Entry 15 (Part 1): Football Analysts and Generals

Gettysburg Movie Poster

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.

Additional Dispatches:

  • 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

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12 comments

  1. kacinash · June 25, 2015

    I have a similar relationship with this movie. Growing up, it was my absolute favorite movie. To this day, I can still recite pretty much every single world of this four hour epic. I still watch it often, but man, there are moments that make me laugh out loud now. This film is so steeped in Lost Cause mythology (despite its attempt at delionizing Lee… a bit… and cutting Longstreet some slack) that I cringe. I posted briefly about this subject <a href="http://www.kacinash.com/blog/the-high-ground/"on my blog once upon a time. That aspect of the film is the hardest part for adult me to reconcile.

    I like your categorization of the movie along the lines of epic literature and film. It is very theatrical, especially with the long soliloquies. It may not be realistic at all, but that is one of my favorite aspects of the film.

    Regarding the combat violence (or lack there of), this consistent with much of the post-war literature regarding the war. It’s sanitized, romanticized even. The focus us on heroic deeds, not traumatic realities. I do think a lot of it has to do with the audience and ratings and all that. But really, before Saving Private Ryan, did anyone ever think we would see something like that? See filmmakers even attempt to depict a realistic combat scene?

    Looking forward to the second half of your post.

  2. Robert Ortega · June 23, 2015

    I am one of the people who first became interested in the Civil War after seeing the movie “Gettysburg” as well and plan on re-watching it over 4th of July weekend. I agree with the film’s short comings as far as the bloodless battle scenes and flaws in acting and dialogue. As others have stated, I believe this was mainly caused by the budget and trying to present a family friendly depiction of the Civil War to a wider audience. Also, I choose to judge “Gettysburg” as a work of historical fiction rather than comparing it to the actual historical events. With a few notable exceptions (such as Longstreet’s unnecessary line about Fort Sumter and slavery), I think the film succeeds in that regard. My favorite parts of “Gettysburg” are Jeff Daniel’s performance as Joshua Chamberlain and the musical score. In addition, I would disagree about your opinion of the depiction of the Little Round Top defense. I found it to be a pretty dramatic, especially the last part involving the charge. And, one other thing I thought I would mention is that even though the scene is fictitious, I still get chills during Chamberlain’s speech to the 2nd Maine mutineers.

    • Christian McWhirter · June 23, 2015

      Thanks for the comment. Like I said at the top, all of us Civil War folks have some kind of relationship with this movie. I think you and I are mainly on the same page, especially regarding Daniels.

  3. Bill K. · June 23, 2015

    This film holds a special place in my heart. Mostly because it was integral in my interest in the Civil War, overall. It came out when I was 5-years-old. Despite what it lacks I think it (along with the original novel) did its job i.e. generate interest in the battle and brought more people to Gettysburg. The film’s score is excellent, in my opinion. Right up there with some of the masterpieces by John Williams.

    • Christian McWhirter · June 23, 2015

      I was older than you when it came out, but the film also fueled my interest in the Civil War by arriving just when I was beginning to interact with its history in a serious way. I have friends who now make their careers in Civil War History for whom the film served a similar formative function. In the end, I think that’s its best role–as a way of easing viewers into a more complicated view of the Civil War, even if the film itself sometimes fumbles the ball on its own history.

  4. gdbrasher · June 20, 2015

    Christian, what you are missing here in the analysis is that the movie was filmed with the original intention of being a TV movie on TBS, not for release in theaters. The decision to put it into theaters was made after the production. The violence is definitely sanitized, but purposely so because of the venue it was made for. And keep in mind this was not HBO, and was television in the early 90’s. You couldn’t get away with these things we see on TV these days, which is still more sanitized than HBO or theatrical releases. Further, I would argue that even in theaters we did not get more realistic combat scenes until Saving Private Ryan broke the mold.

    • Christian McWhirter · June 20, 2015

      Glenn, this is a good point and one I should have noted. However, it only explains the absence of gore, which I mention here but certainly understand cannot be included in every war film. The “stageiness” of the combat and some of the dialogue were certainly avoidable even as a TV movie and both make the film feel less like hard history and implicitly endorse a sanitized version of the Civil War. Perhaps I shouldn’t have laid as much blame on Maxwell for this and noted how the film’s production and release date affected its realism, but that doesn’t change how it’s come down to us and what it, in part, represents.

      • satchel29 · June 22, 2015

        Glenn brings up a good point. It really wasn’t until “Private Ryan” that war movies became more realistic. A better depiction of musket era warfare can be found in the “Patriot”, even if the movie itself is unrealistic and not particularly good, the combat scenes are more true to life. Of course Hollywood is beginning to drift into the other extreme, with movies like “Fury” characterizing soldiers as no better than convicts let loose upon the battlefield. With every death being some horrifically gruesome fountain of blood and fire. In either case the historical context/message is being lost.

      • Christian McWhirter · June 22, 2015

        Glory’s depiction of Antietam is also grittier than what we get in Gettysburg although, as Glenn suggests, it had a much bigger budget and was always intended for a theater audience. And I absolutely agree the pendulum can swing too far the other way too, I just wanted a little less pageantry and a little more horror from Gettysburg.

  5. Mattie · June 20, 2015

    Huh? You aren’t taking into account the film industry’s desire to fill movie theaters. The BLOOD and GORE can be assumed. Your desire for the perfect film is interesting, as are your reflections. Are you a pompous know-it-all trying to blacken the memory of a movie many enjoyed? I feel for ya’ but I can’t reach ya’.

    • Christian McWhirter · June 20, 2015

      Thanks for the comment. I tried to be clear in the “additional dispatches” section that I have a pretty high opinion of the film overall. I just think it gives us a slightly unrealistic depiction of Civil War combat. Not sure how that makes me pompous but I understand that the film I’m envisioning may not be for everyone.

      • satchel29 · June 22, 2015

        Christian, I’ve led a blogger’s life and I’ve never seen anything as brutally clear as this. It’s as if I can actually see the commenters in one moment…reacting with personal attacks in a kneejerk manner as you write about their beloved movie…as if it were already done…and already a memory. An odd, set, stony quality to it. As if tomorrow has already happened and there’s nothing you can do about it. The way you sometimes feel before an ill-considered attack, knowing it will fail…but you cannot stop it. You must even take part and help it fail.

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