Despite Hype, History’s “Gettysburg” Fails to Deliver

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.

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11 thoughts on “Despite Hype, History’s “Gettysburg” Fails to Deliver

  1. I was so excited to see this, but I found myself so bored. The one historian I actually found myself yelling at when he said that he thought Pickett’s Charge actually could have succeeded. In what universe?

  2. Steven

    I agree about the doc implying that slavery was the only reason southerners went to war. I got tired of hearing “such-and-such guy, age, slaveowner.” They never even mentioned fighting for home and hearth, and even states rights was only mentioned when slavery was involved. Very biased.

    If memory serves, the man who mentioned that Pickett’s Charge could’ve actually worked was Dr. Peter Carmichael, who used to be professor at where I went to college, UNC-Greensboro. Our History Club on campus, of which I was a part, invited him and two others to take part in a Civil War panel. We also had some reenactors from the group I’m with come and serve as ushers in the event. During the Q&A at the event, Dr. Carmichael, with my comrades from the 49th NC Troops present in the audience, made the comment that “Civil War enthusiasts don’t know the real history of the war.” I really felt this was a slap in the face to them, and I really got pissed off for a while! So yeah, not a big fan of Dr. Carmichael.

    God bless!

  3. Sandra Culter

    As usual, Greg, your assessment of this documentary was spot on! I watched it and also could not believe that no mention was made of approx. 99% of the generals and most of the locations fought at. How could they have left out the bayonet charge? No mention of Hancock’s crucial decisions, etc! If the info included in this “documentary” and the info in “Gettysburg” the movie could be merged into one, it would be perfect. Thank you!

  4. HOKEY uniforms, idiot sticks (the modern Infantry branch insignia of 2 crossed muskets) used on the enemy infantry…but, liked the inclusion of Barkdale’s & Davis’ Mississippi Brigades

  5. Ben K

    This ‘documentary’ was terrible, simply put, and I didn’t even really watch it. I started getting Facebook texts from my reenactor buddies towards the end of the ‘Drowning Pool’ concert I was attending detailing just how terrible the impressions were. To quote my old friend and fellow G&G veteren Bill “Bushrod” Moss “The person who did the wardrobe for this production should not be allowed to work on films again”. I had made the decision not to watch the show and delete it off my DVR once I returned home as I hold these individuals opinions in very high regard, but I was told over and over again that the Geico commercial was the best part. So, I returned home and fast forwarded to find the commercial stopping every so ofter just to see what was so bad and almost spit soda all over my couch. Everytime a Union soldier was on screen I wanted to scream. None of the gear they were wearing was worn remotly right or even accurate. Everytime a Confederate ‘soldier’ was shown I looked at my bewildered wife and asked her ‘WHAT THE HELL ARE THEY WEARING!?’ If this was a documentary about the Romans it’s as if the legions came out wearing grass skirts! This is what happens when film companies dig a bunch of extras out of a box, throw them in a uniform and expect them to know what they are doing. This happens for just about any historical production up to showing present day soldiers (I’m still not sure why once an actor is given a pair of ACU’s they immediatly turn the color up and fasten the hook and loop, which just about nobody in the actual Army does, but that’s another gripe) Anyway, if you are going to attempt to make an accurrate film just take the extra time to hire reenactors, we know what the hell is going on, you don’t have to train us, and you save wardrobe time and money becuause we bring our own CORRECT gear. Don’t advertise something at pitiful as this as being a super accurate mega cool documentary and completely fail in its accuracy. Normally I’d expect A LOT better from the Ridley and Tony Scott as I’m a fan of many of their films. Yes I appreciate the detail of accurate violence but ‘whoop de do’ if everything around it is wrong. They should have skimmed a little of their effects budget and put it towards better advisors. I want a fully realized, brutal, accurate depiction of a Civil War battle, but shown correctly (a dream project of mine would be a big budget hard R rated version of Red Badge of Courage in all its grimey bloody authentic glory). Also I’m not sure why they chose the historians they did but none of their ‘experts’ was anybody I’d ever heard of. All in all its sad that the Geico commercial was the best thing on and the most accurate thing on during those two terrible hours as all of us reenactors that got the joke were ROTFL.

    1. Come on Ben, tell us how you really feel! 🙂

      I thought the Confederate uniforms were awful, did not mind the Union ones too much but perhaps I don’t have an eye for that sort of thing yet. Thanks for leaving your [lengthy] two cents!

      1. Ben K

        Heh, 😉

        well supposidly the History Channel and the Scotts are using the You Tube trailer location for the show as their sounding board on how much people liked it, so far a lot of likes and 2 dislikes. It’ll be 3 soon, mwaaa ha ha ha

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  9. Meh, this documentary was so-so at best. Man were the hats the actors playing Barksdale and Davis wearing farby to the max, too!

    “…the narrator went out of his way to mention slavery as being the sole cause of the Confederacy’s fighting every chance he could.”

    Incidentally, Greg, slavery *was* the root cause of secession –and by extension the Civil War. The reason soldiers *fought* were complex. However, as speeches like Alexander Stephens’ speech on slavery being the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy makes clear, the Southern government was quite keen on keeping the peculiar institution alive.

    Stephens’ speech can be read in full here; his comments on slavery start nine paragraphs in:

    http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/cornerstone-speech/

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