“We should have freed the slaves, then fired on Fort Sumter.”
This is the line–spoken by Longstreet to Fremantle–that has haunted historians and fans of Gettysburg for 22 years. It’s built on so much faulty and potentially pro-Confederate history, some viewers see it as a clear sign Gettysburg is a Lost Cause film, plain and simple. Maxwell’s disastrous prequel, Gods and Generals, reinforced this view by depicting its Confederate characters through a clearly Lost Cause lens. It’s evident Gettysburg draws some of its inspiration from pro-Confederate myths, but I’ve always thought its overall approach to the Civil War is more nuanced. I kept this in mind during my recent viewing in an attempt to answer one of the central questions revolving around this movie: Is Gettysburg a Lost Cause film?
Clearly, one of the reasons Maxwell gave Gettysburg such a long running time was to ensure he had enough room to explore the stated causes of both sides. This is especially evident in the film’s first half, during which several characters openly debate or explain why they’re fighting. Maxwell appears to have decided to let both sides speak for themselves and not overtly endorse one interpretation or the other. I probably wouldn’t have done it this way but, for the purposes of this analysis, let’s take it at face value and assume the script’s sympathies never rise beyond subtext.
There are two significant aspects of the film that at least partially refute accusations of Lost Cause bias. The most obvious is that it depicts a major Union victory. Most writers seek to marry their setting with their thematic point of view, and the basic fact that the North wins the day–and gets the last live-action image, with Chamberlain and his brother Tom (C. Thomas Howell) embracing–ostensibly endorses the cause and point of view of those characters. This is especially significant because the script positions Chamberlain as the North’s primary spokesman, and Chamberlain’s point of view is decidedly emancipationist.
Indeed, the focal point of the film’s first quarter is Chamberlain’s speech defining what he thinks the war is about. He gives it to a group of “mutineers” he’s persuading to join the 20th Maine and it’s very moving. Some credit surely goes to Daniels’s excellent performance but the script (lifted almost verbatim from Shaara’s novel) also deserves praise. Chamberlain is partially an audience surrogate (compared to other characters, he speaks and acts much more like someone from the 20th century), so one could argue his point of view represents our own. In short, he states the Army of the Potomac is a historical anomaly because its purpose is solely to “set other men free.” He implies emancipation is the primary goal of the northern war effort and, in essence, the only cause worthy of his loyalty. “What we’re fighting for, in the end, is each other” Chamberlain concludes. This last sentence not only advocates racial equality but echoes the anti-aristocracy egalitarian subtext I noted in my last entry. The North’s second most prominent character, Kilrain, is even more opposed to class divisions, although he doesn’t care as much about race. When Chamberlain asks him about slavery, Kilrain admits he hasn’t thought about it much but then declares he is fighting for the right to be seen as the equal of any man. This accurately places both men well within the “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men” ideology of 19th Century Republicanism, even if it undersells Union as a war aim.
However, once the film moves past these early statements by Chamberlain and Kilrain, the northern cause (although, not northerners themselves) largely disappears. Instead, we get several scenes inside the camps of Pickett’s Division that prominently feature debates over the causes of secession. James Kemper (Royce D. Applegate) does most of the heavy-lifting, lamenting to Fremantle that northerners can’t stop focusing on “the darkies, the darkies–always the darkies!” while the South only wants to free itself from a perceived “occupation by a foreign power.” In the most intense such scene, Pickett compares the Union to “a gentleman’s club” and justifies secession by insisting that any man would have the right to leave such a club if the other members starting prying into his personal affairs. The aristocratic overtones of the metaphor might undermine Pickett’s argument but the film’s inability to fully connect its anti-aristocracy message with its Confederate characters makes such an interpretation obscure.
Indeed, it’s Gettysburg‘s unapologetic focus on the officer class that, in the end, makes it so easy to align it with the Lost Cause. Part of the reason Maxwell dispenses with the ideology behind the war before the movie’s halfway point is because he wants to depict the war as a self-propelled engine–eating up everyone it encounters despite the efforts of those in command (Lee and Longstreet, especially) to end it. In this scenario, the cause no longer really matters because war becomes its own cause–one perfectly suited to Lee and Longstreet, who are depicted as existing outside of politics. Both overtly say so–admitting at different points that their only cause is victory. Indeed, one could argue Longstreet serves as a second audience surrogate: an apolitical figure who understands the futility of modern warfare and the apparent meaninglessness of political and ideological issues once the killing starts.
But the Civil War was an ideological war, as its end result proves. The North won, so slavery died and the Union survived. What’s more, Lee, Longstreet, and most of the Confederate officers depicted in the film were not simply societal outsiders called upon to defend a new nation they supported only through duty. They all owned slaves and were immersed in the social and economic system slavery created in the South. Chamberlain may well begin the movie by telling his men (and through them, us) that slavery was the primary cause of the war, but Maxwell’s Confederate characters repeatedly tell us this was not so and the film doesn’t do much to contradict them. By having Longstreet state the historical non-sequitur quoted at the top of this article, Maxwell tries to make his hero more sympathetic by removing him from the context of slavery, just as Point of Honor and Cold Mountain do with their protagonists. But it’s even more problematic here. Longstreet, Lee, and their comrades did believe in slavery, potentially just as much as the film’s version of Chamberlain believed in freedom. Indeed, many Confederates in the ranks and the officer corps paid the ultimate price to preserve the only system of labor and societal organization they had ever known. I understand every single Confederate soldier wasn’t constantly motivated to fight by a desire to keep African Americans enslaved, but it was certainly a motivating factor and this film largely ignores that fact. I’m not going to label Gettysburg a Lost Cause film, but I do think it may have been better if, instead of moving ideology to the background in favor of a narrative about the monstrous nature of war, the script took more time to explore how its characters reconciled their beliefs with the carnage those beliefs was creating around them.
Additional Additional Dispatches
- I realize a lot of the aspects of the film I’ve written about in this entry come directly from The Killer Angels, so maybe it isn’t fair to judge the script by its source material. I do plan on re-reading Shaara’s book with similar questions in mind.
- I could have done a whole other entry on Chamberlain and Longstreet as audience surrogates. You could easily argue that both represent the most sympathetic modern views of each side. Chamberlain is the courageous middle-class northerner fighting to end slavery and create an egalitarian America, while Longstreet is an almost supernaturally-gifted southern soldier who is fighting only for some vague sense of honor and duty with little concern for slavery.
- So, did it mention slavery? As I said above, yes but in opposing ways that the script never fully reconciles. It also never gives us any sense of how African Americans felt about the war. Chamberlain takes in a runaway early in the film but the script doesn’t give the freedman any lines.
Next Entry: A bonus 3rd(!) post on Gettysburg.