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They left the nightmare...and entered Hell. Captured Union soilders cope with life inside the Civil War's most notorious prisoner-of-war camp. A powerful, compeling tale of war and will, with Emmy Award-winning direction by John Frankenheimer and a cast including Frederic Forrest (Apocalypse Now) and William H. Macy (ER, Fargo) Year: 1996 Director: John Frankenheimer Starring: Jarrod Emick, Frederic Forrest, Ted Marcoux
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Up until then, Yankees and Confederates mostly just had temporary camps to hold prisoners for as little as a few weeks before they would be exchanged. But by the spring of 1864, newly-promoted General-in-Chief Grant decided to stop exchanges for good, therefore holding tens of thousands of prisoners in camps on both sides. The Yankee prisoners would starve because the Confederate nation of almost a dozen Southern states, threatened on all sides by marauding Yankee armies, didn't have enough food and supplies to feed their own civilian population and armies, much less tens of thousands of Yankee prisoners. This I can truly understand. If any food was to be available, it would preferably go off to their own families and soldiers, and the POW's would get whatever was left, which wasn't very much.
This movie follows the story of what appears to be about a company of Massachusetts troops who were captured during a skirmish with the other side on June 1, 1864 near Cold Harbor, Virginia, right before the slaughter of almost 7,000 Yankees was to happen on that ground within the next few days. You see the officers being separated from the enlisted men, and the officers were to be taken to Libby Prison in Richmond, the infamous camp for all Yankee officers in captivity. Upon their arrival at Andersonville, the men meet Captain Wirz, the Swiss-born Confederate commander of the prison who almost lost his arm at the 1862 battle of Fair Oaks. Wirz would end up being the only Confederate soldier executed for "war crimes" a few months after the war finally ended. He gives brutal treatment to the Yankees that attempt to escape from prison, many of which on record happened to do successfully, and this treatment brings much protest from a visiting Confederate colonel from the War Department. In the prison, a fellow soldier from their regiment that had been presumed dead since Antietam gives the arrivals great advice: Don't drink the diseased water from the spring, stay away from the Yankee Raiders that manage to rob the new arrivals of anything they have, and collect rainwater by wringing out their clothes during a downpour. Soon, the brutal treatment by the Raiders brings the whole camp into an uproar, and as the Confederate guards watch with fascination, the entire camp gives the Raiders some much-needed justice, followed by a trial and execution.
The Yankees also adapt themselves to building escape tunnels under the camp, helped by a couple of former miners from Pennsylvania, and you find out what happens to the "tunnel traitor" Yankees who hope to give this information to the Confederate guards for as little as an extra piece of bread. The prison life looks very harsh and you see many of the prisoners die, but it was simply a way of life for survival for those that lived. This was an excellent movie!
As a younger Civil War/War of Northern Aggression student, I read MacKinlay Kantor's book "Andersonville" and while there is much vile to see in this film, it does show why the written word is still the most powerful weapon in war. Kantor's descriptions in writing defy depiction by even the most skilled set-dresser. And nobody, I mean nobody, Federal or Confederate, officer or enlisted man, young or old can come out a situation such as Andersonville looking particularly well--and the post-liberation photographs show it, just as do the post-liberation photographs of Auschwitz, Dachau, and Bergen-Belsen. The German film of the 1950s "The Doctor of Stalingrad" which purported to show conditions in a German POW camp in the Soviet Union after World War II, and the great film "Hart's War" depict relative Shangri-La conditions...
For someone who knows little about the POW situation during this great American conflict, I would recommend the DVD "Andersonville" but NOT in isolation. It must be tempered with a rounded knowledge of conditions in Northern Camps--which DO appear on the History Channel regularly...and recognition that after prisoner exchange was discontinued, nothing short of genocide on a fairly grand scale could result.
I recall a television documentary about the trial of the Andersonville Commander, whic starred of all people William Shatner--back in the 1970s or so...which I was quite impressed with and should be resurrected. But for the present, films such as "Andersonville" are replete with underlying messages about the horrors of war, that humans make war and then complain about the conditions which are inevitable, and that despite our intelligence we have not found an alternative to it--yet. If this film inspires one intellect to put his or her head to the solution of this problem, then there will be no more Andersonvilles....This film shows how easily humans who are civilized (we think) can descend into the psychosocial dynamics of the crowd, the group, the herd, plundering and devaluing of human life to that of mere livestock.