Martin Sheen in a scene from the 1993 Civil War film 'Gettysburg.'

50 best movies set during the Civil War

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January 9, 2021
New Line Cinema // Getty Images

50 best movies set during the Civil War

Running from 1861 to 1865, the Civil War remains the deadliest war ever fought on American soil. The result of various factors, it was ultimately a struggle over the scourge of slavery, which led to conflicts over states' right that would see seven Southern states secede from the United States. By the time it was over, approximately 620,000 soldiers were dead and millions more injured. Many would attest that the war's ramifications are still being played out to this day. In fact, the country is arguably in the midst of a cultural civil war with direct ties to the historical one.

Oddly enough, the Civil War doesn't often get the Hollywood treatment as a direct subject. Whereas World War II or Vietnam movies frequently go into the heart of battle, those with Civil War themes tend to skirt around the event altogether. A number of classic Westerns, for example, focus instead on the frontier battles between cavalrymen and Native Americans. It would appear that Apache warriors and other tribes made for more palatable common enemies to the audiences of yore. Then again, it could just be that Americans killing Americans in droves—or conjuring the ghosts of slavery—hasn't historically made for good box-office business.

Thus, a number of the best movies set during the Civil War are really set "around" the Civil War. It could even be argued that Civil War-based classics like "Glory" or "Gettysburg" are outliers. By contrast, films such as "The Hateful Eight" or "The Searchers" exist in a post-war era, during which battle-scarred characters internalize their previous experiences while taking on new enemies. As a result, the war itself becomes a thematic device or a narrative backdrop for a number of great films, and audiences are thus spared a direct confrontation with the war's underlying conflicts. Rather than depict famous battles, such films use the Civil War to inform a state of mind or a general landscape—not all wars are fought on the battlefield, after all.

Stacker combed through the best films on IMDb and ranked the top 50 set during the Civil War. Rankings are based on IMDb user ratings, with any ties broken by vote count. All films are set in and around the Civil War or have a healthy dose of Civil War flashbacks that play a major role. To qualify, the film had to have at least 500 votes. All data is accurate as of Dec. 22, 2020.

Keep reading to learn more about the 50 best Civil War-themed movies.

#50. Mysterious Island (1961)

- Director: Cy Endfield
- IMDb user rating: 6.8
- Votes: 6,583
- Runtime: 101 minutes

Author Jules Verne's follow-up to "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea'' inspired this sci-fi adventure with a Civil War twist. Stranded on a remote island, Union soldiers must contend with a host of giant creatures. Ray Harryhausen's special effects and a score from Bernard Herrmann help lift the material above the standard B-movie fare.

#49. Rio Lobo (1970)

- Director: Howard Hawks
- IMDb user rating: 6.8
- Votes: 10,738
- Runtime: 114 minutes

The fifth and final collaboration between John Wayne and director Howard Hawks mostly takes place after the Civil War has ended. A quest for justice brings a former Union officer (Wayne) and two ex-Confederates into the dusty town of Rio Lobo. Admirers notwithstanding, Quentin Tarantino once cited it as the kind of film he'd never want to make.

#48. Of Human Hearts (1938)

- Director: Clarence Brown
- IMDb user rating: 6.9
- Votes: 988
- Runtime: 103 minutes

There's more than one war in this Western about the opposing values between a preacher (Walter Huston) and his son (James Stewart). When the Civil War erupts, the son heads off to become a battlefield surgeon. That's when the "story falls apart disastrously," according to an early review.

#47. The Great Locomotive Chase (1956)

- Director: Francis D. Lyon
- IMDb user rating: 6.9
- Votes: 1,045
- Runtime: 85 minutes

An actual locomotive chase from 1862 has inspired multiple retellings, including this Disney adventure film. Playing the role of Union spy, Fess Parker and his cohorts sneak behind enemy lines to hijack a Confederate train. The real-life steam engine from the event remains on display at The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History.

#46. The Littlest Rebel (1935)

- Director: David Butler
- IMDb user rating: 6.9
- Votes: 1,376
- Runtime: 73 minutes

Child star Shirley Temple was at the height of her fame when she headlined this Civil War dramedy. Largely set on a Southern plantation, it chronicles the exploits of a rebellious soldier and his family. Replete with anachronisms, the film offers a poorly aged view of plantation life.

