Class of '61 (1993)  TV

 

 

Director: Gregory Hoblit.

Starring:  Christien Anholt (Terry O'Neil), Andre Braugher (Lucius), Dan Futterman (Shelby Peyton), Josh Lucas (George Armstrong Custer), Clive Owen (Devin O'Neil), Sophie Ward (Shannon O'Neil), Sue-Ann Leeds (Rose Greenhow), Laura Linney (Lily Magraw), Niall O'Brien (James O'Neil, Da), Paul Guilfoyle, Dana Ivey (Mrs. Julia Peyton).

Graduates of West Point enter the Civil War and fight in the Battle of Bull Run, as well as in other conflicts.  Southerner Shelby Peyton (Dan Futterman) decides to fight for the continuance of slavery in the United States, but this puts his friendships with Northerners in peril.

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

"About 130 years ago, the strange notion swept this country that the United States of American had  no North, no South, no East and no West.  But before you knew it everybody was choosing up sides and going to war:  brother against brother.  One side believing in hiring a man for a week, the other enslaving him for a lifetime.  Being an eye witness to the times, my great, great, great grandfather decided to put it all down in a diary which I now share with you: a layman's history of the lost cause and the forgotten class of '61."

It was a class of 153 cadets.  73 wore gray, the rest blue.  The bottom of the class, George Armstrong Custer.  The top of the class was Henry A. Dupont.

Southern Cadet Peyton says he is going to stick it out here at West Point because there's only four more weeks of class left.  Right after graduation he is going to be married in the Cadet Chapel.  Peyton's future brother-in-law Devin O'Neil comes along with Custer to tease Peyton about the possible firing of the rebs on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. They are taking their friend over to Benny Haven's tavern to have some good fun. 

The next morning the fellows, plus two young women, march back from Benny Haven's, most of them still drunk from the previous evening.  They run into two ruffians from town who says they are sick of the Pointers picking their women up and then singing about them like they were trash.  Soon several other ruffians come out to fight.  The fight begins.

In class the professor picks on those that were involved in the fight, quizzing them on their school work.  A messenger comes into the room and hands the professor a note.  "The rebel batteries in Charleston have opened fire on the flag." 

Peyton writes to Shannon O'Neil.  He mentions how tough it will be to face his fellow classmates on the battlefield. 

At formation Peyton tells the news of the surrender of the Union forces to the rebs in Charleston.  The band starts playing the national anthem, but the Southerners break out with the song of "Dixie".   One Southerner calls a classmate a "nigger lover".  Soon the class of '61 is fighting each other.  Peyton helps break up the fighting.  He gives a good speech about the American flag representing the Union, but it falls on deaf Southern ears.  War is here and there's no way of stopping it. 

O'Neil comes to see Peyton.  He takes the piece of paper Peyton was writing on and sees that it's a resignation letter.  O'Neill tries to get him to reconsider, but Peyton says his mind is made up.  Custer comes around and O'Neil enlists him to help change Peyton's mind.  O'Neil says that if he does this, he will be breaking his sister's heart.  Peyton is from Virginia and Custer and O'Neil convince him to stay in the army at least up to Virginia deciding to stay in or secede from the union.

The Secretary of War is Simon Cameron.  The cadet corps, officers and professors are required to reaffirm their oath of loyalty to the United States.  The Southern cadets start walking out. 

Peyton goes to one of his professors to say goodbye.  The professor, however, says he won't take Peyton's hand. 

O'Neil reminds Peyton of what the commandant said:  " . . . to keep your mouth shut in New York and avoid Baltimore on the way home."  Custer arrives and they say goodbye to Peyton. 

On their way through New York, Peyton, Skinner and a couple of others stopped to have their photo taken by Matthew Brady.  Peyton is the only one that heads for Baltimore by train.  He wants to see Shannen once again.  Peyton sits across from a white woman and her slave.  A man comes over to the black woman, with a black child in her lap, and asks if she is the property of the white woman, who has a white baby in her lap?  The black woman thinks for awhile but then says that no she is not.  She is free.  The fellow says he doesn't believe the woman.  Peyton steps up and says that it's true for if the white woman were a true Southern woman she would never let her child take candy from a darkie.

