Ted 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.
A 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.
For 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 the new.
The 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.
David 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.
The 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 that.
It 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.
GRADE = A-
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 human waste. 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.
Henry 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.