#45. The Plainsman (1936)

- Director: Cecil B. DeMille
- IMDb user rating: 6.9
- Votes: 1,971
- Runtime: 113 minutes

Director Cecil B. DeMille's revisionist biopic features a fictional who's who of real-life frontier icons. Wild Bill Hickok (Gary Cooper) and Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur) team up with Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison) to take on gun-toting Native Americans and a ruthless arms dealer. Important figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Gen. Custer also appear.

#44. The Conspirator (2010)

- Director: Robert Redford
- IMDb user rating: 6.9
- Votes: 27,685
- Runtime: 122 minutes

This historical drama tells the true story of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the only woman to be charged as a co-conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. An enemy of the state and nation alike, Surratt's last hope is her reluctant lawyer (James McAvoy). It may have all the trappings of a taut courtroom drama, but some critics found the film's pacing inert and its characterizations bland.

#43. Free State of Jones (2016)

- Director: Gary Ross
- IMDb user rating: 6.9
- Votes: 51,762
- Runtime: 139 minutes

Matthew McConaughey plays Confederate Army deserter Newton Knight, who returns home and leads a local uprising. Themes of racial injustice and secession play out to prescient effect, even if the film underperformed at the box office. It's all loosely based on actual events, the ramifications of which are still felt in Jones County to this day.

#42. The Sun Shines Bright (1953)

- Director: John Ford
- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Votes: 1,331
- Runtime: 90 minutes

Director John Ford examines small-town politics in this lighthearted melodrama, reportedly the favorite of all his films. Touting scripture, Judge William Pittman Priest (Charles Winninger) takes on the local mob in post-Reconstruction Kentucky. This marked the second time that Ford depicted the famous literary character, having previously done so in 1934's "Judge Priest."

#41. Grandma's Boy (1922)

- Director: Fred C. Newmeyer
- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Votes: 1,645
- Runtime: 60 minutes

Not to be confused with the 2006 stoner comedy (which miraculously shares the same IMDb rating), this silent-era hit stars early screen icon Harold Lloyd. With help from his grandfather's "magic" Civil War charm, a cowardly man (Lloyd) gains newfound courage. Awash with physical gags, it helped take the comedy genre into feature-length terrain.

#40. The Last Wagon (1956)

- Director: Delmer Daves
- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Votes: 2,804
- Runtime: 99 minutes

Employing a familiar premise, this 1950s Western pits surviving wagoneers against a vengeful Apache tribe. The survivors' last hope is a Comanche-raised white man who's been convicted of murder. Like many films of this type, the action plays out during the Civil War or shortly thereafter.

#39. Bad Company (1972)

- Director: Robert Benton
- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Votes: 3,654
- Runtime: 93 minutes

A Civil War draft dodger (Barry Brown) heads west and mixes in with a group of petty criminals along the way. Their leader is the morally dubious con man Jake Rumsey, played by Jeff Bridges in one of his earlier film roles. This effort makes up part of the "acid Western" subgenre that subverted Old West romanticism by way of bleak and often nihilistic narratives.

#38. The Long Riders (1980)

- Director: Walter Hill
- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Votes: 9,764
- Runtime: 100 minutes

Director Walter Hill followed the 1979 cult classic "The Warriors" with this atmospheric Western. Set after the Civil War, it tracks the infamous Jesse James gang as they rob banks and flee from the law. The film draws upon historical events with respectable (but not total) accuracy and casts a number of real-life siblings.

#37. Union Pacific (1939)

- Director: Cecil B. DeMille
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Votes: 2,598
- Runtime: 135 minutes

Cecil B. DeMille's epic chronicles the westward expansion of the Union Pacific Railroad line circa 1862. Released on the 70th anniversary of the actual railroad's completion, the movie was bound for the first-ever Cannes Film Festival. When the festival was canceled due to World War II, it delayed the movie's (retrospective) Palme d'Or prize by 63 years.

#36. Rio Grande (1950)

- Director: John Ford
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Votes: 14,348
- Runtime: 105 minutes

The seventh collaboration between John Wayne and director John Ford takes place soon after the Civil War has ended. At a remote outpost, cavalry officer Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (Wayne) squares off against hostile Apaches. This makes up the final chapter of Ford's "cavalry trilogy" in which U.S. cavalrymen battle Native Americans.

#35. How the West Was Won (1962)

- Directors: John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, Richard Thorpe
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Votes: 18,472
- Runtime: 164 minutes

This sprawling blockbuster employs a talented ensemble cast and no fewer than three acclaimed directors (plus an uncredited Richard Thorpe). Divided into segments, it follows a family line through different eras of westward expansion. It scored big at the box office and nabbed three Academy Awards.

