Well, we’re back at the hotel after a fantastic first day in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I have been here at all different times of year, but this may have been the best weather I have ever experienced. There were overcast skies with temperatures in the low 60′s—it was almost chilly outside. For June, there really were not that many tourists walking around the battlefield, which is great when trying to take pictures. I admit, I did not snap as many as I normally do, because there are not that many places on the battlefield that I have not photographed before. However, I did finally find the Lutheran Seminary, where Union General John Buford spotted John Reynolds and his reinforcements after fighting opened up on the first day against Harry Heth’s Confederates. How it took me this long it is beyond me. I guess I have passed it multiple times and just never turned in for a better look. There was some extensive renovation going on there, as well as to the Pennsylvania Monument near the Angle (presumably sandblasting). It was also great seeing so many children’s’ groups and scout troops touring the battlefield, as they are the future of Civil War interest. However, would it kill them and their leaders/counselors to show some respect, as in not jumping from rock to rock in Devil’s Den, or breaking out blankets for a picnic right on top of those same boulders? Not to be picky here, but there is just something about that which bothers me.
While I applaud the filmmakers of Gettysburg for finally giving us an accurate depiction of Civil War violence, with plenty of blood, guts, and limbs flying everywhere, I cannot help but feel that the audience was deprived of highly important information, especially if someone was watching this who did not know much about the most important battle in our nation’s most important struggle. For a documentary that came with so much promise and hype, it ultimately failed to deliver, almost mocking the New York Post’s review from this morning that said this documentary “will change the way TV documentaries are made from now on.” If by change, they meant including all of the facts next time, then by all means they are correct.
Despite my disappointment, this was not the worst documentary the History Channel has ever produced (can anything rival Life After People?). It began at such a high level, in tackling an often shunned portion of the battle, which is the Railroad Cut on the first day of the fighting. The combat scenes were hard-hitting and intense, and as I settled down on the couch, I had a smile on my face that this was finally going to be that one Civil War film that was both fair and accurate, yet grizzly in showing the horrors of war, not the Lost Cause fantasy world that some Southern Apologists feel to this day. This foreshadowing was only partially fulfilled. Bullets tore through bodies, cannon balls severed limbs, and shrapnel knocked down rows of lined soldiers. But at the same time, information crucial to understanding this battle at its full capacity was left out. Whether or not this was intentional is beyond me, but had it been included, I would be singing songs of praise right now.
This is not a nitpick here, folks. The information left out includes not one single mention of McPherson’s Ridge, Devil’s Den, or Little Round top, and not one utterance of the names John Buford, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (who saved the Union Army’s flank with a daring bayonet charge), John Bell Hood, Lewis Armistead, Richard Garnett, James Kemper, Isaac Trimble, Lafayette McClaws, E. Porter Alexander, J.E.B Stuart, or Winfield Scott Hancock. Other crucial players, such as George Pickett and James Longstreet were mentioned in passing, only once, with them not even being characterized as part of the docudrama aspect of this film. How any motion picture relating to the entire Civil War, let alone this battle, can be made without these men and locations being focused on is incredible.
The one thing I did notice, however, was that the parts of the battle shown in this film (Pickett’s Charge aside) were not depicted at all in Ron Maxwell’s 1993 feature film Gettysburg. While that one drew upon the fighting in the three aforementioned locations, this newer film was about the first day’s fighting in the town, along the Railroad Cut, and Culp’s Hill. At first, I thought that the filmmakers did not want to show anything that was already done, but then I thought that this was a documentary—it is supposed to include everything. Now, for someone who wants to get a perfect picture of what the battle of Gettysburg was really all about, they will have to watch this film along with a nearly five-hour Maxwell version. Spending seven hours viewing films may turn more people off of the Civil War than inspire.
To further reinforce what was left out, there was not even a mention of the fighting at the Peach Orchard and the Wheat field. One could basically argue that this film left out more about the battle than in included, and that is very sad, because it kick’s off the highly anticipated “Civil War Week” on History in a bad way. Tomorrow night’s special is Lee and Grant, and I am almost afraid to watch it.
