Turner is a Civil War buff.
“Andersonville” was his third foray into the time period. Most people forget that he produced
“Ironclads” in 1991, two years before “Gettysburg”. Like “Ironclads”, “Andersonville” was
made-for-TV. But unlike the earlier
film, a lot of effort went into “Andersonville”. Turner got John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian
Candidate, The Train) to direct. Turner
also opened up his check book so Frankenheimer could make the film as authentic
as possible. Frankenheimer won an Emmy
for Best Direction of a Miniseries or Special.
The movie was nominated for six other Emmys. The screenplay was loosely based on Andersonville
Diary: Life Inside the Civil War’s Most
Infamous Prison by John Ransom.
group of Yankees is captured during the Battle of Cold Harbor in June,
1864. They are shipped to Camp Sumter
outside Andersonville, Georgia. Their
first taste (smell) of the camp includes vicious tracking dogs, dead bodies,
and stockades with prisoners in them.
The camp has a fifteen-foot wall around it. When they enter the camp, they are greeted by
a seemingly empathetic character named Munn (William Sanderson). He offers to befriend the “fresh fish” and
help them survive. Fortunately, Pvt.
Josiah Day (Jarrod Emick), Sgt. McFadden (Frederic Forrest) and their mates are
reunited with a former comrade named Dick (Gregory Sporleder) who clues them in
on Munn’s comrades known as the “Raiders”. The Raiders are led by a bully named Collins
(Frederick Coffin). They prey on the
other prisoners. They live fairly well in their sector of the camp by stealing
from the vulnerable captives. Besides
the depredations of the Raiders, the camp is a hell hole because of things like
lack of food, lack of shelter, lack of clothing, inadequate medical care to
deal with diseases, horrible sanitation, and inhumane guards. Do not step
across the “dead line”, you won’t be handed your baseball glove and get a stay
in the cooler. To make matters worse,
the camp is run by the mentally unstable Capt. Henry Wirz (Jan Triska). Day, McFadden, and the others hook up with a
group led by Sgt. Gleason (Cliff DeYoung).
Gleason’s boys are digging a tunnel and let the new guys in on the
digging. If escape does not work, they
will have to deal with the Raiders sooner or later.
a made-for-TV movie, the amount of effort that went into the production is
incredible. The movie was filmed on
location on a farm about one hundred miles from Camp Sumter. A less than scale model of the camp was
constructed. It covered nine acres. A panning shot reveals the painstaking effort
to recreate the officers’ quarters, the stockades, the walls, the stream, and
the “tents” of the captives. The fact
that it rained consistently during the sixty day shoot helped create the muddy
environment that added to the horror of the story. It was a difficult shoot for the cast and
crew. Plus the 4,000 extras that
participated. Many of them were reenactors,
some of whom came from all over the country.
They lent an air of realism to the movie, although it was hard to
reenact the emaciation of the prisoners.
You can’t expect reenactors to starve themselves for their hobby. For the bigger scenes, 3,000 cardboard
cutouts of men were used at a cost of $150,000.
(You can’t tell the fakes in the movie.)
Speaking of cost, several reels of film dealing with the trial were lost
in transit to the studio and the trial set had to be rebuilt and the principal
actors brought back in at a great expense.
If you watch the trial scene, you cannot tell the original footage from
laudatory effort goes beyond the production.
The cast is outstanding. Emick
was making his first movie, but he had won a Tony on Broadway. He does not take acting honors. Those go to Forrest, Sanderson, Sporleder,
and Triska. Sanderson’s Munn and
Coffin’s Collins are great villains.
Triska (a celebrated actor in Czechoslovakia) manages to create some
sympathy for Wirz, a man who clearly was in over his head and lacked the
personality to be humane. Special
mention goes to Jayce Bartok, who was so good as the drummer boy Billy that his
role was expanded.
W. Rintals wrote the script and he deserves kudos. The characters are memorable and the dialogue
is fine. The movie does not slump into
melodrama. The plot builds nicely to the
battle between the Raiders and the Regulators.
The ensuing melee is provoked by the charismatic “Lumber Jim” (Peter
Murnik) as he calls the victims to arms with his cry of “who’s with me? who?”
