmer’s efforts to keep his family out of the Civil War failed when his youngest son is mistaken as a Confederate soldier by Union troops and taken prisoner. Andrew V. McLaglen directed.

3. “Angels & Insects” (1995) – Philip Haas directed this adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella, “Morpho Eugenia” about a Victorian naturalist who marries into the English landed gentry. Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit starred.

4. “Class of ’61” (1993) – Dan Futterman and Clive Owen co-starred in this television movie about recent West Point graduates and their experiences during the first months of the Civil War. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie was directed by Gregory Hoblit.

5. “The Tall Target” (1951) – Anthony Mann directed this suspenseful tale about a New York City Police sergeant who stumbles across a plot to kill President-elect Lincoln and travels aboard the train carrying the latter to stop the assassination attempt. Dick Powell starred.

6. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (1967) – John Schlesinger directed this adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman torn between three men. The movie starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.

7. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) – Sergio Leone directed this epic Spaghetti Western about three gunslingers in search of a cache of Confederate gold in New Mexico, during the Civil War. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach starred.

8. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Anthony Minghella directed this poignant adaptation of Charles Fraizer’s 1997 novel about a Confederate Army deserter, who embarks upon a long journey to return home to his sweetheart, who is struggling to maintain her farm, following the death of her father. The movie starred Oscar nominees Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, along with Oscar winner Renee Zellweger.

9. “Little Women” (1994) – Gillian Armstrong directed this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel about four sisters from an impoverished, yet genteel New England family. The movie starred Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Christian Bale and Susan Sarandon.

10. “The Beguiled” (1971) – Clint Eastwood starred in this atmospheric adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel about a wounded Union soldier who finds refuge at an all-girl boarding school in 1863 Mississippi. Directed by Don Siegel, the movie co-starred Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.

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“THE SHADOW RIDERS” (1982) Review

 

“THE SHADOW RIDERS” (1982) Review

When I first set out to discover how many of author Louis L’Amour novels had been adapted for the movies and television, I had assumed at least a handful had gone through this process. I was surprised to discover that many of his works had been adapted. And one of them turned out to be the 1982 television movie, “THE SHADOW RIDERS”.

I have only seen two L’Amour adaptations in my life – “THE SHADOW RIDERS” and the 1979 two-part miniseries, “THE SACKETTS”. Both productions seemed to have a great deal in common. The two productions are adaptations of L’Amour (which is obvious). Both featured three brothers as the protagonists. Both starred Sam Elliot, Tom Selleck and Jeff Osterhage as the leads. The two productions also feature Ben Johnson as a supporting protagonist and Gene Evans as a villain. But in the end, “THE SHADOW RIDERS” and “THE SACKETTS” have their differences. The latter aired as a two-part television movie or miniseries that mainly featured action and drama. “THE SHADOW RIDERS”, on the other hand, is a ninety-six minute television movie, with comic overtones.

L’Amour’s tale is basically about two brothers – Dal and Mac Travern – who returned home from the Civil War after fighting on different sides and discover that a company of Confederate cavalry had raided their family’s Texas ranch and the neighborhood for cattle, horses and especially people to sell in Mexico. Among those kidnapped by the raiders were other neighbors, the Traverns’ younger brother Jesse (also a Civil War veteran), their younger sisters Sissy and Heather, and Dal’s former sweetheart Kate Connery. The Confederate troopers, led by one Major Cooper Ashbury, hope to raise enough money or “merchandise” to trade for guns and ammunition from a notorious local gunrunner named “Colonel” Holiday Hammondin order to continue the fight against the Federal government.

Upon learning what happened, Dal and Mac discover that the local lawman, Miles Gillette, seem incapable of going after the raiders. And once the Traverns recruit their jailbird uncle “Black Jack” from prison to help them, Gillette becomes more obsessed with capturing the latter. With no law to help them, Dal and Mac set out to rescue their family with the help of their Uncle Jack; Jesse, who managed to escape from the raiders; and Kate, whom they managed to rescue halfway through the story.

It seemed rather odd that a story about family kidnapping would have a comic tone. I have read other reviews of the movie and some L’Amour fans seemed put off by this tone. Personally, I have no problems with it. Yes, I have read the novel and it was pretty good . . . and somewhat grim. But I thought director Andrew V. McLaglen and screenwriter Jim Byrnes did a pretty damn good job in mixing the grim nature of the story with a strong comic element. The screenplay did not shy away from the horror of Major Ashbury’s actions or how they affected the Travern family – especially Sissy and Heather. More importantly, most of the comedy came from the family interactions between members of the Travern family – especially Dal and Mac’s reunion at a local tavern right after the war, the three brothers’ reaction to Jack Travern’s criminal past and the emotional reunion between Dal and Kate, who had become engaged to another man after hearing about Dal’s erroneous death.

