Historical drama film review, pt 1 of ?: Gettysburg

This is the cover of the Italian version, first one I could find that wasn’t 100×150

Something entirely new this month to go along with this Blaugust challenge, why not? I love history, and I’ve seen some historical dramas I have opinions about, so here we go, starting with 1993’s Gettysburg.

When I was a kid, Gettysburg was one of my favorite movies. This epic-scale Civil War film was a massive undertaking, an ambitious made-for-TV production headed by director Ron Maxwell and TV mogul and producer Ted Turner, back in the 90s when such films didn’t have anywhere near the resources film projects on streaming services do now.

I rewatched Gettysburg recently after probably 20 years out of curiosity, partly to see how well it would hold up. For non-Americans who didn’t grow up with this story (or for Americans who slept through history class) the Battle of Gettysburg was a major turning point in the American Civil War, a bloody three-day battle in July 1863 that ended in over 50,000 casualties altogether and the defeat and retreat of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces out of Pennsylvania and off of their path towards Washington D.C. — one of the very few times the southerners were able to fight into the north and threaten northern cities and the national capital itself. While the war continued for two more years, the rebels were almost entirely on the defensive from that point until their ultimate defeat at the hands of the new Union commander Ulysses S. Grant (and his friend General Sherman, most infamous in Georgia for his ruthless effectiveness.)

Sounds like it would make for a good film, and it mostly does. Gettysburg features a lot of excellent acting, among the best Martin Sheen as Lee (apparently a controversial choice but I thought he was great — doesn’t look much like the man himself but who cares), Tom Berenger as his chief subordinate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, Jeff Daniels as Col. Joshua Chamberlain, and Stephen Lang as the flamboyant and doomed southern divisional commander Maj. Gen. George Pickett.

The film also did a nice job of balancing the northern and southern perspectives, though my favorite scenes are those involving the 20th Maine regiment commanded by Chamberlain, the very guy who ordered a last-ditch bayonet charge that saved the second day and potentially the entire battle for the Union. Most of the battle scenes don’t feel like they hold up all that well, with a lot of what looks like milling around/light jogging, but I think the acting carries it all well enough, and plenty of the film focuses on personal relationships between the higher officers anyway both within and between the two sides.

This film is based on a historical novel I haven’t read, The Killer Angels, and apparently both that novel and this film were so popular that they went a long way towards rehabilitating the military reputation of Longstreet, who objected to and argued against the disastrous Lee-ordered massive charge on the final day of the battle but was nevertheless long blamed for the loss.

It’s surprising just how much drama still surrounds this battle and its figures even to this day — the above-mentioned charge (only led in part by Pickett despite its popular name) ended in slaughter for the southerners, and it’s interesting to think about how history might have changed if they’d succeeded against the odds that day or had been able to break through and flank the 20th Maine the previous day.

For obvious reasons, it’s a good thing they failed that day considering the possible consequences of a Confederate victory at Gettysburg, but even so it’s still a sore spot with some southerners. I speak even from personal experience here — most of my American family is from the South, and I know for a fact I had ancestors who served in some Confederate army or other, though none as the kinds of high officers depicted in Gettysburg (they were dirt-poor farmers who would later in the century end up in county court records for illicitly producing and/or trading moonshine, a family tradition I’m far more okay with.) I never heard any complaining about this stuff from my own family, but I’ve lived around a few parts of the South and you see and hear shit, enough to understand there’s some leftover and certainly misdirected bitterness that’s mixed up with modern economic stress.

I can’t speak too much to the accuracy of the film. From what I hear it’s pretty faithful to the events of the battle, even if it doesn’t depict all the important engagements, though considering just how many engagements took place over those three days it couldn’t possibly do so anyway. But I’m not a Civil War expert, so I leave that aspect of the analysis to those guys. The more important point for me is that Gettysburg in general feels pretty honest, with at least some focus on the bigger political picture. From what I’ve heard, Mr. Maxwell’s followup Civil War drama Gods and Generals might fail on this point by lionizing the Confederate cause and Stonewall Jackson in particular. Jackson is a strange and fascinating figure and was an impressive military talent and so he’s well worth a look, but any puffing up of that cause he fought for at all has to ignore the fact that preservation of slavery was the driving force of secession — that’s entirely what the “states’ rights” issue rested on.

But that’s still a whole massive debate here in the States that rages on to this day, no fucking joke. And this is coming from a sort-of southerner here, or at least halfway a southerner by experience and family connection, and plenty of us say it’s well past time to move the hell on. It’s a tragedy that a ton of soldiers died in any of these armies, but I guarantee the people using the war for political purposes today don’t give a shit about that. Especially not when a few of these very same assholes are likely going to be representatives in the party controlling the House next year according to the polls, God help us.

I’d say “not to get political” here, but it is political; it can’t be avoided — rewriting of the history books to paper over past American injustices is quite literally part of their platform, and there are related and extremely heavy problems mixed up with that I won’t get into in this post. But it’s worth noting that historically the memorials went up and the state flags were changed to commemorate the old “Lost Cause” when the civil rights movements were gaining momentum.

Anyway, I haven’t watched and can’t speak directly about Gods and Generals — all I can say is that Gettysburg doesn’t really fall into that trap too much, maybe aside from one exchange (the guy from Tennessee who’s just fighting for his rats — if you’ve seen it you know the scene) and a bit of complaining from a few southern generals in conversation that you can imagine they would have done anyway, so it’s placed in its proper context. Gettysburg is a good period piece with great acting, and I’d say it’s still worth a watch, even with some of its more dated aspects.

Now I wonder how many readers I’ve pissed off somehow, since this is a controversial subject. Or maybe nobody actually cares? I have no idea, but it’s probably fine — I know how cultured everyone who reads this site is. But put in a comment and we can talk if you feel like it. Tomorrow I’ll get back to something lighter, but I’m not done with the historical dramas.

4 thoughts on “Historical drama film review, pt 1 of ?: Gettysburg

  1. “rewriting of the history books to paper over past American injustices is quite literally part of their platform”

    Got exactly the same problem in England, the Tory party is bending reality to suit its needs. Really quite disturbing to behold the bizarre leadership race we have right now, all while pining for the “good old days” of the British Empire. (just not the bad bits, pretend the bad bits didn’t happen)

    • Every country that has oppression and imperialism in its past (and we’ve got plenty of the latter too of course!) seems to have those elements that want to deny that past. And of course, if you disagree with ignoring your country’s past crimes, you’re not patriotic or whatever. It’s a load of bullshit, and I hope we can all keep fighting against it!

    • Sure is! It’s impressive what they were able to pull off, and the acting is great. I don’t usually write about history-related stuff on the site, but it is one of my big interests.

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