Gettysburg. Written and directed by Ronald F. Maxwell. Based on the novel, The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara.
Release date: October 8, 1993.
As I mentioned in my last post, Gettysburg is kind of a big deal in the Civil War community. I first saw it long before I imagined becoming a professional historian, so my views on the film have evolved as I’ve learned more about the war. However, the aspect that stood out during my most recent viewing was one that hadn’t struck me before: for a movie that includes so much depiction of and talk about death, it’s remarkably bloodless. Combat scenes that seemed impressively realistic twenty years ago now play more like sterile pageants. Maybe I was naive back then, but this is not the same war I read and write about now. So I began to wonder, is Gettysburg one of the prime culprits in propagating the “football analyst school” of Civil War history?
The first evidence of Gettysburg‘s “stageiness” isn’t the combat, but the dialogue. It’s evident from the earliest lines that many characters don’t speak and act like real human beings. They are larger than life and live in dramatic times, so they primarily speak in soliloquies outside of the rhythms of everyday speech–and usually while striking dashing poses. Part of this may be a failed attempt to depict nineteenth-century speech patterns or to emphasize a class critique imported from the source material, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. It’s possible the constant pontification and self-important posturing of the film’s aristocratic Confederate characters, most notably Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen), George Pickett (Stephen Lang), Lewis Armistead (Richard Jordan), and Arthur Fremantle (James Lancaster), is designed to emphasize their elitism. However, the script never fully addresses this context and the more natural performances–mainly Jeff Daniels as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Tom Berenger as James Longstreet–seem intended to make certain characters better audience surrogates, rather than harbingers of a more egalitarian age. In other words, most of the film’s characters end up as mythological figures in an American Iliad, instead of real people navigating the largest and bloodiest battle in American history.
The combat is similarly rooted in traditions of epic film and literature, rather than reality. Lots of characters fret over the carnage they are causing and experiencing, but the stately way Ron Maxwell directs battle scenes creates a disconnect between the film’s anti-war message and the images on the screen. Part of this may be due to the massive participation of reenactors. These men are deservedly hailed for enabling the film’s production, because they provided a mass of skilled and cheap (if also corpulent and oldish) extras. However, their involvement unsurprisingly makes the battle scenes play like extravagant reenactments, with all the advantages and pitfalls of that tradition. It’s impressive to watch the film’s soldiers march in good formation and hold their rifles properly, but the fighting itself often appears too staged. For instance, the struggle for Little Round Top includes several Confederate assaults and retreats, but each seems rigid and rehearsed, as men charge and then far too carefully retreat. There’s none of the desperation and harried excitement of war, just measured careful movements.
This is not to put all the blame on reenactors, who also bring a lot to the film. Maxwell himself clearly intended to produce a sanitized version of Civil War combat, likely to ensure a wider audience. Bodies pile up but we hardly see any blood at all. Indeed, Buster Kilrain’s (Kevin Conway) injury “in the bloody armpit!” is really the only wound depicted in even vague detail. Lee’s July 3 assault is breathtakingly filmed, but its horrifying climax is remarkable underplayed. Even when a group of Confederates take canister fire at point-blank range, they react by politely lying down (or simply disappearing), rather than having their bodies shredded apart as would have happened in reality.
This is not to say I relish the idea of a three hour bloodbath, but I do think directors and screenwriters have a responsibility to depict warfare accurately. At least they should provide glimpses of the horrors it can produce, rather than just suggesting them through dialogue. Those who disagree with me might note that the film (and the novel on which it’s based) is primarily concerned with the motivations and actions of the officer class, and that’s certainly true. But those officers seem very concerned about the horror being enacted around them (indeed, Lee, Longstreet, and Pickett are broken men by the film’s end), but all we see are clean dead bodies, and death itself is only part of the tragedy of war. Civil War soldiers endured a gauntlet of terrifying and bloody experiences and leaving those out of a film claiming historical authenticity implicitly endorses an interpretation of the Civil War as a massive chess game rather than a lived experience. Surely the war was a huge strategy game played by its generals and politicians, but depicting it solely that way obscures the human cost and the trauma it created that lasted for generations.
- It probably sounds like I don’t like Gettysburg but I actually think it’s one of the better Civil War films. Indeed, it’s for that reason that I wish the movie was a little better in depicting its characters as real people and the battle as the horrifying spectacles we know it was.
- Maxwell’s direction also frustrated me more than it has before, particularly for its inconsistency. Some of his scenes are beautifully staged and shot (especially if you embrace the film as reflecting a mythical American past rather than reality) but other segments have the slow rhythms and wooden acting of a 1980s TV movie.
- Stephen Lang really impressed me this time around. I can see why Maxwell selected him to lead the disastrous prequel, Gods and Generals, as “Stonewall” Jackson.
- I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the soundtrack by Randy Edelman, which is so good it lends gravity to some of Maxwell’s less-inspired scenes. The film’s overall use of period music is also quite good.
- I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Sam Elliott’s gloriously over the [stoney] top performance as John Buford. With its recurring unnecessary pauses and jolts in volume, it’s practically Shatnerian.
- Does It mentioned slavery? Let’s hold off until my next entry before talking about this one.
Next Entry: Part 2: Gettysburg and the Lost Cause