“THE SHADOW RIDERS” also featured some outstanding action sequences. My favorites include Jesse’s escape from Ashbury’s raiders, the three brothers’ rescue of Kate, and the family’s main rescue of the Travern sisters and their neighbors from Holliday Hammond’s camp in Mexico. Being a veteran of many movies and television productions set in the 19th century, it seemed obvious that McLeglen was in his element with “THE SHADOW RIDERS”. The action featured in the film struck me as very exciting, without any of the excess that seemed to mar a good number of action films and television shows, these days.

I only have few complaints about “THE SHADOW RIDERS”. Despite its comic element, the main narrative focused a good deal of situations that involved family reunions between the Travern family. I certainly had no problems with most of them. But I had a problem one – namely the Travern brothers’ reunion with their Uncle Jack, who was serving time at a local jail. I found it . . . rather lackluster. A bit too laconic and understated for my tastes. I understand that this scene featured mid 19th century American men, who may have been conditioned to keep their emotions in check. Yet, other reunion scenes – whether it was between Dal and Mac, or the pair’s reunion with Jesse or their parents – seemed to feature some element of emotion. Is it because the brothers were dealing with the slightly larcenous “Black Jack” Travern? Who knows. I also had a problem with Mac’s war background. The movie made it clear that he was a Union cavalry officer, who was in Georgia at the time the war ended in April-May 1865. I just do not understand why he was in Georgia at that time. He must have entered the state with William Sherman’s forces in 1864. So . . . why did he remain in Georgia and not accompany Sherman into South Carolina?

If anyone would ask me, I believe the shining virtue of “THE SHADOW RIDERS” was the cast. They were outstanding. All of them – from the four leads to the numerous characters that appeared in this movie – were first-rate. They all seemed very comfortable in their roles, while at the same time, managed to provide a good deal of edge to their performances. In“THE SHADOW RIDERS”; Sam Elliot, Tom Selleck and Jeff Osterhage renew the screen chemistry they had created in“THE SACKETTS” with great ease. However, I was a little disappointed that Osterhage’s role in this film seemed slightly diminished in compare to his role in the 1979 production. Katherine Ross made an excellent addition as the classy, yet strong-willed Kate Connery, who had been Dal’s former sweetheart. This also gave Ross an excellent opportunity to share some rather funny and romantic scenes with her off-screen husband, Elliot. Hell, she even managed to work well with Selleck, Osterhage, Geoffrey Lewis and Gene Evans.

Ben Johnson was a hoot as the Traverns’ laid-back, yet larcenous uncle, “Black Jack” Travern. I could also say the same about Gene Evans, who portrayed the very charming and very cold-blooded gunrunner, Holliday Hammond. On the other hand, Geoffrey Lewis made a very intense Cooper Ashbury, the Confederate cavalry officer who is determined to continue the War Between the States with only a company of men. “THE SHADOW RIDERS” also featured first-rate performances from veterans such as Jane Greer, Harry Carey Jr., and R.G. Armstrong; along with Dominique Dunne and Natalie May.

I may have had a problem with one or two scenes with “THE SHADOW RIDERS”. And yes, I found the Civil War background for one of the major characters a bit confusing. Otherwise, I really enjoyed the movie. I enjoyed it when I first saw it as a kid, many years ago on television. And my recent viewing only confirmed that my feelings about the production has not really changed one whit. Director Andrew V. McLeglen, screenwriter Jim Byrnes and a cast led by Sam Elliot and Tom Selleck continued to make this movie a joy to watch.

“SHENANDOAH” (1965) Review

shenandoah

 

“SHENANDOAH” (1965) Review

During my recent viewing of the 1965 movie, “SHENANDOAH”, I came to the surprising conclusion that it proved to be entirely different than what I had assumed it would be. But it is not surprising that it would take several years for the movie to be appreciated by today’s audiences than it was back in 1965. 

Like I said, “SHENANDOAH” is an unusual film. Set in 1864, during the U.S. Civil War, the movie is about the efforts of a sardonic Virginia farmer and widower named Charlie Anderson to prevent his sons from fighting in the war. Although, he is sympathetic toward the travails his neighbors face from the Union Army’s presence in the Shenandoah Valley, he feels no obligation to fight on behalf of a state he believes had never help him maintain his farm. Nor does he support the Confederacy’s pro-slavery stance. His neighbors seem willing to tolerate his pacifist stance, although a few like Pastor Bjoerling occasionally make barbed comments.

