Calling this made-for-TV production of Saul Levitt’s Broadway play a movie is a bit of a stretch, seeing as how it’s essentially a videotaped recording of a live performance on a soundstage, but the cast is so colorful and the story is so arresting that The Andersonville Trial demands attention. Set four months after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Levitt’s play dramatizes the real-life case of Captain Henry Wirz, the Confederate officer who oversaw a massive POW camp in Andersonville, Georgia, where 14,000 inmates died from abuse, deprivation, and exposure. In Levitt’s humanistic telling, Wirz was complicit in the deaths, but he also unfairly received the brunt of the North’s anger against the South following the Civil War, since he was the first Confederate officer tried for war crimes. Staging The Andersonville Trial for television soon after the My Lai massacre was undoubtedly a conscious choice on the part of the producers, because Levitt’s play explores the thorny issue of how conscientious soldiers struggle to reconcile military and moral obligations, a relevant consideration during the Vietnam era.
George C. Scott, who played the leading role on Broadway, slipped into the director’s chair for this production, and William Shatner somewhat improbably inherited the part. Save for their flamboyance, it’s hard to imagine two actors who are more different. That said, Shatner attacks the part of prosecuting JAG Lt. Col. Norton P. Chipman with ferocity and passion. In fact, The Andersonville Trial may well contain the best visual record of Shatner’s capacity as an actor. Many of Shatner’s excesses are present here, but so, too, are his sometimes underrated gifts—he orates well, mostly eschewing his famous dramatic pauses, and he shifts nimbly from anger to anguish. If not a remarkable performance, it’s certainly a robust one.
As the title suggests, Levitt’s play tracks several episodes during a long trial, with each act comprising an extended real-time vignette. The defendant, Wirz (Richard Basehart), is an oddity, a physically impaired European immigrant so proud of his blind service to Confederate orders that he finds the whole trial offensive and ridiculous. He represents the familiar notion that following orders absolves a soldier of personal responsibility for atrocities. Conversely, Shipman represents a higher form of justice, since his prosecution asks whether Wirz should have defied orders in the name of mercy.
Levitt’s exploration of these complicated issues within the framework of an exciting courtroom duel makes for compelling viewing even though The Andersonville Trial runs two and a half hours. It is also to Levitt’s and Scott’s credit that so many mid-level actors deliver excellent work here. Jack Cassidy is smooth as Wirz’s exasperated defense attorney, Cameron Mitchell conveys an interesting mixture of condescension and dignity as the head of the military tribunal, and folks shining in smaller roles include Michael Burns, Buddy Epsen, and Albert Salmi. Attentive viewers will even spot a young Martin Sheen in a glorified walk-on role toward the beginning of the piece.
The Andersonville Trial: GROOVY