In Baltimore there are confrontations and clashes between Northern and Southern supporters.  Peyton sees Shannen's brother Terry on the ground bleeding.  With the help of a Reverend, they bring the brother to Shannen's place.  Shannen provides the supplies to fix up Terry's wounds and scrapes.  Shannen's father comes in and he tells Peyton that he broke his heart.  Dad is mad at Peyton for turning his back on his flag and his country.  Peyton says he doesn't want to discuss politics with Mr. O'Neil.  Shannen explains that Peyton saved Terry's life and Terry seconds that idea.  But Dad is still mad at Peyton.  He says:  "I'd rather cut off my arm than have you marry my daughter now.  Out of my house!"  Peyton leaves. 

Shannen chases after him.  She is worried about Shelby being killed during the war.  She asks him to stay with her tonight.  Peyton agrees.

O'Neil arrives in Washington, D.C. to find it an armed camp.  The key place to stay in Washington is at the Willard's Hotel.  The hotel is one of the first to have running water in the rooms. 

Another important place to be seen is in the house of Mrs. Greenhow.  Her best friend is Lily Magraw.  Custer is quite taken by Lily.  He introduces O'Neil to a woman known as Rose and he's a bit shocked to see how beautiful she is.  The two start talking away.   Rose says that O'Neil is the first graduate of West Point who isn't full of himself.  She likes him so much that she gives him a kiss on the cheek. 

Shannen, Terry and dad are eating their dinner, when a group of army men knock on the door asking for Terry.  Terry bolts from the dinner table and up the stairs.  The soldiers chase after him.  They catch him.  The officer says that Terry is being taken to Fort McHenry where he will be held on a charge of high treason. 

Shelby writes back to Shannen.  He says that they will be heading up to Manassas any time now.  He hopes the fighting starts soon, because the sooner they start, the sooner the war will end. 

Shelby is out fishing in a boat with a young slave named Lucius.  Lucius irritates Shelby because he keeps calling Shelby "massa".  Shelby says Lucius knows that he never saw himself as "massa".  Lucius says:  "Well, just because a mule don't see his self a jackass, don't mean it ain't so."

Shannen writes brother Devin that their brother has been arrested for treason.  A classmate caught Terry running with the Palmetto Guards.  He is now locked up in Fort McHenry. 

Devin and Lily Magraw visit with Mrs. Greenhow.  He asks the influential woman if she could possibly help his brother.  She says she still has a few strings she can pull. 

Shelby asks where is Lucius?   His mother wants to know why he wants Lucius so badly?  Shelby says that his father has given Lucius his freedom.  It turns out that Lucius has run away. Two slave hunters catch up with him, but Lucius kills one of them and wounds the other.  He has Livinia with him and she is getting near to delivering a baby.  She asks Lucius to take her home.  Lucius wants to keep running, but he does what Livinia asks. 

Shelby eats dinner with his family and friends.    His mothers mentions the name of Mary Chestnut (who kept a wonderful diary during the war giving lots of insights into the thinking of the white Southerners).  Shelby's friend Wade tells everyone that the war will only last about 90 days.  A very dirty Lucius runs into the dining room saying that Lavinia is about to have her baby.  Shelby's father is a doctor and he quickly gets up to help the woman. 

Shelby asks Lucius why did he run:?  Why couldn't Shelby have trusted him to get his freedom?  Lucius says there are certain lines that you just don't cross. 

Lavinia and the baby are fine.  It will be another three weeks before the delivery. 

Lucius comes out to speak with Shelby. He tells Shelby that he has to go.  He killed a white man and wounded another.  Lucius asks Shelby to watch out for Livinia.  "You know I will." 