I wanted to jump into the screen and join in. The brawl is one of the best in cinema
history and very satisfying. The movie
could have ended here, but the decision was made to tell the whole story. Naturally, there is a denouement after the
fisticuffs, but the trial does bring closure and more importantly, is based on
fact. The score is excellent and
visually the film is intriguing.
Frankenheimer made good use of the Steadicam.
movie is not without flaws. The
characters are all good or bad, there is no in between. Heck, Dick is basically
a Christ figure. Rintals adds a visiting
inspecting officer played by William H. Macy. Col. Chandler is highly upset
with what he sees. This may have been
to show that not all Confederates were bad, but it does allow for a debate
between Chandler and Wirz that foreshadows the war crimes trial of Wirz after
the war. The tunneling and escape are
short-changed. There are no underground
scenes. This movie is not “The Great
Escape”. There is no hospital scene, so
the full bleakness of the camp is not shown.
It is a film that lacks humor, but having seen so many WWII prison camp
movies that make the camp look like a summer camp for men, I can live with
is a shame that “Andersonville” is not better known. It could not have been much better for a
made-for-TV movie. Not only is it an
entertaining story that is well-acted, but it is a valuable history
lesson. Although fictionalized, you will
learn a lot about the most infamous prison camp ever located in America. I love movies that bring important, but not
textbook-worthy stories to the public.
Sometimes those stories are botched and usually there is only one
attempt at telling the story. I’m
talking about you “Windtalkers”. This
story was not botched. It is definitely
one of the 100 Best War Movies.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: Camp
Sumter was built in Feb., 1864 to handle the large number of Yankee prisoners
that were being captured after paroling ended.
Gen. Grant ended the exchange of prisoners partly because it benefited
the Confederate Army and the South refused to repatriate black soldiers. (The movie has some members of the 54th
Massachusetts in it.) The camp was
originally 16.5 acres, but was expanded to 26.5 soon after. At its max, the camp held 30,000
prisoners. That was way above capacity. Of the 45,000 total, 13,000 died. Most of the deaths were attributable to
diseases like scurvy, diarrhea, and dysentery.
The diseases were amplified by the poor food, clothing, and
shelter. The lack of hygiene was mainly
blamed on Stockade Creek which provided the water supply, but was tainted by
Thankfully, the movie only hints at the role of hygiene in the
horrors of the camp. It has been posited
that membership in some type of social network was the most important factor in
survival. Loners tended to die
soon. The camp quickly divided into the
Raiders and their victims. The movie
accurately depicts the Raiders and their methods. Collins stands in for the group of
“chieftains”. Munn is based on another
of their leaders. He was not a lackey as
depicted in the film, although the chieftains certainly had plenty of followers
who were willing to do the dirty work.
This work included fleecing “fresh fish” and robbing others at night. Sometimes they killed their victims. The Regulators evolved in response to their
depredations. Matters reached a head
when the Regulators went to Wirz and asked for authority to act as a police
force. Surprisingly, and to his credit,
Wirz agreed. The Regulators rounded up
most of the Regulators which included a fight for control of the Regulators' relatively cushy habitat. Wirz allowed a
trial where many were sentenced to stockades, ball and chain, or running the
gauntlet. Six were given the death
penalty, including Collins and Munn. In
a reversal of he movie, Collins rope broke during the hanging and he tried to
escape, but was reexecuted. Munn
expressed remorse on the scaffold. As
far as the tunnel, there were a 351 documented escapes, which is only .7% Only a few avoided death or recapture.
Wirz was the only Confederate to be executed for war crimes after the Civil
War. The movie takes a balanced approach
to this controversial figure. While he
undoubtedly could have done more for the prisoners, he was in a difficult
position that he did not have the moral strength to deal with. The food problem, for instance, was not his
fault. His own men were not eating well
either. However, he could have insisted
on more humane treatment of the prisoners and more discipline from his own
troops. He appears to have been clueless
to the internal dynamics of the camp.
The Chandler character is based on a Dr. James Jones, who spent a day at
the camp and wrote a scathing report that helped get Wirz hung after he was found guilty at his trial.