The Andersonville Trial (Play) and Andersonville (Film)
In 1959 dramatist Saul Levitt wrote his award-winning play The Andersonville Trial, which was produced that same year by William Darrid, Daniel Hollywood, and Eleanore Saidenberg. The play recounts the trial of Captain Henry Wirz, the Swiss doctor who commanded the Confederate garrison at Andersonville. Eleven years later, in 1970, George C. Scott, a cast member in the original Broadway production of Levitt's play, directed a critically acclaimed film adaptation also entitled The Andersonville Trial. In 1996 Andersonville, a film produced by David W. Rintels and directed by John Frankenheimer, appeared on Turner Network Television (TNT). This miniseries followed the experiences of Union soldiers imprisoned at the camp.
The Andersonville Trial
Levitt's two-act play The Andersonville Trial was first performed in New York City at Henry Miller's Theater on December 29, 1959.
In 1970 Scott brought Levitt's play to television. The cast of Scott's film includes Richard Basehart as Henry Wirz and William Shatner as the government prosecutor, with Jack Cassidy as Otis Baker, Buddy Ebsen as Dr. John Bates, Cameron Mitchell as General Lew Wallace, and Martin Sheen as Captain Williams. The only member of the original Broadway cast to star in Scott's adaptation was Lou Frizzell. Like the play, the television production recounts through courtroom testimony such conditions as overcrowding, disease, malnutrition, and rat-infested living quarters. The movie presents the same ethical dilemma of Levitt's play, that of military officials who must decide when to disobey orders to save lives. The production won both an Emmy Award and a Peabody Award in 1971.
Unlike The Andersonville Trial, the miniseries emphasizes tensions that emerge among the prisoners themselves. The plot focuses on the Union soldiers as they dig tunnels in an attempt to escape, resist dysentery by soaking up rainwater in their clothes to drink, and fight Union raiders, other captives who murder and steal from fellow prisoners. The climactic scene of the miniseries focuses on the trial of the raiders, in which they are found guilty.
Frankenheimer, whose long Hollywood career includes the films The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Seven Days in May (1964), claimed that Andersonville was the most difficult film he ever directed. Andersonville garnered generally positive reviews from critics, and Frankenheimer received an Emmy Award for his direction.
Saul Levitt, The Andersonville Trial (New York: Dramatist Play Service, Inc., 1960).
David W. Rintels, Andersonville: The Complete Original Screenplay, introduction by James M. McPherson ([Atlanta]: Gideon Books, 1996).
Barton Myers, Texas Tech University, Lubbock
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.