In getting to the actual information about the parts that were represented, the narrator went out of his way to mention slavery as being the sole cause of the Confederacy’s fighting every chance he could. When profiling William Barksdale, his ownership of 40 slaves was cast into the spotlight, as was a Confederate doctor’s earlier in the program. Another aspect that I would like to critique, regarding a battle scene, was Pickett’s Charge. While ignoring every general present with the exception of Brigadier General Joe Davis, who apparently led the charge all by himself, it showed a group of about ten men marching near the base of a mountain. In reality, the charge comprised of 12,000 men marching on rolling farmland, with no mountain in sight, and no trees except for where the Confederate army deployed from. I understand that they could not use thousands of extras for this small scene, but how about some CGI figures that littered the screen in cheesy overhead shots as troops closed in at the stonewall?
One last item that I question, was the decision the filmmaker’s made to spend a little more than five minutes on the Confederate’s “Rebel Yell”. What was in real life, a shriek to inflict intimidation and fear into the hearts of enemies, was shown in this movie as a bunch of hillbillies with no teeth in their mouth cackling out turkey gobbles. I sat in disbelief that human beings could even make such an atrocious attempt at trying to get it right. While the closeups of rotting teeth and gums were accurate, I felt myself more prepared for Thanksgiving dinner than waiting behind an entrenchment for an enemy to charge and try to kill me. If you DVR’d this special, please hit fast-forward when you get to this part. Die-hard Civil War buffs and historians can just hit delete when you get to the menu.
All was not lost in this film, however. The visual effects and action scenes were top-notch, made even better by a glorious high-definition television. Had everything I mentioned been included, then this would have been a masterpiece. Instead, it slides down the mounting slippery slope of Civil War related movies and television specials that “could have been”. I will give this a rating of 4 out of 10, and make the insignificant suggestion that this should have been at least a two-part series, so that everything could have been covered. There was a lot that was right with this program visually, but even more that was wrong on the fact-side, and I cannot let that slide.
Thanks again to a reader named Blake, I can now show you four more clips that have been released by Warner Brothers, two from Gettysburg and two from Gods and Generals. They are very short, but it is still better than nothing. In a way, I do not even want to see a sneak peak of the Antietam scenes, because I don’t want to ruin it—I have waited eight years and figure I can stand to wait another twenty days. Click on the pictures to view video.
Gods and Generals
The Union band at Camp Mason
The 20th Maine is being recruited as a newly formed band is playing. Colonel Adelbert Ames (Matt Letscher) walks towards them, looking little more than peeved at the awful sound coming from the band. He then yells at them to, “Stop that damn drumming!”
The 20th Maine at Fredericksburg
The regiment is marching through the town on their way to the front, when Ames and Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) are confronted by their commanding officer, Charles Griffin (a new character added to the film, played by Matt Miller). He then tells them, “They drove my first brigade to hell”, signaling that they are next. There is also a shot of a Union hospital at the beginning.
Buford’s Cavalry Enters the Town
This is a fantastic scene that encompasses so much, where John Buford’s (Sam Elliot) cavalry rides into Gettysburg, where they are confronted by townspeople who can’t believe that the war has come that far north. When asked how serious the situation is, Colonel Devin (David Carpenter) remarks, “Nothing the cavalry can’t handle.” But the best line is spoken by Buford at the end.
Longstreet and Freemantle on July 2nd
I’ve always loved the scenes with the British character of Arthur Freemantle (James Lancaster), and his discussions with James Longstreet (Tom Berenger). They always turn the movie from rough and rugged to a bit debonaire, by adding a touch of class. Here, the two are discussing military tactics.
It is because of Ronald Maxwell that no director will ever again be able to make a movie about the battle of Gettysburg. This film, which was based on the Michael Shaara novel titled, “The Killer Angels”, had its name changed to Gettysburg, upon test audience reactions stating that they felt the title reflected that of a movie about a motorcycle gang. But no matter what the title is, this movie is and always will be the most prominent Civil War film, surpassing the likes of Glory and The Blue and the Gray made before it.
I try to get to the battlefield every year around the anniversary, but this summer I was unable because of my work schedule. However, I am going to be there next week, and with each trip to Gettysburg comes a viewing of this film, even in the rare instances I go twice a year. This movie never gets old, plain and simple.