#34. The Tall Target (1951)

- Director: Anthony Mann
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Votes: 1,673
- Runtime: 78 minutes

The year is 1861, and police sergeant John Kennedy (Dick Powell) has just learned of a plot to assassinate President Lincoln. If the conspirators have their way, Lincoln will be killed when his train stops in Baltimore. It might sound like the stuff of alternate history, but the story is loosely based on a real-life event.

#33. The Red Badge of Courage (1951)

- Director: John Huston
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Votes: 3,994
- Runtime: 69 minutes

Adapted from Stephen Crane's classic novel of the same name, this Civil War drama follows a fearful young soldier into battle. Behind the scenes, director John Huston faced a battle of his own against MGM executives. Journalist Lillian Ross chronicled the troubled production in a five-part story for The New Yorker, later published as a book called "Picture."

#32. They Died with Their Boots On (1941)

- Director: Raoul Walsh
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Votes: 5,741
- Runtime: 140 minutes

Best known for the role of Robin Hood, actor Errol Flynn plays historical figure George Armstrong Custer in this error-laden blockbuster. It represents the eighth and final collaboration between Flynn and co-star Olivia de Havilland. Follow Custer from his early days as a West Point cadet all the way to his famous last stand.

#31. Little Women (1933)

- Director: George Cukor
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Votes: 6,361
- Runtime: 115 minutes

Early in a long line of big-screen adaptations, this iconic drama tells the story of the March sisters (one of whom is played by Katharine Hepburn). With the Civil War hovering in the background, each sister comes of age in her own unique way. The film earned three Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Adapted Screenplay.

#30. Broken Arrow (1950)

- Director: Delmer Daves
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Votes: 7,553
- Runtime: 93 minutes

James Stewart tries to keep the peace between Arizona settlers and native Apaches in this Western drama. Unlike a number of its genre peers, the film explores underlying motives and racial themes without over-glamorizing the American perspective. The story is loosely based on actual events.

#29. The Horse Soldiers (1959)

- Director: John Ford
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Votes: 9,425
- Runtime: 120 minutes

Another collaboration between John Wayne and John Ford, this one takes place at the height of the Civil War. Colonel John Marlowe (Wayne) leads Union cavalrymen behind enemy lines with plans to sabotage a railroad and supply center. Both the film and the source novel were inspired by a real-life raid.

#28. The Beguiled (1971)

- Director: Don Siegel
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Votes: 15,746
- Runtime: 105 minutes

Before teaming up for 1971's "Dirty Harry," Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel churned out this gothic thriller. Confined to an all-female boarding school in the Deep South, an injured Union soldier (Eastwood) plays erotic games with dangerous consequences. It was remade in 2017 by Sofia Coppola.

#27. Hostiles (2017)

- Director: Scott Cooper
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Votes: 69,957
- Runtime: 134 minutes

Director Scott Cooper puts a revisionist twist on the classic Western format in this violent outing. A rugged war hero (Christian Bale) is forced to escort a dying Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) and his family through perilous terrain. In his three-star review for The Guardian, critic Peter Bradshaw called it "a striking, if somewhat glib, take on the genre."

#26. Cold Mountain (2003)

- Director: Anthony Minghella
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Votes: 139,268
- Runtime: 154 minutes

Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, Anthony Minghella's historical epic follows a wounded Confederate soldier (Jude Law) on his journey home. Vivid in detail, it blends horrific violence with sweeping melodrama. Renée Zellweger's performance as the stubbornly independent Ruby Thewes earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

#25. The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)

- Director: John Ford
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Votes: 1,969
- Runtime: 96 minutes

Director John Ford dramatizes the true story of Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd, played here by Warner Baxter. Unaware that President Lincoln has been assassinated, Mudd provides medical treatment to an injured John Wilkes Booth. He's then charged with conspiracy and sent to a ghastly prison, where he becomes a hero.

#24. Little Women (1949)

- Director: Mervyn LeRoy
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Votes: 6,598
- Runtime: 122 minutes

The 1949 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's iconic novel relied on the same script and even the same music as its 1933 predecessor. Screen legend Elizabeth Taylor plays Amy, the youngest March sister. Janet Leigh, Margaret O'Brien, June Allyson, and Peter Lawford also star.

