The special presentation of “Gettysburg” was executive produced by Ridley and Tony Scott. With that kind of pedigree, you can expect it to be more pop history than military history. You can also expect some Hollywood “bells and whistles”. You get what you pay for. The Scotts delivered a documentary made to the current standards of what modern war movies are supposed to look like. This is either a sacrilege or shrewd catering to the masses. Given the History Channels recent programming decisions, it fits their new philosophy and at least it was on an historical topic.
The program follows eight participants in the battle. They each get their segment, but several reappear at later stages of the battle. They are Rufus Dawes (an officer in the Iron Brigade), Amos Humistan (Union sgt.), Dr. Lagrande Wilson (CSA), Gen. William Barksdale (CSA), Gen. Dan Sickles (USA), Ridgely Howard (Confederate private who was a slaveholder from Md.), Col. James Wallace (Union officer who also owned slaves in Md.), and Joe Davis (officer form Miss.) Each gets a back story and most have some primary source narration. The actors (reenactors?) are okay and better than you could expect. Their stories are interesting, although not necessarily typical. The program is fairly balanced between the two sides.
The “bells and whistles” are entertaining. There is a lot of action and the modern style editing and quick cuts. Surprisingly, there was little use of CGI for the combat scenes. (They did use it for “flyovers” of the battlefield.) Of course, the deaths are in slow motion and shown several times. The program is very graphic for a documentary. At one point blood splatters on the camera lens. The wounds are also pretty gruesome. Too Hollywoodish, but a good balance to the staid old-school docs. The show is strongest in getting the sights and sounds of combat realistic. It’s not “Saving Private Ryan”, but not bad for a TV documentary.
The talking heads are a mixed bag. They do have James McPherson, but the others are B list. They add some interesting opinions, but many of their thoughts were apparently chosen to increase the suspense for rubes who know little of the battle. (“I can’t wait to find out who wins”) For instance, on Pickett’s Charge, one said it “had a reasonable chance of success” and another opined that it “almost cut the Union army in two. They almost did it.” These statements were made with straight faces! The trivia-type asides that are thrown in by the narrator are cool and informative. There are segments on how the rifles and cannons worked that are well done.
The biggest flaw is in its coverage of strategy and tactics. The decision to concentrate on eight participants and cover the battle was a poorly executed one. For instance, we launch into Dawes’ story before we get a map tutorial on Lee’s strategy. Also, Dawes minor victory was not typical of the first day’s fighting. There are shocking omissions. No mention of the actual start of the battle and unbelievably nothing on the fight for Little Round Top! Sickles’ decision to move forward is treated as a golden opportunity for the South to break the Union army in two rather than what it actually was – the chance to cut out a large body of troops. Stuart’s faux pas is mentioned, but he is not. As a tutorial on the battle, the doc falls short.
By far the greatest strength of the program was the reenactors. They are amazing. They will probably cringe at some of the stuff that appeared on the screen, but they did their usual outstanding job making sure all the little details were right. The uniforms and weapons were all authentic. We should have more movies set in the Civil War to take advantage of this awesome resource. I bet there was no Hollywood-style boot camp for the actors in this one. It was nice to see them honored (?) with one of the funniest commercials ever – the Geico cave man as a by-the-book reenactor spot.
There will be people who despise this program. I am not one of them. I have learned to lower my standards and accept the few crumbs the History Channel tosses history buffs. After all, can’t we all agree it was an improvement over “American Pickers”? It was a nice compromise between what the ignorant masses want for entertainment and what the purists would want in information. Let’s hope it gets good ratings so THC might decide to show some history programs. It is a dream I have.