During the battle of Cold Harbor in early June 1864, a group of Union troops from a Massachusetts regiment, including Corporal Josiah Day (Jarrod Emick) and Sergeant McSpadden (Frederic Forrest), are captured by Confederate forces. Packed into cattle cars, the Union infantry is shipped south to a prison camp that is quickly gaining a reputation for all the wrong reasons. It's called Andersonville, and thousands and thousands of prisoners are confined in a stockade meant for less than 8,000. Food, water and rations are limited, and the maniacal camp commandant, Capt. Henry Wirtz (Jan Triska), rules the camp with an iron fist. Josiah, McSpadden and their fellow Massachusetts men have no idea what awaits them in a prison camp where men drop like flies each day from disease, starvation and even a murdering group of prisoners called Raiders. Can they survive? As Andersonville wears on them, do they even want to survive?
Have you heard of Ted Turner? Well, he's quirky, rich and a Civil War enthusiast. Having already backed the 1993 Civil War epic Gettysburg, Turner turned his sights on this made-for-TV venture, bringing to the small screen a generally forgotten, truly dark part of American history. Once fighting began in 1861, both the Union and Confederate sides now had to deal with the ever-increasing number of prisoners of war. Clocking in at 167 minutes, 'Andersonville' is a horrifying, moving and realistic portrayal of the worst Civil War prison camp. Built in 1864, over 45,000 prisoners were held there, and over 13,000 died in just over a year-plus. The truth is horrifying just reading about it, but seeing it? Quite the moving experience.
With Turner backing the production, no expenses were cut short. An entire set was built almost to the exact measurements of the actual prison camp (it's a little bit smaller) to provide just a stunning visual for all the wrong reasons. Acres and acres of makeshift tents and shelters -- usually just holes in the ground covered with tarps -- stretch as far as the eye can see, prisoners packed into the camp like sardines. With no sanitation, you can only imagine how absolutely filthy and disease-ridden the camp was. Director John Frankenheimer brings this god-forsaken place to life, using long tracking shots that have the camera navigating through this claustrophobic, filthy, death lingering in the air, horrific location to life. By the end of the movie, you're exhausted, beaten up and truly get a sense of what living in the camp was like.
'Andersonville' utilizes an ensemble cast with some familiar faces, even some stage actors, but no huge stars. Playing the everyman hero, Emick -- a stage actor -- is our window into the camp as Josiah, an educated, well-spoken soldier who vows to survive no matter what it takes. Forrest too is excellent as the tough Sgt. McSpadden who wants nothing more than to get his Massachusetts men through this living hell. The prisoners we meet are a combination of those new Massachusetts infantry who arrive and the Pennsylvania miners who welcome them in, even letting them in their desperate escape attempt. Ted Marcoux plays Martin, one of the miners and simply a good man in who we see a horrific physical transformation over his time in the camp.
Also worth mentioning in a very solid supporting part is Cliff De Young (Glory, Centennial) as Sgt. Gleason, the leader of the Pennsylvania men who welcomes in the Massachusetts contingent. Experienced miners in the coal mines, Gleason's men are digging a tunnel under the wall. Their odds? Slim, but anything is better than staying in the camp. Also look for Jayce Bartok, Justin Henry, Andrew Kavovit, Olek Krupa, Thomas Wilson, Peter Murnik, and Gregory Sporleder as other key Union prisoners we meet. Frederick Coffin and William Sanderson play the leaders of the Raiders, more intent on survival than anything, even if it means attacking and killing fellow prisoners. Also look for William H. Macy as a Confederate officer tasked with examining what goes on within Andersonville's walls.
Originally broadcast over two separate nights, the story tries to accomplish a ton. The first half introduces our characters, the camp and the desperate escape attempt via tunnel while the second half shows the effort to rid the camp of raiders while also showing the horrific physical wear and tear the prisoners go through. It all builds to quite the ending, one that packs quite the emotional punch. It's heartbreaking with a last twist and ends on a quiet, somber note that shows the real horror of the camp. Highly recommended, an incredibly difficult movie to watch but one that is incredibly worthwhile.
Andersonville (1996): ****/****