Terry O'Neil is released July 4, thanks to Rose Greenhow.  Shannen tells her father not to give up hope. Things will get better. 

Lily Magraw delivers Dow's plan to a Confederate officer. 

Shelby is placed in the artillery of Jackson's First Virginia. 

Devin O'Neil still has not received a military assignment.  He asks his former West Point professor Wykoff if he can get him a position?  The ex-professor says he will try.  Custer is headed to Manassas. Custer tells O'Neil to go see Rose Greenhow.

Devin sees Terry and Terry indicates that he will fight for the South.  This makes Devin angry and he tells Terry if he walks out that door, there will be a fight between them:  brother against brother.  Terry says goodbye and leaves. 

Lucius is riding on the underground railroad.  His immediate goal is to reach Chevy Chase, Maryland.  He waits in a farmer's barn with other escapees from slavery in the South.  One of the boys wants to touch Lucius' back.  He thinks there is something wrong with the boy, but his mother says he's just curious.  The boy has never seen a black man with a smooth back unmarred by the scars of the whip. 

Peyton asks a veteran sergeant who served in the Mexican-American War about the nature of war.  The sergeant says it was bad enough to cause him not to have a solid bowel movement for two years following his experiences in combat.  Soldiers both blue and gray write letters to their loved ones. 

Devin is a bit suspicious of Lily Magraw.  She tells him just because a woman is a Southerner doesn't mean that she is a spy. 

Lucius writes a letter to Lavinia. 

The Southern troops prepare for the battle ahead of them.  Terry O'Neil is among them. 

The Yankees like to name their battles after the nearest town, while the Confederates name their battles after rivers or creeks.  So for the Yankees it was the Battle of Manassas and for the Rebs it was the Battle of Bull Run.  The final objective of the battle was Henry Hill.  Terry's unit moved toward Custer at Blackburn's Ford.   Peyton was involved in covering Jackson's right flank.  People from Washington came out to see the battle.  They brought picnic lunches with them. 

Lucius continues moving north.  Lavinia is about to deliver her baby. 

Wykoff is told to move on Jackson's Brigade at Henry Hill.  This is a tough assignment because Wykoff will have no support.

Two lines of soldiers face each other.  They shoot at each other and then the rebs make a bayonet assault on the Yankee line.  The rebel line starts to fall apart under withering fire.  The Confederate flag carrier goes down and Terry O'Neil picks up the flag and runs forward at the Yankees.  Suddenly, Terry realizes there is no one standing behind him.  He stops and starts to go back.  The Yankees cheer him for his bravery, but a Yankee officer doesn't like this and shoots Terry in the back. 

Devin is up there with the picnickers.  He scolds a man for wagering on who will win and who will loose the battle. 

Peyton leads his unit in a fight with the Yankees.  The Yankees get off the first shots and then try a bayonet charge.  Peyton opens up with artillery fire on the Yankee lines. 

Lavinia struggles to give birth and Lucius keeps heading north.

The Yankees and Rebs fight man on man and then the Yankees retreat.  The Rebs cheer the  retreat.  Peyton is told that the Yankees have moved their cannon up on Henry Hill and Jackson wants Peyton up there now. 

The two artillery units fire at each other.  Confederates reinforcements arrive but the Yankee cannoneers think they are Union soldiers because they have blue uniforms.  Wykoff protests that their flags are not Union flags.  The reb reinforcements get into position to fire on the Yankee artillery unit.  Wykoff tells his superior that they do have a reb flag.  He shouts:  "Are you satisfied Major?  We were sitting ducks before and now we are dead ones!"   Wykoff is hit by rebel fire. 

A messenger rides as hard as he can to tell the picnickers to get out of here because they are in danger of coming under enemy fire.  Devin gets on his horse.  Custer charges the enemy.  Devin goes to join him, but his horse is shot from under him.  Custer and O'Neil are caught in a dangerous place.  Peyton sees them and orders a cease fire.  The two Yankee officers are flabbergasted by their good fortune. 

