A play, The Andersonville Trial, and two television films, The Andersonville Trial and Andersonville, have focused on Sumter County’s Andersonville, the most notorious prison camp of the Civil War (1861-65).
In 1959 dramatist Saul Levitt wrote the play The Andersonville Trial, which was produced that same year by William Darrid, Daniel Hollywood, and Eleanore Saidenberg. The award-winning 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. The original Broadway production was directed by José Ferrer, and the cast included Herbert Berghof, Albert Dekker, Lou Frizzell, Russell Hardie, and George C. Scott. Levitt used the official record of Wirz’s 1865 trial as his primary source. In the play, Captain Wirz’s defense maintains that he was simply following orders as he watched thousands of Union soldiers die at the prison. The prosecution argues that orders should not shield Wirz from being held responsible for the deaths. The play ends with the court sentencing Wirz to death. (Wirz was the only man tried and executed for war crimes committed during the Civil War.) Although much of the play’s dialogue consists of direct testimony from the trial transcript, the play deviates from history in having Wirz testify on his own behalf and in making the ethical dilemma a central element of the case.
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.
The two-part miniseries Andersonville, which aired on TNT in March 1996, was loosely based on MacKinlay Kantor’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel of the same name, published in 1955. The story follows a Massachusetts regiment from its capture through its stay at Andersonville. Frankenheimer constructed the set of Andersonville by building a stockade and barracks modeled after the original prison, and the cast and crew filmed on location in Turin (Coweta County), Georgia; North Carolina; and California. Carmen Argenziano, Jarrod Emick, Frederic Forrest, and Ted Marcoux star in the miniseries.
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.