Free State of Jones (and five of the best movies about the American Civil War)
With the dust barely settling on a week that has seen Donald Trump inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States and hundreds of thousands marching in protest, America seems once again to be a nation grappling with its social and political identity, so there's something timely about the arrival of Free State of Jones, which lands in stores on Monday (January 30th).
Written and directed by Gary Ross, the man behind the lens on films like The Hunger Games and Pleasantville, the film is set during the American Civil War and is based on two historical accounts of the life of Newton Knight, a farmer and enlisted army medic who deserted and led a rebellion against the Confederate army, with the help of a band of escaped slaves and freedmen to fight a resistance against Southern forces in Jones County, Mississippi.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Knight, alongside a cast that includes Touch's Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Luke Cage's Mahershala Ali, Salem's Christopher Berry and Felicity star Keri Russell.
The story picks up around 1862, approximately a year into the conflict, with the Confederate forces succumbing to Union forces at the Battle of Corinth. Knight survives the battle despite their defeat, but is becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Confederate cause and deserts the army on discovering that several of his fellow soldiers have been raiding local farms, stealing livestock and crops for taxes.
Knight helps a family foil a raid by a soldiers from a Confederate regiment, but is pursued and flees to a nearby swamp, where he discovers a band of runaway slaves led by Moses Washington (Ali). Following another defeat at the Siege of Vicksburg, many other Confederates desert their posts, ending up at the swamp, where they are recruited by Knight to form a band of resistance fighters. Despite a lack of help from the Union forces, Knight's band of men and women manage to maintain control of Jones County until the end of the war, when Knight marries Rachel, one of the former slaves, fathering a child with her.
A second narrative, running parallel to the main story, is set 85 years later and involves Knight's great-great-great grandson, who is arrested under the state's miscegenation laws for marrying a white woman, since he is one-eighth African-American and therefore considered black by the local authorities, who sentence him to five years in prison.
Knight has been something of a controversial figure in American history, with conflicting accounts of his role in the war having emerged over the last century, but Ross' film is based on two accounts of Knight's life, one by historian Dr. Victoria E. Bynum (The Free State of Jones) and another by Sally Jenkins and John Staufer (The State of Jones). While much of the film's plot is a fictionalised version of Knight's story, most of the narrative is based on real events and as the first film to tackle Knight's story since George Marshall's Tap Roots in 1948, Ross has created a definitive modern-day telling of the story behind an important – if divisive - figure in American history.
McConaughey delivers a predictably impressive performance in the lead role and you can find a trailer for the film below. Beneath that we've picked five other essential films on the subject of the bloodiest conflict in America's history...
Originally conceived as a four-episode miniseries, Ronald F. Maxwell's 1993 film does require a bit of commitment with a running time of nearly four and a half hours, but it's one of the most detailed and gripping accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg, a pivotal moment in the American Civil War that helped turn the tide for the Unionists. Based on the novel The Killing Angels by Michael Shaara, the film boasts an impressive cast that includes Martin Sheen, Tom Berenger and Jeff Daniels and recounts the story of the fateful battle between the armies of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and the Union army led by John Buford. It's a long old film this, but essential viewing for anyone looking for a definitive on-screen account of the battle.
While Steven Spielberg's biopic of the 16th President of the United States is focussed more on the man than the war itself, there's no getting away from the fact that the war - and Lincoln's pledge to abolish slavery which sparked it -are the defining themes of both his presidency and his life, one famously cut short just five days after the war ended at the hands of the actor-turned-assassin John Wilkes Booth.
Daniel-Day Lewis earned a record-breaking third Oscar for his depiction of the embattled Lincoln in the final year of the war, as the President struggles to convince congress to pass the abolition law before the war ends, knowing that he is prolonging the nation's suffering in doing so. Lincoln's story is one of the most important in American history and while that must have weighed heavily on Spielberg's shoulders, the experienced director pulls it off with aplomb here and even if war films aren't really your thing, this is a must-see.
Released in 2010, this Robert Redford-directed film tells the story of Mary Surratt, one of eight people accused, arrested and sentenced to death for conspiring in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the first ever woman in America to be executed by the state. While the actual assassin John Wilkes Booth never faced trial – he was killed in a raid by union soldiers shortly after Lincoln's death – of the eight co-conspirators who were tried and convicted, it is Surrat's conviction and subsequent execution that remains the most controversial.
James McAvoy stars as the Unionist lawyer chosen to represent Surratt, reluctantly at first, but as the trial progresses and he learns more, he becomes increasingly convinced of her innocence. Also starring Robin Wright in the role of Surratt alongside a cast that includes Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Danny Huston and Stephen Root, this is a film that requires your full concentration thanks to the legal arguments involved, but it's a fascinating story that led to a momentous change in the country's law, guaranteeing a fair trial for all.
Dances With Wolves
Directed by and starring Kevin Costner, who was also instrumental in convincing author Michael Blake to turn his script idea into a novel, Dances With Wolves not only defied expectations at the box office by reviving the deeply unfashionable Western genre and producing one of the year's best-selling films, it also picked up no fewer than seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.
The story centres around John Dunbar, a confederate soldier who is rewarded for his efforts in an unlikely Union victory by being given the opportunity to choose his next post. He requests a transfer to the farthest outpost on the frontier, Fort Sedgewick, where he gains the trust of the local Sioux tribe.
Our final pick is this 2003 film from Anthony Minghella, which is equal parts love story and war epic, with a star-studded cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, Donald Sutherland, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Ray Winstone, Natalie Portman and Renee Zellweger, the latter winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her efforts. Law and Kidman's characters, W.P Inman and Ada Monroe, are the star-crossed lovers in question and the story focusses largely on Inman's enlistment to – and subsequent desertion from – the Confederate army, picking up a band of other deserters on his journey back to his home town of Cold Mountain. Jack White also makes an appearance in this underrated yarn, which is well worth a look for anyone looking for a different slant on the Civil War theme.