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A powerful courtroom drama on the question of obeying orders
Lawrance M. Bernabo | The Zenith City, Duluth, Minnesota | 12/13/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The most important thing to remember about this Peabody Award winning production of Saul Levitt's play "The Andersonville Trial" is that it was produced in 1970, during the Vietnam War. However, the play was originally produced on Broadway in 1959, which is rather surprising because this particular version has a reputation for being a historic allegory in the grand tradition of "The Crucible." In 1959 the historic parallel would have been to the Nuremberg Trials where Nazi leaders were tried as war criminals. But in the wake of the My Lai massacre the court-martial of Capt. Henry Wirz (Richard Basehart), commandant of the infamous Andersonville prison during the Civil War it would be impossible for an audience to view this drama as anything else that a discussion of the war in Vietnam.Henry Wirz was the only Confederate soldier to be convicted and executed for war crimes during the Civil War. Wirz remains a controversial figure whose name is associated with some of the worst atrocities of the war by many while considered a martyr to the Glorious Cause by others. As Union forces pushed into the South the Confederacy was ending up with more and more Union prisoners and the Andersonville Camp was created to relieve the situation in Richmond and elsewhere. However, in June of 1864 the Union discontinued the policy of prisoner exchanges and without that avenue of release or the construction of another facility, the prisoner population of Andersonville swelled to 26,000 prisoners crammed into a little more than 26 acres. Add to this the impoverishment of the Confederacy in the final year of the war when the 33,000 prisoners in Andersonville made it the fifth largest "city" in the Confederacy, and it is hardly surprising that hundreds of men were dying each day. Of the 45,000 prisoners sent to Andersonville, 13,000 died.Levitt used the official record of the trial of Henry Wirz as his basic source material. While sticking to the facts, Levitt was obviously more interested in the personalities involved in the proceedings. So while "The Andersonville Trial" is accurate with regards to the time and place of the trial, names of the participants, and some of the dialogue, it is still much more of a drama than a documentary. Furthermore, as a televised stage play it is necessarily restricted to the primary set of the courtroom and the scope of its interest is pretty much restricted to that venue as well.The pivotal character of the drama is Lt. Colonel N.P. Chipman (William Shatner in the role Scott played in the original Broadway production), the officer prosecuting Wirz (Richard Basehart), who responds to the charges against him with the defense that he was obeying orders and doing what he could under the circumstances. This leads Chipman to the conclusion what Wirz should have done was disobey orders that would lead to the deaths of thousands of prisoners. However, this is not an argument that an officer in the military can make lightly, and this sets up a conflict with the presiding judge, General Lew Wallace (Cameron Mitchell), who would achieve fame as the author of "Be-Hur: A Tale of the Christ." But Chipman feels compelled to come up with a response to the argument that following such orders is a legitimate defense. Shatner's performance is superb, and those who remember playing Spencer Tracy's aide in "Judgment at Nuremberg" can appreciate the irony of his having a larger role in this related drama. The biggest compliment I can give Shatner's work is that I cannot imagine George C. Scott having played this role. One of the strengths of this production is how Scott takes a collection of "television stars" like Shatner, Basehart, Jack Cassidy, Buddy Ebsen, Martin Sheen, John Anderson and Whit Bissell, along with veteran character actors like Mitchell and Albert Salmi, to create a stellar ensemble cast. Just as impressive is how he has actors like Alan Hale, Jr. and Kenneth Tobey sitting as members of the Court-martial board. For Shatner, Basehart, Cassidy, Mitchell and Salmi you will be hard pressed to find anything better on their acting resumes."The Andersonville Trial" is one of the most powerful courtroom dramas you will ever see. It has something of an advantage over the likes of "The Caine Mutiny" and "A Few Good Men" in that the play is almost entirely the trial, which makes it more like "Breaker Morant" and, most obviously," Judgment at Nuremberg." The drama comes down to Chipman's cross-examination of Wirz and the prosecutor's futile effort to get the prisoner in the dock to explain why he did not do the "right" thing and disobey his orders. I think the net effect is to make Wirz more of a tragic figure than a monster, locked into a system of rules and beliefs that would not let him see a way out of the disaster happening before him."
A glimpse of the Ghost of PBS Past...
