Directed by John Frankenheimer
Andersonville, undoubtedly the Confederacy’s most notorious prison camp, has been the subject of fiction, nonfiction, stage plays and films. This 1996 effort, a Turner Broadcasting System original directed by the acclaimed John Frankenheimer, ranks about in the middle for credibility and historical accuracy.
By early June 1864, when the action opens, the prison—originally built to hold 10,000 men—had a population of more than 20,000. The film follows some new arrivals captured at Cold Harbor, Va., who are rudely acquainted with camp routines by an old comrade. The ugliest reality proves to be a rogue band of prisoners known as “the Raiders” who hoard meager food supplies and terrorize new arrivals even more than the young, inexperienced Confederate guards who casually shoot captives who cross the “dead line.” Frankenheimer sets up an interior tension every bit as strong as the antagonism between captors and captives to make heroes and villains more difficult to stereotype.
One stereotype, however, comes alive through Jan Triska’s over-the-top portrayal of Captain Henry Wirz, the camp’s Swiss commandant. After a grandly staged pitched battle between two opposing prisoner factions, Wirz presides over a military-style tribunal to try the ringleaders. A jury of new inmates sentences them to hang. The trial foreshadows the ordeal Wirz will undergo after the war, when he is the only Confederate officer tried by a military tribunal, found guilty and hanged for war crimes.
The film incorporates all the clichés of Hollywood prison movies, including escape tunnels, prisoner informants, bloodhounds tracking escapees and severe punishment of the recaptured as an object lesson to the other prisoners. Frankenheimer’s foreshadowing extends to the movie’s conclusion when, near the end of the war, remaining prisoners are loaded into railroad cars and told they are being paroled. In reality, like millions of Jews 80 years later, they are being sent to other prison camps, where thousands more will die.
Frankenheimer films (e.g., The Manchurian Candidate) often investigate the human psyche under extreme conditions of duress. Andersonville provided him a rich tableau on which to work.
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.