Bill Buell’s Electric City Archives: Top ten Civil War movie list

James Read, left, and Patrick Swayze in a scene from the 1985 TV miniseries “North and South.” Inset: Read with childhood friend Mark Mindel at a Niskayuna High School reunion in 2010 at the Mohawk Club in Niskayuna. (Reunion photo by Katherine Mindel)

James Read, left, and Patrick Swayze in a scene from the 1985 TV miniseries “North and South.” Inset: Read with childhood friend Mark Mindel at a Niskayuna High School reunion in 2010 at the Mohawk Club in Niskayuna. (Reunion photo by Katherine Mindel)

In more than two decades as a feature writer at the Daily Gazette, I’ve had the opportunity to write more than a dozen stories that involved looking into the fascinating life of my favorite American, Abraham Lincoln.

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It was great fun talking to Ken Burns and Harold Holzer about Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie, “Lincoln,” and with the input of those two experts as well as Albany Law School professor Paul Finkelman, I came up with a story listing my 10 favorite movie/tv Lincolns.

Just last week I had the opportunity to delve into one of my other favorite topics, the Civil War, when I interviewed 1971 Niskayuna High grad James Read. Still a busy Hollywood actor, Read became a big star in 1985 after co-starring with Patrick Swayze in the mini-series, “North and South.” He’s not a Civil War expert by any means, but he has a pretty good idea of why stories focusing on that huge American experience continue to resonate with so many of us.

“We have never really gotten over the Civil War,” Read told me last week from his home outside Los Angeles. “It has left an indelible imprint on our country, and we’ve become even more aware of that in recent years. We’ve learned how unresolved it is in the terms of our national identity.”

As for the popularity of “North and South” in particular, Read said there are a number of good reasons.

“There were three books written by John Jakes and they were all very successful,” said Read. “It told the story of friendship, and the story of families being ripped apart. We had plenty of romance and watchable moments, and the scale was unbelievable. I remember leading charges up a hill with 100s, maybe thousands of reenactors, right behind me.”

“North and South,” parts one and two, came out in quick succession in 1985 and 1986. Then in 1993 they made part three.

“The first two were shot back-to-back, and when you signed up for the one you signed up for the second one, too,” said Read. “The third one was more of an afterthought, done about 10 years later. The war is over, it’s about Reconstruction, and the story just isn’t as compelling. But it was still huge and they knew it would garner a big audience.”

The third series had no Patrick Swayze.

“He was off making movies and didn’t want to do it so they killed off his character,” said Read. “The first two were so much about the friendship between our two characters, and with Patrick gone the story got a little whacky. Artistically, the third one didn’t measure up to the first two.”

The Civil War Monitor, a popular magazine and web site, concluded this about the series

“Americans of a certain age will recall that “North and South,” essentially a soap opera based on the coming of the Civil War, constituted a legitimate TV sensation. The miniseries format attracted viewers unlikely to sit through a documentary or more traditional war film – and actually dealt thoughtfully with issues of slavery and gender.”

So, with the blessing of Matt George of the Capital District Civil War Round Table, I’m going to present my top ten Civil War cinematic works. Both Matt and I feel that 1989”s “Glory” and 1993’s “Gettysburg” are in a class by themselves.

No. 1, Gettysburg (1993), No. 2, Glory (1989), No. 3, Ride with the Devil (1999), No. 4, The Red Badge of Courage (1951), No. 5, The Free State of Jones (2016), No. 6, North and South (1985), No. 7, Gone with the Wind (1939), No. 8, Shenandoah (1965), No. 9. Horse Soldiers, 1959, No. 10, Pharaoh’s Army (1995).

This is my list. I reluctantly included what I view as the overrated “Gone with the Wind” because it really was quite an achievement when it came out in 1939.

A few of my selections might be a bit outdated, but I still enjoy the stark black-and-white images in “The Red Badge of Courage,” and for “Shenandoah” and “Horse Soldiers” all I can say is Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne.

I’m not forgetting Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” but for me that is a Lincoln movie, not a Civil War movie. And if you’re looking for 2003’s “Gods and Generals,” the sequel to “Gettysburg,” you won’t find it. I was so disappointed in it I walked out of the theater before it was over.

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