Movie Monday: Gettysburg (1993)



I have written previously about how people we look up to were often disgraceful shitheads, so I have some sympathy for people who try to minimise the role of slavery in the Civil War. If you are raised on the stories of the decision, quick thinking and personal nobility of Robert E. Lee (or Stonewall Jackson, or whoever) it can be hard to accept that he or she was fighting on the bad side (being the bad side doesn’t make the other side good necessarily, just better). 

If you think that the Civil War was not really about slavery and you are just repeating something you heard, well, you are wrong, but it’s understandable. If you have done a lot of reading about the war and you still say that, you may just be reluctant to grasp the burning blade. But you need to. I know it sucks to feel guilty and to realise that your heroes were, like, Doctor-Doom-level bad guys. But what can you do? 

(If you think the Civil War was not only about slavery, well, yes. Obviously.)

If you expect a robust treatment of this issue in the 1993 historical epic Gettysburg, you are not going to get it. But it does have a lot of good parts; it is worth a watch, although I should warn you that it started life as a television miniseries and is thus one million years long. Well, over four hours, anyway. 

The film is an adaptation of The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, which is a pretty good novel about Gettysburg. Like the novel, it follows several different viewpoint characters, but its main protagonists are James Longstreet (Tom Berenger) on the Confederate side (with quite a lot of Lee (Martin Sheen) as well) and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) on the Union side, with a strong turn by Sam Elliott as John Buford. 



It was an age of whiskers. 

Historically, I mean, historically … it is an adaptation of a novel. But it’s a novel that had a pretty good grip on the facts, although unavoidably there are some interpretations of what happened that are debated today. But in terms of giving you an impression of what things were like, it’s … OK. It’s got lots of re-enactors in it, so there’s a lot of interesting variety in the equipment and uniforms and whatnot, and I’m sure they’re pretty authentic. The problem is that re-enactors aren’t, for the most part, actors, and the blocking is just atrocious. You will frequently catch them standing stock-still at the start of a shot and then springing into life as the scene begins. 

Also, the film made the really weird choice to take a fair amount of Shaara’s internal monologue and make it just regular old monologue. This is particularly jarring in the case of Buford, presented in the book as a taciturn old Indian-fighter, portrayed by Sam Elliott for presumably that reason, and then forced to give this big-ass monologue to explain his thoughts. I really like Shaara’s writing, but it doesn’t translate as well to dialogue as it might. 

And then, of course, there’s the guys flying through the air whenever a shell goes off. Part of the problem, I guess, is that a TV budget means that there isn’t much opportunity to really bring the visceral agony of the battle home. And that’s a hell of a shame, because it does an amazing job with the grand spectacle bits. Little Round Top, where Chamberlain’s regiment made a stand that probably saved the day for the Union, is tense and claustrophobic; you really get a sense of how little they knew about what was going on around them. And Pickett’s Charge, the final assault that saw Lee hurling his men across the field at the Union lines to get shot to pieces, is just … it’s huge and it’s so slow. I’m sure that’s realistic, but that … walk … into the bullets and the explosions is just horrifying. 

And then just when you’re all filled with pity and terror, along come C. Thomas Howell and Richard Jordan to melodrama all over you. 

Ah, I don’t know. On the one hand, Gettysburg is like some kind of historical pageant, with tough issues whitewashed by rote portrayals of the characters: moody, intelligent Longstreet, noble, gentle Lee, tough Buford. Only Chamberlain comes across as a more complex character, which is weird because he’s every bit as much a storybook hero. There are even scenes which are shot to be reminiscent of famous Civil War paintings. I can’t decide whether this is brilliant or stupid. I am given to understand this movie gets played a lot in history classes — come to think of it, that may be where I first encountered it. A class, anyway, though I think it was “Civil War Literature” rather than history per se. So it has a lot of that worthy, boring quality that you get in that kind of thing. 

On the other hand, some of the simulation aspects of it really do help you get a handle on things that might not have seemed real before. I always find that battle scenes in films and games get the sense of scale and topography all messed up — you don’t get the impression of how big battlefields really are, at least in the post-musket age. And Gettysburg does give you some good stuff to look at there. I gather that there is now some controversy over exactly where the target point for Pickett’s Charge was, for instance, but overall the vast sweep of the thing is still both interesting and impressive. 

I am kind of torn; as a piece of filmmaking, this is obviously not all that great. It’s bland, it’s often boring, it’s got some leaden performances and some outrageous fake beards. As history, it’s been called “Southern propaganda,” and while I wouldn’t go that far, you won’t see it addressing the tough issues in any meaningful sense. 

On the other hand, I have probably watched that Little Round Top scene ten times. 


Movie Monday: Gettysburg (1993)

One thought on “Movie Monday: Gettysburg (1993)

  1. Ev says:

    There has been a lot of rubbish written about how the Civil War was waged over more complex issues than simply slavery, and that it was perfectly constitutional for the South to secede in the cause of states’ rights. Bollocks and balderdash, of course; they were fighting for the right to keep human beings as property, and no amount of faux-principled posturing will change that.

    But when it comes to movies, I am a complete sucker for the grand emotional sweep of events, sometimes at the expense of historicity, which is why the scene where Lee admonishes Pickett to “look to your division” never fails to bring a lump to the throat; Pickett’s reply, “General Lee, I have no division,” is that of a man utterly broken by events. I don’t know if those words were spoken, but by God, they should have been!

    Yes, they were fighting for the wrongest of wrong causes, but the thought of so many lives wasted in a futile gesture is still heartrendingly sad.

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