Not long after his only daughter’s wedding to neighbor and Confederate Army officer Sam and the birth of his first grandchild, Charlie’s family fortunes take a turn for the worse. His youngest son, 16 year-old Boy, is captured by Union soldiers, while playing with his close friend Gabriel, a neighbor’s slave. Boy had been wearing a Confederate Army kepi cap he had earlier found. When Gabriel informs the Anderson family of the news; Charlie, most of his sons and daughter Jennie leave to look for Boy. They leave James and his wife Ann at the farm with their young baby.

While watching the first twenty to thirty minutes of “SHENANDOAH”, one gets the impression of watching a warm family comedy-drama with a Civil War setting. I almost felt as if I were watching “THE WALTONS” in a 19th century setting. There are very few characters in uniform. The movie featured the Anderson family at home, at work and a mildly amusing scene of them arriving late at church during the beginning of the sermon. And when the war did infringe upon their lives, the family usually responded in humorous ways – namely their boisterous fight with a state official and soldiers trying to acquire horses for the army, and a stand-off between Anderson’s sons and a group of army recruiters. By the time Charlie and his family set out to find the missing Boy, I felt certain that their adventures would be exciting, topped by a happy ending. Charlie and the rest of the Andersons got their happy ending. . . but at great costs, thanks to the Union Army, the Confederate Army and a group of deserters. The movie’s growing dark tones and anti-war sentiments really took me by surprise, considering its earlier tone. But what really took me by surprise is that the movie’s changing tone had been gradual, thanks to director Andrew V. McLaglen and screenwriter James Lee Barrett.

There were scenes in “SHENANDOAH” that really impressed me. I enjoyed those scenes with Charlie’s conversations with his future son-in-law, Sam, and his daughter-in-law Ann; due to their heartwarming nature, Charlie’s outlooks on both his family dynamics and dealing with marriage, and fine performances from James Stewart, Doug McClure and Katherine Ross. However, his conversation with Union Army officer Colonel Fairchild really impressed me, thanks to Stewart and George Kennedy’s performances, and the way the two men managed to emotionally connect on the horrors of war and fear of losing their sons. Boy’s escape with a group of Confederate soldiers from a riverboat struck me as rather exciting. In one of the movie’s earlier scene, Jennie Anderson had encouraged Gabriel to run away from his master. Not only did Gabriel run, he eventually joined the Union Army. This is probably why I found Gabriel’s reunion on the battlefield with a wounded Boy emotionally satisfying. The friendship and warmth the two boys felt for each other had not wavered, despite finding themselves within the ranks of the opposite armies. And I was amazed at how both Philip Alford and Eugene Jackson Jr. managed to convey the close friendship of the two characters with hardly any words. However, I feel that the movie’s two best scenes were featured in the Andersons’ local church. The first church scene proved to be a very funny affair, thanks to actor Denver Pyle’s skillful conveyance of Pastor Bjoerling’s irritated reaction to the Andersons’ late arrival in the middle of his sermon. The second church scene, which ended the film, was a beautifully acted and emotional that surprisingly left me in tears. It had the perfect mixture of relief, happiness and a little pathos that followed the emotionally draining aspects of the movie’s second half. Even after nearly five decades, many people still talk about it.

Despite my satisfaction with “SHENANDOAH”, there were some aspects of it that I found troubling. Most of my dissatisfaction came from the movie’s historical portrait of its setting. One of the Union soldiers that captured Boy proved to be black. The Union Army was not integrated in 1864. In fact, I do not believe it was ever integrated during the four years of the Civil War. And for the likes of me, I could not see how all of Charlie’s six sons could have avoided military service during the war’s first three years. His sons, especially Jacob, seemed to have minds of their own. I figured if they really wanted to fight in the war – whether for the Confederacy or the Union – they would have left the farm and join the military. I could not understand how someone as strong-willed as Jacob (who was the oldest) could have allowed his father to prevent him from joining the Confederate Army. And even if all the boys had wanted to remain on the farm, they would have been subjected to the military draft. The Confederacy had enacted the military draft about a year before the Union. And the Andersons were not rich or owned any slaves. I have one last complaint – a minor one at that. Some of the acting by the supporting characters in minor roles sucked. Period. I found their performances rather wooden and could not understand how they managed to get roles in an “A” production like“SHENANDOAH”.

Flaws or not, I can honestly say that “SHENANDOAH” is one of the better Civil War movies I have ever seen. Instead of telling the story of the war from one side or the other, it told the story about a family that desperately tried to avoid being dragged into the chaos and tragedy of war . . . and failed. Thanks to a well-written script written by James Lee Bennett and a talented cast led by the even more talented James Stewart, director Andrew V. McLaglen crafted an excellent story about the Civil War that proved to be more emotional and surprising than I could ever imagine.