#23. Shenandoah (1965)

- Director: Andrew V. McLaglen
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Votes: 7,865
- Runtime: 105 minutes

Actor James Stewart might be best known for movies like "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Vertigo," but he was also a star of the Western genre. Playing a Virginia farmer with a neutral stance on the war, he springs into action after his son is arrested by Union soldiers. The film was later turned into a Broadway musical of the same name.

#22. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

- Director: John Ford
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Votes: 15,794
- Runtime: 104 minutes

The second installment of John Ford's "cavalry trilogy" takes place soon after Gen. Custer's famous last stand. Tasked with quelling a Native American attack, Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) must also ensure the safe passage of two important women. It was shot on location in Monument Valley and presented in vivid Technicolor.

#21. Little Women (1994)

- Director: Gillian Armstrong
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Votes: 51,626
- Runtime: 115 minutes

The stars come out yet again to celebrate Alcott's timeless novel in quintessential fashion. Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Samantha Mathis, and Kirsten Dunst play the lovable March sisters, who grow up during and after the Civil War. They're joined on screen by other big names such as Christian Bale, Susan Sarandon, and Gabriel Byrne.

#20. Lincoln (2012)

- Director: Steven Spielberg
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Votes: 243,266
- Runtime: 150 minutes

Daniel Day-Lewis delivers an Oscar-winning performance as President Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's biopic. Facing obstacles on all sides, the president must decide between ending the war and freeing the slaves. Day-Lewis performed diligent research for the role, conjuring an accent that took viewers by surprise.

#19. Friendly Persuasion (1956)

- Director: William Wyler
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Votes: 6,311
- Runtime: 137 minutes

From the director of "The Best Years of Our Lives" and other classics comes this wartime drama with a moral dilemma at its heart. The pacifist values of a group of Indiana Quakers are put to the test when Confederate troops roll into town. Then-blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson went uncredited until 1996.

#18. True Grit (1969)

- Director: Henry Hathaway
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Votes: 42,078
- Runtime: 128 minutes

Long before the Coen brothers' smash remake came this acclaimed Western, likewise adapted from the Charles Portis novel. John Wayne plays U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in his one and only Oscar-winning performance. Set in 1880, the story follows Cogburn and two unlikely cohorts as they chase down a ruthless killer.

#17. Fort Apache (1948)

- Director: John Ford
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Votes: 16,324
- Runtime: 128 minutes

John Ford and John Wayne kicked off the "cavalry trilogy" with this post-Civil War drama. At a remote outpost deep in Apache territory, two combat veterans (Wayne and Henry Fonda) clash over strategy. Shirley Temple stars as a general's daughter and lends the film its romantic element.

#16. Gangs of New York (2002)

- Director: Martin Scorsese
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Votes: 402,664
- Runtime: 167 minutes

Martin Scorsese's epic takes place in New York's Five Points area, home to vicious 19th-century gangs. Upon his return, young Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) seeks revenge against Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). The action climaxes against a backdrop of the infamous 1863 New York Draft Riots.

#15. The Old Maid (1939)

- Director: Edmund Goulding
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Votes: 3,212
- Runtime: 95 minutes

A novella by Edith Wharton inspired an award-winning play and then this big-screen adaptation starring Bette Davis. On the day of her wedding, a woman's former fiancé appears after two years of absence. The subsequent chain of events plays out both during and after the Civil War.

#14. Gettysburg (1993)

- Director: Ron Maxwell
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Votes: 25,936
- Runtime: 271 minutes

Clocking in at over four hours, this historical drama brings the Civil War's most important battle to life in sweeping detail. Robert E. Lee (portrayed by Martin Sheen) leads Confederate soldiers against their Union adversaries in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Some scenes were filmed on the real-life battlefield.

#13. Shane (1953)

- Director: George Stevens
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Votes: 36,818
- Runtime: 118 minutes

A quiet drifter (Alan Ladd) rolls into the Wyoming valley and finds nothing but trouble in this Oscar-winning Western. The story takes place soon after the Civil War and centers on a land dispute between a local settler and malicious cattle baron. It ends with one of the most heart-wrenching (and ambiguous) scenes in movie history.

#12. The Last Samurai (2003)

- Director: Edward Zwick
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Votes: 397,576
- Runtime: 154 minutes

Already scarred from battle, veteran Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) gets swept up in a new war between Japan's emperor and the country's warrior class. Upon learning the ways of the samurai, Algren gains a newfound respect for his supposed adversary. While big on spectacle, the movie also examines the cultural gap between two unique worlds.

