Considering the magnitude of suffering at Andersonville prison, it is difficult to understand how the movie industry has nearly completed its first century without someone exploiting that pathos for its cinematic value. With some success Ted Turner has finally done that, but it is disappointing that the production perpetuates so many significant myths that have flourished for the past 13 decades.
Perhaps preferring dramatic effect to historical accuracy, the filmmakers appear to have based their work on the most virulent accounts of the prison, ignoring the more dispassionate studies. Consequently, the movie depicts the prison of MacKinlay Kantor’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Andersonville, rather than the Andersonville of history. The Confederates are portrayed as the malicious beasts they were accused of being in 1865, and false accusations of bitter ex-prisoners enjoy full credence. Prisoners waste away due to deliberate starvation, rather than nutritional deficiencies and systemic failures; fat, well-dressed guards gloat over the unfortunates and kill them gleefully. Viewers should not expect a documentary from commercialproducers, but neither should they be subjected to the distortion of such crucial elements.
The lapses of the film often defy logic, as do many of the memoirs and doctored “diaries” on which the story apparently was modeled. Prisoners who ostensibly are reduced to trading their buttons as their only medium of exchange are, a few moments later, nonchalantly lending out the phenomenal sum of two greenbacks to mail a single letter. Never mind that no such sum was required of prisoners who wished to send a letter home. A soldier captured at the September 1862 Battle of Antietam is still imprisoned in the summer of 1864, even though prisoner exchanges occurred frequently in the two years following the battle. Prisoners wring drinking water from their clothing in a rainstorm, evidently too stupefied by hunger to funnel it into theircontainers from the tent canvas right behind them.
Less substantive errors and anachronisms abound, but they will probably escape all but the most dedicated students of Andersonville. A Confederate inspector visits the prison and offers criticism for Commandant Heinrich Wirz that was lacking from the real inspector’s report. A Confederate officer seeking recruits among the prisoners is unanimously rebuffed, although such an officer actually reaped scores of turncoats from the throng.
Historical inaccuracies notwithstanding, the physical aspects of Andersonville are faithfully portrayed. Except for one or two instances of obvious special effects contrivances, the impression of a 33,000-man prison camp is effectively conveyed, although the shebangs in which the prisoners lived seemed more densely situated in actual photographs of Andersonville than they do in the movie. The location topography matches the original prison site nicely.
Had as much attention been devoted to a discriminating examination of human interaction at the prison as to the placement of tree stumps and the architecture of the stockade, this would have been a movie to remember.
Andersonville, directed by John Frankenheimer, Turner Pictures, four hours in two parts. Premieres March 3 and 4 on Turner Network Television.
South Conway, New Hampshire