When I read that the History’s Gettysburg documentary from this past May was nominated for six Emmy Awards, I wanted to laugh. Today, when I found out that they actually won four, I wanted to cry. Okay, so maybe tears did not really well up in my eyes, but that does not make me any less upset or angry that this travesty to American Civil War history was lauded on a world-renown platform, an Awards ceremony that is supposed to recognize the absolute best in American television. Gettysburg, as I noted when I reviewed it the night it aired, came with so much hype and promise, and it not only failed to deliver, but left history buffs and experts at a loss for words at how laugh-out-loud horrible the facts were. Special effects aside, because they were very good and their Emmy win was deserved, this documentary did more harm than good for those who knew little or nothing about the battle that changed the tide of the Civil War, and thus the nation, as a result.
When I spoke to historian and Gettysburg battle expert J.D Petruzzi back in August, I asked him about how it was possible for a major production to be so flawed, with so many resources available. This is an excerpt of his answer:
How something like that can air? I think much of it has to do with marketing and trying to appeal to an audience which today is pretty inflicted with ADD. And I also know that the writers and producers didn’t consult with the historical advisers and consultants beyond just their few minutes of speaking throughout the episode. If they had – consulted with knowledgeable folks like Garry Adelman and such – most or all of the garbage that aired wouldn’t have seen the light of day. It was filmed in South Africa literally on the cheap, so the terrain looked nothing like Gettysburg (unless Gettysburg is comprised mainly of acres and acres of sand and pine stands and I’ve somehow missed that). If you read my review of the show, you’ll see that I point out an error committed just about every minute, and I actually didn’t include most of them. The show was very, very hard to watch, and my wife kept running into the room thinking that I was screaming in physical pain rather than mental… All the CGI and graphics done by the Scott Brothers studio – which was brought onto the project only at the very last second in order to do the CGI and attach their names to it – couldn’t save that show from making everyone’s eyes bleed. The History channel can only do the right thing by burning all copies of that program and never allowing it to see the light of day ever again.
So, not only was the film not destroyed, but it actually won the award for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special, which is pretty ironic considering some of the scenarios they presented were either so distorted or misinformed that they could have been the work of a master fiction author. What they did not tweak to fit their own little docudrama, they made up out of thin air, my favorite part being when one of Rick Harrison’s “experts” from Pawn Stars came on the screen and told the audience with a straight face that the impact of firing artillery for long periods of time would cause the ear drums of the artillerymen to explode, and send blood oozing out of their ears, among other things that I have never heard of before (it is best to read J.D’s blow-by-blow description).
This is definitely my disappointment of the day, because this was a show that quite literally deserved to be disposed of. I have grown ever critical of the History Channel in recent years, because of their shying away from actual history and movement towards endless Doomsday and Apocalypse shows. But what upsets me here is not how bad this show was, but because it had the chance to reverse the nonsense coming from what used to be my favorite channel, and one that earned worldwide respect. This could have been the beginning of a new era of real programming, but instead, it just serves to insult historians even further, as if being told that every accomplishment in world history was because of aliens and flying saucers is not enough. I am thankful History International is still around, because they show the older, better shows, but as for History (as they are called now, omitting the word “channel”; it should be the other way around, I think) it is safe to say that all hope is lost. They do not care about facts, they care about money and awards, and that is evident after last night.
What scares me here is something that I have only recently thought about—the main reason why I hated this show is because I know enough about the Civil War to see how bad this was. But what about all the other documentaries we have watched over the years that we don’t know much about? How many facts did they get wrong with those that just went unnoticed? I watch a documentary to get the right information, and I don’t want it to be a guessing game. Thanks to this trash, I have this in the back of my head the next time I sit down to watch one of their programs…if I ever do again.