For those who do not have an interest in the Civil War, this may not be the film for them. There is no Hollywood drama here, just a good storytelling of what was going on in the minds of the greatest generals and leaders present at a small Pennsylvania town for three ill-fated days in July.
In a time-slot that eclipses four hours, we see examinations into the thoughts and tactics of Generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet from the Confederacy, and Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain from the Union. These are the three focused on, but we also see the South’s Generals Pickett, Armistead, Garnett, Kemper among others, and the North’s General Hancock. The film is predominantly told from the Southern perspective, but the North gets prominence on the first day with Sam Elliot as General Buford and Chamberlain’s stand at the Little Round top on the second day of fighting.
Martin Sheen plays Lee and nailed the role. His beard looked to be one of the few that were actually real, leading to no continuity errors. Lee is presented as a very calm demeanored general, loved by his troops and heavily respected by his offers, much like the real Lee.
Tom Berenger tackled a more complex role in General Longstreet, who is torn between acting on his instincts to disagree with Lee, and being a good soldier and obeying his orders, no questions asked. The two men find themselves quarreling several times throughout the three days, which occurred in real life, and some historians suggest that had Lee listened to Longstreet, the Confederates would have won Gettysburg, and possibly even the war.
The role of Union officer Chamberlain went to Jeff Daniels, who nailed the very serious professor-turned-soldier from Bowdoin College in Maine. It is because of his lack of military training that he ordered the bayonet charge on the second day of fighting that saved the Union line, because many doubt a trained and true officer would have been so bold. The character of Chamberlain’s brother Tom went to 80′s acting star C. Thomas Howell, who injected some humor into his very serious brother. It is also hard to believe that Daniels would go on to star in Dumb and Dumber just a year later, showing his wide range of acting talents.
The supporting cast was also outstanding. Sam Elliot plays the rugged cavalry general John Buford, Stephen Lang as George Pickett, Andrew Prince and Richard Garnett, Patrick Gorman as John Bell Hood, Brian Mallon who plays a terrific General Hanc0ck (I honestly wish he got more screen time), and Richard Jordan as Lewis Armistead.
Out of all of those, though, it is Jordan’s that steals the show. Armistead and Hancock were best of friends before the war started, and Armistead is very sad he will have to face him on the third day of battle. Sensing he will be killed, he gives a special package to Longstreet to deliver to Hancock’s wife upon his death. This is made all the more emotional when Armistead is seriously wounded, and dies off camera. His final words, after hearing Hancock was injured too were, “No! Not both of us. Not all of us. Please, God!” Richard Jordan himself would also die just days after filming, without living to see the finished product.
Though this film experienced mild box office success, cracking the top ten at one point, it did not receive much time in theaters because of it’s four hour-plus running time and limited showings theaters were restricted to. Gettysburg would achieve notoriety a year later, when it was broadcast as a two night event on TNT, whose owner Ted Turner produced the film, and even had a small role as Colonel Waller T. Patton.
In just two nights, 23 million people would tune in to watch, making it the most watched television event in TV history at that point in time.
This film holds a special place in my heart as the film that got me interested into the Civil War, a passion that is with me today. For that, it will receive a 10 out of 10, despite it’s flaws, such as no mention of the brutal July heat, smoke coming out of actors mouths, flopping bayonets, and obvious fake beards. Those goofs are fun to watch for, but this is such a serious film, and try to not have a tear in your eye at one point or another during Pickett’s Charge, which is one of the most well choreographed battle sequences I have ever seen.
That seems to be the stamp on Maxwell films: realism. Each battle scene is very simple and realistic, with no drama. All that is added is the wonderful score by Randy Edelman, another element of this film that is one of the best.
It is also worth noting the film’s unique opening credits, where a picture of the actor is overlayed with a picture of the person they are portraying, showing the similarities between the two.
I cannot recommend this film enough, and if the interest is there, also check out Gods and Generals, the prequel which was released ten years later in 2003. It uses much of the same actors, and is a little shorter, but once again we have great battle scenes, even if it does have too much dialogue.