Entry 15 (Part 3): In Praise of Gettysburg

Some of you thought I was too hard on Gettysburg, especially in my first post. I’ve often complained that historians judge historical films unfairly, and maybe I’ve been a little guilty of that–at least where Gettysburg‘s concerned. So, to make amends (and because I know you are all dying for even more Gettysburg content), here’s a list of things I like about the movie. Taken together, they show why I would still recommend the film, despite some of its historical problems.

  • Gettysburg has a razor-sharp focus on the battle and doesn’t mess around with a lot of Hollywood fluff to try and make it more interesting or audience-friendly. Roger Ebert thought this was the most remarkable aspect of the film and it likely goes unappreciated by those of us who study the war or have seen the movie a hundred times. A typical Hollywood adaptation of a war novel–especially one made for television–would have tacked on a hokey love story or revised the narrative into a more traditional hero’s journey, but Maxwell commendably never tries to do either of these things. In the end, this makes Gettysburg a near-unique cinematic experience, especially for its time when straightforward war films were largely out of fashion.
  • Maxwell trusts his audience to understand what’s going on. This is related to  the first point but bears special attention. A film like this could easily have oversimplified the battle or gotten bogged down in exposition. Even the book had maps. Maxwell, however, does a commendable job letting the audience know just enough to understand the action without getting lost or straying too far from the historical record. He’s sometimes better at this than in other spots, (I’ve always found his depiction of the first day’s fighting a little confusing), but overall you get a pretty good impression of what happened on July 1-3, 1863.
  • The film accurately expresses the mindset of both sides. As in the novel, Gettysburg provides ideological and motivational clues for why the battle happened and turned out the way it did. Lee and his men are over-confident, which leads them to make too many unforced errors and lose the battle. George Pickett best embodies this, and Stephen Lang does a great job of portraying the general’s arc from cocky amiable leader itching for a fight to shattered husk dealing with the real consequences of combat. The Union, on the other hand, begins the film tired of poor leadership and suffering from extremely low morale. By the end, they’ve built a fierce confidence in defense of their home turf, instilling a drive that would last through the next two years. Chamberlain and his men embody this transformation, as they begin the film visibly tired and dealing with a mutiny, but nevertheless stand firm on Little Round Top and stoically endure Lee’s assault the following day. The truth is, of course, more complicated and the film largely bungles Confederate politics (as noted in my last entry), but there’s a surprising amount of depth elsewhere that’s worthy of praise.
  • Although the combat’s a little stagey, its tactics are fairly well-portrayed. It’s here that the involvement of reenactors really benefits the film, as they are very good a marching in line, switching formations and rhythms, and holding and firing their weapons accurately. This saves Maxwell from having to focus his battle scenes on one or two well-trained actors (as many films do) and instead take a broader approach. The biggest pay-off is Pickett’s Charge, when we get several convincing wide shots of the Confederates marching toward The Angle, as well as some good contextual shots of the Union line awaiting them. Little Round Top isn’t quite as strong, but it nevertheless presents a fairly accurate tactical portrayal of two regiments opposing each other and the maneuvers and problems unique to defenders and attackers.
  • It has a good story. We can credit Shaara for most of this but Maxwell deserves credit for not screwing up his source material. The film is long but it nevertheless captures the drama, tension, and depth of The Killer Angels. Some might complain it’s too loyal to the novel, but Maxwell generally trims the right pieces of the novel away without losing much. Some might complain that parts of the battle get wrongfully ignored (such as Culp’s Hill or the Peach Orchard), but a totally inclusive dramatic narrative of the battle would be impossible, even with a 4-hour running time. While I agree with those who think Chamberlain gets too much credit here and elsewhere, the way Maxwell chooses to depict the battle is effective overall both as a decent history lesson and above average historical fiction.
  • It’s a beautiful film. This was covered a little in the comments section of an earlier post, but it bears repeating. The whole film has an epic quality that comes partially from the soundtrack but also from the way Maxwell stages many of the scenes. I complained this hurts the film’s sense of realism and I stand by that criticism, but it’s sure nice to look at.
  • And, of course, this guy:

So, on that note, I’ll finally leave Gettysburg behind. As I said initially, all Civil War enthusiasts have an opinion of this film (heck, some of you were probably in it!), so I’m sure I’ve generated more disagreement than agreement. Regardless, it was fun to write about a movie I’ve had a relationship with for so long and I’d be happy to hear what the rest of you think about it.

Next Entry: Guest blogger Glenn David Brasher on Glory

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4 comments

  1. Pingback: Gov. Haley’s Facebook wall; moving Forrest; Disney gets in on the action; the VJ-day kiss mystery; astronaut wives | history&thenews
  2. Mattie · July 9, 2015

    I’m glad you can see the positives. Must be tough to have that constant critic circling your mind, judging all that is Civil War. Give those gremlins a rest and just enjoy. Know the Roosevelt quote? “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out where the other man stumbles. The credit actually belongs to the man in the arena…”

    • Christian McWhirter · July 9, 2015

      I’m glad this post was more to your liking but I’m at a loss why someone completely opposed to the idea of criticism would read a blog almost solely devoted to critical reviews of popular culture.

    • satchel29 · July 9, 2015

      Ahhh, the Roosevelt quote. It always sounds great taken out of context. In point of fact, he was attempting to convince his French audience of the virtues of nationalism and service to ones country. A lesson wholeheartedly embraced (without sufficient critique) by France’s closest neighbour with disastrous results a few years later (and again two decades after that). Honest critique and constructive criticism are vital to almost any endeavour. Without them the world gets either very dangerous, or very sub-standard, very quickly.

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