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50 best movies set during the Civil War

  • 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.

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  • #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.

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  • #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.

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