History Escapes Drama: Story Is Entertaining despite Omissions about Civil War Jail
West, Woody, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
The Confederate prison at Andersonville was the most notorious of such awful places during the Civil War. For those of Unionist sentiment the camp in Georgia symbolized rebel barbarity and callousness; for those of Confederate sentiment, Yankee distortion and cynicism. Then and now.
A serious four-hour television program presumably would confront those butting historical perspectives to the degree feasible in a medium for which drama and entertainment is coequal - and rather more - to history and information. "Andersonville," premiering tonight and continuing tomorrow night on TNT, does not make much of an effort.
Still, this is an excellent piece of television. The most notable quality of the series is its graphic, indeed brutal presentation. The suffering and death of the Union soldiers confined there is never less than horrifying.
It is doubtful, in fact, whether any youngster under, say, 12 or 14 should view the program unless with an adult who can provide some intellectual and emotional ballast.
The Andersonvile camp operated from February 1864 until April 1865 when the Confederacy collapsed. More than 40,000 Union soldiers, overwhelmingly enlisted, passed through the camp designed for 8,500, with a peak population of more than 30,000 on a miserable 16 acres.
The Union captives existed in appalling squalor, with no barracks, polluted water, barely life-sustaining food supplies (though the South contended they were issued the same rations as were Confederate troops) and the most primitive medical treatment.
All of this is conveyed in the TNT program that is solidly directed by John Frankenheimer, an old pro with TV credits dating to "Playhouse 90" and now directing Marlon Brando in a remake of the film "The Island of Dr. Moreau." The script by David W. Rintels, who is also the producer, is tight and harrowing.
However, viewers would do well either before or after to read a decent history of the Civil War. The absence of historical context is puzzling, since Ted Turner's six-hour "Gettysburg" got high marks for that aspect.
This deficiency is explained, not quite satisfactorily, by historian James M. McPherson, whose superb book, "Battle Cry of Freedom," was awarded a Pulitizer Prize. Unfortunately, Mr. McPherson does not do his explaining on the television show.
Concurrent with the TNT production, the Rintels screeplay of "Andersonville" is being published in paperback, distributed by Louisiana State University Press - to which McPherson writes a succinct and resonant introduction.
The purpose of the producer, Mr. McPherson says, is not to chronicle the history of Andersonville. "His purpose, in a sense, is higher than that: to dramatize the human epic of Andersonville. Here are all the elements of a compelling adventure story that also happens to be true and full of deeper moral meaning."
It is a drama of "the bonding of good men against evil; the deaths of half of those men and the survival of the rest who keep alive some hope for the redemption of the human race," Mr. McPherson concludes.
Well, yes and fine - up to a point.
But absent historical landscape except by superficial dialogue here and there, and nowhere more deficient than in failing to explain the political and military fog of prisoner exchanges, the drama occurs in something of a vacuum.
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This program, in fact, can be seen as an exercise in Civil War mythologizing. A good many viewers are likely to judge "Andersonville" as a searing indictment of the Confederacy with nothing in extenuation or mitigation.
Contributing to this is the presentation of Capt. Henry Wirtz, the Swiss-born commander, the only Confederate who was hung for war crimes. Played by Jan Triska, Wirtz is portrayed as a sociopath - or in term now archaic, evil - who is unmoved by the cruel captivity, degradation and deaths of those in his charge. …