This made-for-TV drama meanders through the opening salvos of the American Civil War.
Written by Jonas McCord, directed by Gregory Hoblit, and produced by Steven Spielberg, Class of ’61 premiered on ABC in April 1993. This confusing drama follows members of the West Point class of 1861 and their families as they head off to join opposing sides of the war. It’s notable for an early appearance by Clive Owen, who is the only actor to stand out among the myriad of stock characters.
As the film opens, three friends, Shelby Peyton (Dan Futterman), George Armstrong Custer (Josh Lucas), and Devin O’Neil (Clive Owen), are attending the United States Military Academy at West Point. Tensions are high as Confederate troops fire on Fort Sumter, leaving cadets with divided loyalties. Shelby Peyton, a Virginian, decides to resign and head south to join the Confederacy, despite his engagement to O’Neil’s sister, Shannon (Sophie Ward).
Back home in Maryland, Devin O’Neil learns his brother Terry (Christien Anholt) has joined pro-Southern partisans, which upsets his pro-Union Irish family. Things get complicated when O’Neil is unable to secure a commission in the Union Army. He rooms with George Custer in Washington, DC, where he falls in love with Lily Magraw (Laura Linney), who also happens to be a Southern spy.
Things get even more complicated when Shelby Peyton returns to his plantation, where his favorite slave, Lucius (Andre Braugher), has killed two slave catchers in an escape attempt. He is forced to flee northward in the Underground Railroad, leaving his pregnant wife behind to an uncertain future. Will destiny reunite all these characters at the First Battle of Bull Run?
Dozens of characters, several interweaving and marginally related side plots, and constantly changing settings make Class of ’61 a baffling and unenjoyable mess. I understand the filmmakers were trying to present all sides of the Civil War, with participants from a variety of backgrounds, but this is difficult to achieve in a 90-minute film. It took productions like Roots (1977) and The Blue and the Gray (1982) six to nine hours to weave such complex and compelling drama.
Though several characters were fictional, with the obvious exception of George Armstrong Custer, Class of ’61 does strive for some historical accuracy. In one dramatic scene, Southern students at West Point walk out before graduation after being told they would have to swear a loyalty oath to the Union. In fact, of the 26 cadets set to graduate in 1861 who would later fight for the Confederacy, 17 resigned prior to graduation.
As a historical subject, the American Civil War is a treasure trove of drama, tragedy, and unbelievable stories, but Class of ’61 lacks the necessary focus for a compelling drama film. We don’t spend enough time with any of the characters to become invested in them. The character played by Clive Owen, this film’s strongest actor by far, is given a dead end storyline that eye-rollingly concludes with him running onto the Bull Run battlefield just at the right moment to reunite with his old friends.
On a recent trip to Manassas National Battlefield Park, I watched a short film commissioned by the National Park Service that relates the First and Second Battles of Bull Run. It effectively portrayed the battle while telling the story of individual soldiers and civilians who were caught up in the conflict. That film was far more compelling and emotionally engaging than Class of ’61, which didn’t even try to get the battle right. What a disappointment.