Netflix Update No. 16: “The Andersonville Trial”

August 14, 2009

WILLIAM SHATNER

WILLIAM SHATNER

We watched the 1970 television production of “The Andersonville Trial,” which was an adaptation of a 1959 play by Saul Levitt. The play is based on the trial in 1865 of Henry Wirz, commandant of the Confederate military prison at Andersonville, Georgia. Some 13,000 Union soldiers died while incarcerated there under inhumane conditions. Wirz was found culpable by a military court and was hanged, but the degree of his blame was the subject of controversy then as it is now.

Levitt’s play focuses, as the actual trial did not, on the moral question of whether Wirz had an obligation in conscience to disobey his superiors and provide relief for the inmates. That issue may sound familiar to 21st century audiences as may another issues raised in the play — the rights of prisoners held under military law and the propriety of trying Wirz by a military court when the war had ended.

CAMERON MITCHELL

CAMERON MITCHELL

The play, presented in three acts, stars Richard Basehart as Wirz; William Shatner as Lt. Col. Norton Chipman, who prosecuted Wirz; Cameron Mitchell as Gen. Lew Wallace, who presided at the trial; Jack Cassidy as Otis Baker, the civilian attorney who defended Wirz; and Buddy Ebsen as a physician who was assigned to the prison and testified at the trial.

Shatner, Basehart, Mitchell, and Cassidy should have paid to appear in this production — it was that much of a tour de force for each of them. All of them gave intense performances that together provide a glimpse of the brutal and corrosive character and consequences of a war that has since been wrapped up in too much glory and nostalgia.

Shatner has at times been rightfully criticized for chewing the scenery, but in this case he brought the appropriate passion to his role — an army officer who knew that the moral questions he was putting to Wirz also applied to him. One distraction, though, is what has to be the worst of the bad hairpieces Shatner has worn during his long career.

JACK CASSIDY

JACK CASSIDY

Cassidy was a master of cool, and he used his controlled reactions to make Baker a chilling opponent for the over-the-top prosecutor. Mitchell was equally effective as Wallace — a lawyer and military man who later wrote “Ben Hur” — who was impatient with the proceeding itself and with the constantly bickering attorneys and unruly defendant.

I last saw this presentation when it first appeared on PBS in 1970, but Basehart’s performance in particular remained vivid in my memory. Wirz — a native of Switzerland — was presented here as a man tortured by Chipman’s questions, by his own assessment of his behavior, and by his concern for the legacy he was leaving his family.

RICHARD BASEHART

RICHARD BASEHART

Basehart was so thoroughly invested in these aspects of his character that it is almost as uncomfortable to watch and listen to him as it would have been to sit in that courtroom.

I had forgotten about the performance by Michael Burns, who did a skillful turn as a shell-shocked soldier called to testify about the atrocities at the prison. His disoriented posture and vacant look was disturbing even as a dramatization. Burns was an interesting figure who left acting early in life and became a respected history professor and author.

This production was directed by George C. Scott who played Chipman on Broadway. The only actor from the Broadway production who appeared in the television adaptation was Lou Frizzell who did not, however, play the same role.

Some of the dialogue in this play is taken from the trial, but the overall portrayal of the proceeding is Levitt’s interpretation. Even so, it is a valuable reflection on the role of conscience in the Civil War and war in general.

HENRY WIRZ

HENRY WIRZ

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