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.