The birthing still continues.  Lucius reaches the O'Neil's place in Baltimore. 

Peyton looks over the Yankee artillery line and finds Wykoff dead on the ground.  He writes Shannen to say how terrible war is. 

"Following the Confederate victory at Bull Run, Washington braced itself for the fatal blow that never came.  Thus the history of the Lost Cause was written in stone.  A tragedy that would claim more American lives than the combined total of all wars to date.  Devin and Shelby would fall first, dying in each other's arms on the bloody battlefield at Gettysburg.  Lily and Rose next --- spies 'til the end.  And finally Da -- meeting his maker like his father on the end of a Confederate rope as a conductor in the underground railroad.  Only Lucius, Custer and Shannen would survive the war.  Custer as a general at 23.  Shannen as a nurse and mother.  And Lucius -- first as Da's partner in the underground railroad, and then as a soldier in the famed '54th'."

 

I love studying the American Civil War.  It was the direct effect of the evil practice of slavery and racism.  The USA never really changes.  It still has not fully stood up and taken responsibility for a nation that is still very racist.  It's why the USA is so screwed up and nothing much seems to work anymore.  (Ah, but the lies sound so much better than the truth.  It's less "divisive", even though the USA has always been and still is divided by race and racism. )

Good film.  The acting was good, but not great.  The film catches some of the tragic feelings concerning the death of so many Americans at the hands of their fellow Americans.  (Although, at the time, there were two nations involved, the U.S.A. and the C.S.A.)  I like to see the war not as brother versus brother, but a kind of crusade to crush the immorality of slavery.  The rebs died for a terrible cause  --  the continuation of slavery.  The Yankees died for a good cause.  But, to this very day, the Civil War continues.  The USA has always been divided because of the South and it's economy and culture of slavery and its aftermath.  The South continues to this day to see themselves not as "sinners" but as an aggrieved bunch of people with a ultra-conservative (racist) based culture, but a culture they like and defend.  Today we are involved in a political Civil War.  The South can't fight against the USA with its weaponry, but they continue to treat the non-South and non-rural places as god damned Yankee land and deliberately muck-up the political system to cause gridlock and make the USA the laughing stock of the world. 

You can't understand the USA if you don't realize the continued racist domination in the cultures of the old Confederacy and heavily rural areas.  This is the third Civil War over racism:  the Civil War that began in 1861; the massive resistance against the Civil Rights Movement that started in 1956; and the current civil war where a combination of the South and heavily rural areas with the robber-baron plutocrats poses a danger of fascism winning out over American democracy. 

The South has always been the number one problem of the USA.  It gave us a weak federal government vis-a-vis state governments and created three civil wars for the country.  There is the real danger of the South's racist culture taking over in the USA and pushing the country farther backwards than we have already been pushed.  Meanwhile, the world presses forward as we head backward. 

(And American liberals still act without seeing the terribleness of the situation we are in.  This is how fascism wins out:  liberals don't call a spade a spade.  They are afraid to say what I, for instance, say, that our democracy is in danger because of the South and its racism.   The radical abolitionists had to lead the fight against slavery, but the liberals were too scared to speak out.  A radical like Vernon Johns had to yell out against Separate but Equal racism in the USA, whereas the liberals were satisfied with vague, nicey-nicey comments on how the nation should treat it black population better.  And now the liberals are satisfied by a world of politically correct language in a culture that is becoming more and more split by racism.  The situation is getting worse.  The USA burns, while the liberals fiddle with the language. 

I think the liberals don't like to be "unpleasant" and "disagreeable".  They want to pretend that race relations are improving while the reality is that things are getting worse.  I think they are professionally and intellectually blind as to what is really going on in this culture.   The cowards won't even use the word "fascism", but the situation is so dire that it needs to be called what it is:  "fascism".

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

 

  

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