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The Private History of a Campaign That Failed (1981)

Mark Twain tale of cowardly Confederate soldiers.



(screenplay), (story "The War Prayer")
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Cast overview, first billed only:
Capt. Tom Lyman
Gary McCleery ...
Second Lieutenant
Roy Cockrum ...
Sgt. Bowers
Cpl. Ed Stevens
Richard Howard ...
J.W. Smith
Michael Longfield ...
Lucas (as L. Michael Craig)
Jim Dachik ...
David Donovan ...
Theodore Geislinger ...
Tommy Score ...
Joseph Ashcroft ...
John Ross ...
Kelly Pease ...


Mark Twain tale of cowardly Confederate soldiers.

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Comedy | Drama






Release Date:

6 April 1981 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Mark Twain Classics: The Private History of a Campaign That Failed  »

Company Credits

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:


Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
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User Reviews

Mark Twain's Civil War
30 September 2005 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

This film was part of a series put on Channel 13 in 1980 - 1982 or so of movies based on stories or novels by Mark Twain. These included THE INNOCENCE ABROAD, THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER, THE MAN WHO CORRUPTED HADLEYBURG, and LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI. The critics, on the whole, were not enthralled by these films, feeling that the originals could not be touched, but as most of them were of relatively unused works of Twain (unlike HUCKLEBERRY FINN, TOM SAWYER, A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT, and THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER), it was actually quite a worthy undertaking. Also it attracted some good actors. Donald Ogden Stiers appeared (as did Barry Morse) in THE INNOCENCE ABROAD. Fred Gwynne was in THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER. Robert Preston was in THE MAN WHO CORRUPTED HADLEYBURG. Robert Lansing was in LIFE IN THE MISSISSIPPI. And the cast of this film included Pat Hingle and Edward Herrmann. I think that after two decades in storage somewhere they should be taken out and shown again on public television.

Mark Twain was born in Hannibal, Missouri, which (during the Civil War) was a "neutral" border state. His section was more pro-south than pro-north. He briefly joined the Confederate army with a group of his young friends, and after a few adventures (or misadventures) he and most of them deserted. A handful fought for the Confederate States until the end of the war. Twain, himself, accompanied his brother as a secretary to a government appointment in the Nevada territory, thus leaving the immediate theater of the war's activities.

In the 1870s and 1880s a new literary form appeared in American magazines and published in book form as well: the Civil War memoirs. Twain's own Webster Publishing Co. would publish General Grant's great memoirs in 1885, and then publish General Sheridan's, General McClellan's, and several others. General Sherman's memoirs appeared in 1876. The Confederate Generals published too, Jubal Early, Richard Taylor, James Longstreet being three of the best writers. At one point, to spoof this trend, Twain published a long short story of the title "THE PRIVATE HISTORY OF A CAMPAIGN THAT FAILED" recounting his less than heroic adventures.

It is a very informative story. He explains that he and his friends were full of the romantic ideas of Sir Walter Scott's novels about chivalry and glory, and they decided to volunteer. Unfortunately, soon after they begin, the cracks in the system pop up. Their personalities clash on certain issues (one of the boys, named "Dunlap" shows a pretentious nature by calling himself "D'Unlap" to sound like a French knight). They keep falling into mud holes. They keep finding that most of the time they get lost, can't find where the real fighting is, and at one point think they hear a Yankee soldier approach, and fire. They wound a civilian, who is absolutely in shock when they try to assist him after finding out their mistake. Finally, hearing of the approach of a really overwhelming enemy force, Twain and most of the men give up and leave. It turns out the overwhelming force was one under General Ulysses Grant.

The film basically follows the story, except that Pat Hingle plays a local southern sympathizer (a farmer) with two daughters. He is full of patriotism for the lost cause, and tries to assist the young southern patriots. But when he discovers they retreated or ran from the enemy he kicks them out in disgust.

The portion of the story dealing with the wounding of the innocent traveler is changed in an interesting way. Edward Herrmann plays a local clergyman who is shot by the boys, and killed - not wounded. It is this act of total destruction of a human being (a clergyman too - and a married one) that leads to Twain and the others ending their military careers in the television version.

But here the film actually went into a further different direction. In 1898 Twain wrote a short story called THE WAR PRAYER. Bitterly opposed to the trend towards imperialism in the U.S., and in the Spanish American War and Philippine Insurrection, Twain's story is how at a patriotic church meeting the clergyman lauding the militarist version of the truth is confronted by a stranger who offers a new prayer for our men at war. It begs God to destroy the enemy utterly, man, woman, and child - let us grind them into itsy-bitsy pieces, etc. At the end the stranger shrieks "AMEN!!!" and leaves. The shocked clergyman says nothing for a moment and then says to the congregation that the stranger must be insane. He doesn't notice that his own views are similar, but just watered down.

The film ends with the ghost of Herrmann, thirty years later, wandering into a church in the period of the 1898 war. He hears the pompous, militarist clergyman glorifying the same warlike feelings that destroyed him in 1861. Angry, Herrmann becomes the "mad" stranger, and what follows is THE WAR PRAYER in it's full effect. Wesley Addy completes this section as the self-blind clergyman. It was a very good production, and, again, I hope it is shown again some time on public television.

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