Mark Savary | Seattle, WA | 05/08/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
""Andersonville Trial" is special in more ways than one. First and foremost, it is a damn fine production, and a very powerful stage play captured on video. Second, the play has many famous names among the cast, some of whom appear in early roles (Martin Sheen, for one). William Shatner, of course, is oddly Kirk-like, but does very well as Lt. Colonel Chipman. Richard Basehart? Wonderful, and the ultimate professional, as always. Buddy Ebsen plays a doctor. Even Alan Hale Sr., who blazed a trail of adventure in many of Errol Flynn's films, is on hand (though in a non-speaking role). None other than George C. Scott directed the enterprise, and introduces the feature in a short segment.Another thing that makes this production unique is that it harkens back to the best of PBS, before they started worrying about ratings, hype, and marketing. Shows like "I, Claudius" and "Masterpiece Theater", among others, made their way to the network about the same time, and "Sesame Street" had yet to become the moneygrubbing exercise it is now (Elmo, this means YOU!). This was back when PBS really lived up to the ideals of being a Public Broadcaster, and shows like "Andersonville Trial" were an offshoot of those ideals. Like other PBS shows, it was the BEST the arts offered at the time; a famous cast in a dramatic play, coming right into our living rooms. On the tape, we even get to see the old PBS logo, with "PBS" spelled out in that funky 60's-70's type they used to use (with the orange letter "P"). That alone is worth the purchase price.Hopefully a DVD will someday be released. Until then, if you can latch on to a copy of the tape, you should by all means do so. It is a dramatic telling of a famous war crimes trial, with superb acting and a moral message about war that will stay with you for some time to come."
Trial by Ordeal
Michael Ziegler | Philadelphia, Pennsylvania United States | 01/06/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Just after the Civil War and only weeks after the assassination of then President Lincoln, a war crimes trial was held to prosecute the Captain in charge of Andersonville Prison wherein nearly 14,000 soldiers died in terrible and inhumane conditions in Georgia. This Television drama, directed by George C. Scott (Patton) was one of the best ever to appear on the tube. The country was going through Vietnam and all of the implications that the war had influenced on the American psyche, and this play hits home on war issues even though it concerns the American Civil War. Cameron Mitchell is great and we get a performance from Jack Cassidy (one of the two guests ever to appear on Columbo 3 times)that was nominated for outstanding single performance by an actor in a leading role in this play as the Defense Lawyer. Richard Basehart as the defendant is also very impressive and the whole play is full of interesting testimony. Fans will remember the early appearance of Martin Sheen in a small role and the legendary Captain Kirk, William Shatner,doing his Kirkus-Maximus in the lead role of the prosecution. It is a long play and perhaps should be viewed over two evenings so that you don't fall asleep and miss something important. It is highly intellectual and takes a certain type of person to really appreciate all of the subtle inferences in this play but reflects what was once expected of television drama in 70's America. Well recommended for Civil war buffs and people who love Broadway Dramas."
Basehart was more than "Admiral Nelson"!
Reginald D. Garrard | Camilla, GA USA | 04/02/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Basehart, like many other television stars, was unfortunate to be associated with a long-running program (four years on "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea"). A prolific and skilled actor, Basehart is a sympathetic figure as the commandant of the infamous Georgia prison. He is allowed to show depth that the 60's Irwin Allen show of which he is associated never allowed him. The production also features two other actors playing against type in pivotal and revealing roles, Buddy Ebsen and the late Jack Cassidy. The two match Basehart in the acting department and do justice to the George C. Scott-directed presentation. "The Andersonville Trial" ranks as one of the best productions ever shown on PBS."
Richard Byers | Astoria, OR United States | 02/09/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is actually a videotaping of a stage play "The Andersonville Trial" which takes place on a single set - a courtroom shortly after the end of the Civil War. It was directed by George C. Scott and features an absolutely excellent cast (including Martin Sheen in a very small, early part). William Shatner and Jack Cassidy play, respectively, the prosecutor and defense counsels at the trial of Henry Wirtz, the commandant of the infamous Confederate prison camp, Andersonville. Wirtz was the only Souutherner put on trial for "war crimes", and this play examines a number of moral issues on that point. This play was produced in 1970, but Shatner and Cassidy never did finer work than this. Rather long but worth sticking with to the end. Powerful!"