This week’s pick is The TNT original film Andersonville (1996) from acclaimed film maker John Frankenheimer (Seven Days in May, Against the Wall). The film stars Jarrod Emick (Pvt. Josiah Day), Frederic Forrest (Sgt. McSpadden), Ted Marcoux (Martin Blackburn) Gregory Sporleder (Dick Potter), Cliff De Young (Sgt. John Gleason), William Sanderson (Munn), Peter Murnik (Limber Jim), Frederick Coffin (Collins), Olek Krupa (Olek Wisnovsky), Jan Triska (Captain Henry Wirz), and William H. Macy (Col. Chandler).
Andersonville was the most infamous of Confederate prisons during the American War between the States. It was made to house only eight thousand or so Union troops, but in its short existence, it housed nearly thirty thousand Union POWs. From 1864-65 nearly seventeen thousand men lost their lives due to starvation, disease, and at the hands of marauding gangs of prisoners known as the “Raiders”who murdered and stole from their fellow inmates.
The film opens in Virginia in April of 1864 where Union troops are pushing back Confederate forces. Josiah Day (Emick) acts as a runner between his unit and the main force which has encountered heavy resistance.
While running back to tell his Sergeant that their commanding officer has ordered them to break through the rebel positions, Pvt. Day is shot and taken prisoner. When he arrives at a clearing, he realizes that Confederate forces have overrun his unit who have now joined him as prisoners.
The men are ordered to lay down and to stay put until they’re moved in the morning. If any of them attempt to rise or flee, they’ll be shot. Josiah’s cousin attempts to escape and he is shot down instantly. The rest of the men lay quietly until the following morning.
The next day the men are taken to a rail head where officers and enlisted men are separated. Pvt. Day and Sgt. McSpadden’s (Forrest) Captain tells them that they are in charge and to look after the rest of the men. Sgt. McSpadden assures the Captain he will, and that they will all one day meet again in Boston.
The enlisted men are put aboard cattle cars and are carried by rail to their destination which is the Confederate prison in Georgia. When the men are loaded off the train, they are marched to the prison which reveals men in stocks, punishment for escape attempts, guard dogs, watch towers, and a fifteen foot high perimeter wall which surrounds the twenty six acre compound. When the gates are opened to the new prisoners, Sgt. McSpadden turns to Captain Wirz (Triska) and asks “What do you call this little piece of heaven”. Wirz grins and tells the new inmates “This is Andersonville”.
As Day, McSpadden, and the new men are taken into the prison, they witness the carnage and atrocious living conditions which the prisoners have to contend with. At first sight, Pvt. Munn (Sanderson) approaches the new inmates while muttering aloud “fresh fish”. He approaches the men and asks them where they were captured and what unit they were with.
The men take up his offer to go with him and to be taken care off. A prisoner comes to the aid of the new inmates and warns them that Munn is not what he seems and that he is a Raider who is leading them in order to either be beaten or killed for what little precious belongings they’ve arrived with in the camp.
The stranger reveals himself to be their old friend Dick Potter who was captured two years earlier and was believed to be dead. His fellow inmates are in awe and failed to recognize him due to his long hair and that he has been shot in both legs and uses a crutch for mobility due to not being treated from his wounds.
Dick begins to coach his friend Josiah in being able to survive in Andersonville by drinking rain water that collects in your cloths, to avoid the swamp at the far end of the camp due to disease and human waste, to train the mind to go w/o food and water for long periods of time, to survive at any cost, and to never cross the “dead line” a perimeter within the prison which if crossed by the prisoners, results in them being shot by the guards. Josiah is a quick learner and relays what he knows in order to keep the rest of his friends alive.
Andersonville is a very gritty, hard hitting action packed melodrama, which thrusts the viewer right into the prison and shows the horrible conditions which existed. Men murdered and stole in order to survive, men made tunnels to try and escape and make it to freedom, and others did what ever in order to survive and return home alive.
Some of my favorite scenes in the film revolve around the Massachusetts men, and a small group of prisoners from a Pennsylvanian regiment who were coal miners in civilian life. Sgt. McSpadden seeks an audience with their Sgt. Gleason (De Young) who enlists the Massachusetts men to help them build a tunnel in order to escape and make it down river to hopefully general Grant or Sherman, in hopes that one or the other might be able to liberate the camp and free the prisoners. Sgt Gleason warns the men that an early warning system needs to be established and that no one else can know about the tunnel due to “tunnel traitors” who are prisoners who tell the Confederate guards in order to gain food, or other privileges.
One of the best scenes in the film is when Limber Jim (Peter Murnik), the voice of reason in Andersonville unites his fellow inmates to attack and reclaim what’s theirs from the Raiders. Jim witnesses a new batch of prisoners being victimized and he explodes in rage screaming “who’s with me!” Hundreds soon join Jim, McSpadden, and Day to attack the Raiders encampment.
The men overwhelm the Raiders and win the day. Jim and others call for the execution of several key members. Martin (Marcoux) believes that they should be tried for their crimes in a military court martial to determine whether or not they should be executed. Jim and others want to commence, but others feel that they should respect the laws and grant these men a fair hearing.
The second greatest scene is the trial which is set up to judge the Raiders and to see whether or not several key ring leaders are to be hung for their crimes. Key witnesses are called to testify and condemn Collins (Coffin), Munn (Sanderson) and others for their heinous actions. Josiah and others testify because the defense believes that the Raiders were justified in doing what they did in order to survive. Josiah, Jim, McSpadden and countless others argue that they are men in the Federal Army and are responsible to act accordingly, to never victimize one another, and to never forget who the real enemy is. A very powerful scene which shows the toll of incarceration on those imprisoned in Andersonville .
I have always appreciated Andersonville and believe it is a very underrated film in the genre of Civil War films like Glory, Gettysburg, The Red Badge of Courage, and The Blue and the Grey. Frankenheimer’s direction is flawless and the acting is superb from actors like Forrest, De Young, Coffin, Macy, and Emick who was primarily a Broadway actor before being cast for Andersonville.
Andersonville is available on DVD disc from Warner Bros. Home Video and can be rented via Netflix.