Andersonville the Movie

     The story of Andersonville prison is the kind of extraordinary event that may be only a footnote in history books but can enlarge our perception of past events. Its effect is comparable to the way Nat Turner's rebellion illuminates the experience of slavery, or how the service of black soldiers in the Union army casts new light on the Civil War.

     The Andersonville episode is one of the most horrific chapters in a war with no shortage of horrors. In 1864 and 1865, more than 45,000 Union soldiers were held in a south Georgia prison camp built to contain fewer than 10,000. Almost a third of the prisoners died of starvation, disease or execution. The camp's commandant, Captain Henry Wirz, has the distinction of being the only soldier to be tried and executed for war crimes after the Civil War.

     The difficulty in filming this account of captivity lies in finding visual drama in a place dominated by hunger, scurvy and exposure. Director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Black Sunday) and screenwriter/producer David W. Rintels meet the challenge in their harrowing production of Andersonville, a two-part, four-hour film debuting on the TNT Network.

     By no means a "fun" P.O.W. movie like Stalag 17 or The Great Escape, Andersonville gives an added dimension to the conflict that split America into "Yankee" and "Johnny Reb." Not only are the Union prisoners pitted against the Confederate guards, they also have deadly struggles with each other.

     We follow the men of the 19th Massachusetts Volunteers, notably injured Sergeant James McSpadden (Frederic Forrest) and Corporal Josiah Day (Jarrod Emick), who functions as the film's conscience. Captured by the Confederates in Cold Harbor, Va., the Union soldiers are herded onto trains and delivered to Fort Sumter, Ga., a.k.a. Andersonville.

     The prison camp is little more than a gargantuan log pen that spans more than 20 acres and contains no standing structures, just tents, mud and disease. The sheer number of bodies turns the camp into a kind of Darwinian experiment for the survival of the fittest. Shortly after their arrival, the Massachusetts Volunteers meet one of their comrades captured earlier in the war (Gregory Sporleder); months inside has given the once-hale soldier the appearance of a ragged, Old Testament prophet.

     The guards shoot any prisoner who gets too close to the walls, but the greater threat comes from fellow inmates. The most predatory prisoners have organized themselves into "raiders" who prey on new arrivals, calling them "fresh fish," and plunder anything that can be used or sold. The raider ringleaders, notably the bloodthirsty Collins (Frederick Coffin) and his lickspittle Munn (William Sanderson), are positively Dickensian figures, wearing cast-off uniforms and carousing to "Buffalo Gals."

     The prisoners dig an escape tunnel while withstanding the raiders' nighttime assaults. On the other side of the wall, a sympathetic Confederate colonel (played by "ER"'s William H. Macy) tries vainly to improve conditions at the camp, but the half-mad Captain Wirz (Jan Triska) is solely concerned with his own advancement.

     Rintels' script -- based on historical record, and not MacKinley Kantor's Pulitzer-winning novel of the same name -- provides many exciting sequences to temper the monotonous spectacle of death by inches. There's a bruising, bare-knuckled fist fight, a high-tension escape attempt and even a jerry-rigged jury trial, all compellingly directed by Frankenheimer. The trial scene, in fact, dominates the film's second half, and proves a moving assertion of civilization in a wholly inhuman place.

     The hanging that follows the trial is Andersonville's true climax, although the film lingers on to no decisive conclusion afterward. The lack of a decisive ending was inevitable, given the lack of distinction between characters. Not counting the raiders, the brave, desperate Union prisoners are largely indistinguishable, except for their regional differences. Schindler's List had a similar problem -- most of its emaciated characters ran together -- but commanded interest in other ways.

     The cast features no big names, but many fine character actors. In his film debut, Emick gives a steady, solid performance as Day (the actor, ironically, won a Tony award for Damn Yankees). Also noteworthy are William Sanderson, best known as Larry of "Newhart"'s Larry, Darryl and Darryl, as Munn; Tom Wilson, the bullying Biff from the Back to the Future trilogy, as Thomas Sweet; and Lonesome Dove's Frederick Coffin as the bearlike raider Collins.

     Triska turns Wirz into a collection of tics and mannerisms. His accent, supposedly Swiss, turns "prisoners" into "prishonerz," and with one arm in a sling, his other hand gesticulates wildly. It's a busy, eccentric performance, but still a viable portrayal of a venal, unhinged war criminal.

     The real stars of Andersonville are its production team, notably production designer Michael Hanan and historian/"military choreographer" Dale Fetzer, who also worked on Glory and TNT's Gettysburg. Like Gettysburg, Andersonville has a huge cast filmed at a single locale, mostly in the open air. But Andersonville's gigantic stockade is far more hellish than the Gettysburg battlefield -- it's as if the entire film takes place on the vast clearing of wounded rebels that Scarlett O'Hara visits in Gone With the Wind.

     Re-creating the camp's conditions is a triumph of realism, and Frankenheimer makes the most of the simulated squalor, providing both uncomfortable close-ups of rotten teeth and remarkable tracking shots over hundreds of dying men. By the end, the P.O.W. camp seems little different than a Nazi death camp.

     An enormous project, Andersonville largely lives up to its ambitions and should prove more satisfying to audiences than Gettysburg. While more characterization would have been welcome, Andersonville remains a powerful miniseries that's always watchable -- agonizingly so. In its fidelity to naturalism, it brings to life one of darkest pages in Georgia history, and illustrates how war causes men to destroy not just each other, but themselves. 

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Text by Bill Carnes.

These materials were prepared as part of a class assignment for The Seminar in Famous Trials course at the University of Missouri-K.C. School of Law. The use of any sound or images in the trials sites is in furtherance of the educational mission of the Seminar.