Thanks to Holocaust films and docs, any take on Andersonville runs the risk of dreadful familiarity. Though characters are a mix of historic and fictional, and the horrors are only partially explored, the two-parter still makes viewer-catching drama.
Rintels’ script opens promisingly on a Massachusetts outfit surrendering to Confederate soldiers in Virginia in 1864. Cpl. Josiah Day (Jarrod Emick) from Massachusetts, nimble and credible Yank, and other non-coms and soldiers under Sgt. McFadden (Frederic Forrest), Day’s superior, are shipped to the military stockade near Andersonville. They learn from Day’s pal Dick Potter (Gregory Sporleder), already a prisoner, about the misery, the dangers, the illnesses at Andersonville.
Originally planned for 8,000 prisoners, by August 1864 Andersonville held 32, 000. They’re warned about the water, about vermin, about escape attempts, about stepping into the “dead line” area inside the stockade walls: It’s instant death. There’s little shelter and little food.
A pack of no-good Yank prisoners, called the raiders, rob newcomers and intimidate the others. Arrogant and insolent, led by Collins (Frederick Coffin), fronted by Judas-like Delaney (Bud Davis), they have their own way until the other prisoners rise up. Their leaders’ trial by the other prisoners is solid telefare; their grim end hands the vidpic a wallop.
Rintel focuses his script on Day and McSpadden and their ordeals. A second Yank sergeant, Pennsylvania coal miner Gleason (Cliff De Young), and his men, all miners, are secretly digging an escape tunnel. Gleason, hard to believe, lets newcomer McSpadden’s men join them in the secret dig when he first meets them.
Swiss-born Capt. Henry Wirz (Jan Triska), in charge of the 26 1/2-acre open-air stockade, acts tough, but it isn’t until a beautifully written, acted and directed scene between him and an inspecting officer from the Dept. of War that Wirz’s instability really surfaces. He’s not, though, a persuasive villain; Triska doesn’t have the time or material to plumb Wirz’s complex ego.
On the Yanks’ side, banjo-playing Martin (Ted Marcoux) comes down with scurvy; Hopkins (Carmen Argenziano, in a bravura perf) reps the raiders in a prisoners’ trial;Limber Jim (Peter Murnik) leads a merciless charge on the raiders; others pass through with varying degrees of health problems, though for the most part the prisoners look, if not plain hearty, in satisfactory condition.
Emick’s Day bears up mightily, and Emick himself turns in a sturdy study of a courageous soldier. Forrest works his way through differing pains and miseries, and De Young, the particularly brave Sgt. Gleason, is a standout. Triska’s attempts to explain things to the inspector are impressive, and Marcoux’s bid for open sympathy succeeds.
Some of “Andersonville” plays like old-hat World War II movies or “The Great Escape,” but the Yanks’ enemies, it turns out, are the war and themselves as well as the Southerners. That poses a dramatic conflict problem, since the rebs are seldom seen. But Rintel and Frankenheimer, cunningly tackling it, have brought off an impressive-looking telefilm. Still, the spirits of Telly Savalas, William Holden, James Coburn, Steve McQueen and Robert Strauss, among others, seem to be pushing to get onscreen.
The actual stories of hunger, of filth and illness don’t always ring true, and the tunnel digging isn’t as suspenseful as it should be.
Frankenheimer delivers a good sense of the enormity of the prison’s expanses — long overhead tracking shots of prisoners in the 12-acre enclosure are impressive — and production designer Michael Z. Hanan, who replicated Andersonville on a farm outside Atlanta, gives the camp the look of an open sore. Much is viewer accessible, including the filthy stream in which prisoners bathe and relieve themselves, but individual stories don’t always hit home.
May Routh’s costumes are extraordinarily accurate, and lenser Ric Waite has caught the period look with sharp camerawork. Paul Rubell’s editing is terrif, and Gary Chang’s score is a model of restraint.
In 1970, PBS’ auspicious Hollywood Television Playhouse debuted with Lewis Freedman’s live-on-tape production of Saul Levitt’s 1959 play “The Anderson Trial,” memorable account of the court-martial of Wirz as played superbly by Richard Basehart. Its strength still resounds; “Andersonville” could use some of that power.