#11. Stagecoach (1939)

- Director: John Ford
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Votes: 43,195
- Runtime: 96 minutes

The first major collaboration between John Wayne and director John Ford follows a stagecoach through deadly terrain. What was supposed to be a simple trip is threatened by the fearless Geronimo and his vengeful Apaches. In addition to being a classic in its own right, it is also famous as the movie that made Wayne a star.

#10. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

- Director: Clint Eastwood
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Votes: 65,181
- Runtime: 135 minutes

A Missouri-farmer-turned-pro-Confederate outlaw (Clint Eastwood) embarks on a path of revenge in this revisionist Western. Eastwood fired director Philip Kaufman about a week into the shoot and then helmed the movie himself. For critics and fans alike, it makes for a fitting companion to Eastwood's famous "Dollars Trilogy" with director Sergio Leone.

#9. Glory (1989)

- Director: Edward Zwick
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Votes: 121,686
- Runtime: 122 minutes

Director Edward Zwick chronicles the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, better known as the Union's first African American volunteer army. Led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick), the regiment defied prejudice both on and off the battlefield. The film won three Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor for Denzel Washington.

#8. Little Women (2019)

- Director: Greta Gerwig
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Votes: 135, 768
- Runtime: 135 minutes

The latest "Little Women" adaptation might very well be the greatest, according to critics and audiences. Director Greta Gerwig offers a refreshing take on the timeless tale, updating the characters and tinkering with the narrative. Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen play the March sisters, with Laura Dern as their mother.

#7. The Hateful Eight (2015)

- Director: Quentin Tarantino
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Votes: 510,409
- Runtime: 168 minutes

On the heels of "Django Unchained," Quentin Tarantino offered yet another pulpy revisionist Western. Set in 1870s Wyoming, it pits a group of duplicitous characters against one another inside a remote outpost in the middle of a snowstorm. Multiple cuts exist, including an extended miniseries version that runs for 213 minutes.

#6. The Searchers (1956)

- Director: John Ford
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Votes: 79,698
- Runtime: 119 minutes

John Wayne and John Ford's most enduring collaboration is both a critical darling and fan favorite. It tells the story of Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards (Wayne), who tries to rescue his niece from her Comanche abductors. On AFI's "10 Top 10" list of Best Westerns, it holds the #1 spot.

#5. The Ox-Bow Incident (1942)

- Director: William A. Wellman
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Votes: 20,726
- Runtime: 75 minutes

Based on a novel of the same name, this Oscar-nominated drama explores mob justice in small-town Nevada. The year is 1885, and three men stand falsely accused of cattle rustling, their lives hanging in the balance. A box-office disappointment upon its initial release, the film has gained significant stature over time.

#4. Dances with Wolves (1990)

- Director: Kevin Costner
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Votes: 238,382
- Runtime: 181 minutes

Kevin Costner's historical blockbuster opens in the midst of battle as Union officer John J. Dunbar (Costner) commits an act of insanity. Transferred to a remote outpost on the Western frontier, he befriends the local Native American tribe. The film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

#3. The General (1926)

- Directors: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Votes: 80,384
- Runtime: 67 minutes

Buster Keaton offers his own version of the Great Locomotive Chase in this action-comedy classic. Filmed on a then-astronomical budget, it features some of the most epic scenes of the silent era. Initially a commercial failure, it's now considered an important milestone and a cinematic masterpiece.

#2. Gone with the Wind (1939)

- Directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Votes: 287,945
- Runtime: 238 minutes

This sweeping historical drama follows Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) through multiple eras, including the Civil War and Reconstruction. Winner of eight Academy Awards, it's also the highest-grossing film of all time (when adjusted for inflation). While a dedicated fanbase persists, the movie has experienced recent blowback due to its stereotypical depictions of African Americans and general views on race.

#1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

- Director: Sergio Leone
- IMDb user rating: 8.8
- Votes: 683,131
- Runtime: 178 minutes

Sergio Leone's famous "Dollars Trilogy" culminated with this gritty Western in which three rugged outlaws hunt for buried Confederate gold. The story plays out against a backdrop of ongoing Civil War violence and specifically draws upon the New Mexico Campaign of 1862. Ennio Morricone's iconic score brings everything to life and retains its own cultural significance, even decades later.

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