Saturday, November 5, 2011

#46 - Gettysburg

BACK-STORY: “Gettysburg” is a war movie that began as a TV miniseries produced by Ted Turner. The finished product pleased the millionaire so much that he decided to release it to movie theaters. It may be the longest American movie (254 minutes) ever to appear in theaters. It appeared in a limited number of cinemas and did not recoup its cost, but the publicity was golden and when it was first shown on Turner Broadcasting Network, it was the most viewed basic cable program up to that time. The movie is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. The title was changed to the battle name after it was discovered that potential viewers thought the original title indicated a motorcycle gang movie. The National Park Service allowed filming on site, although much of the action was lensed at a nearby farm. The film made use of over 5,000 reenactors. There are also cameos by Ted Turner and Ken Burns. Turner is killed during Pickett’s Charge (rumor has it by Jane Fonda masquerading as a Union soldier). Burns plays an aide to Hancock.

OPENING: The movie opens with a map tracing the paths of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac as a voice-over explains the strategic situation in June, 1863. The assumption that most of the viewers would be ignorant of their Civil War history is appropriate. The movie will take great pains to inform the historically-challenged.

     A lone horseman spies the Union army on the march northward. He turns out to be an actor/spy named Harrison who works for Confederate General Longstreet (Tom Berenger). He reports the surprising news that the Union army is much closer than was believed. Longstreet passes the information on to a skeptical Lee (who has been blinded by the loss of contact with Stuart’s cavalry) and Lee decides to concentrate the army at a sleepy little crossroads named Gettysburg.

SUMMARY: (Note: since the movie is over four hours long, I’ll mercifully hit only the highlights) Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) is handed a hot potato in the form of some mutineers from another Maine regiment. As commander of the 20th Maine he is tasked with taking the mutineers along and shooting them if necessary. He gives an inspired speech about the importance of the upcoming battle (“we are here to set men free”) and his empathetic approach convinces most of the unhappy crew to pitch in.

     Outside Gettysburg, a Union cavalry unit led by John Buford (Sam Elliot) blocks the road leading to the town. Buford assesses the terrain and realizes his outnumbered brigade must attempt to “hold the high ground” until the main body of the army arrives. He soon makes contact with Confederate infantry heading for Gettysburg. The movie jumps to Lee (Martin Sheen) who is still in the dark about what is transpiring, but follows Napoleon’s advice to march to the sound of the guns. Lee reluctantly orders a general attack knowing the battle you get is not often the battle you want. The first of the movies set piece battles chronicles Buford’s holding action and subsequent retreat after being flanked in spite of the arrival of Reynold’s corps. The highlight is the death of Reynolds by sharpshooter.

     The movie introduces a major theme as Lee and Longstreet disagree on strategy. Lee, ever the aggressor, wants to end the war with this battle and intends to attack the Union army no matter their defensive position. He has supreme confidence in his soldiers and exhibits a tiredness that influences his decisions. Longstreet, ever the defensive-minded, wants to maneuver around the Union position to force the Union to attack them on advantageous ground. This back and forth will reappear later in the movie with Longstreet playing the petulantly obedient subordinate.

     The 20th Maine is marching toward destiny. They encounter a runaway slave which gives Chamberlain the opportunity to expound on his liberal professorial views against slavery. His earthy Scottish sergeant Kilrain (Kevin Conway) argues the war is a class war to ensure that Americans are judged by their ability, not their lineage. To Chamberlain’s belief that all men have a “divine spirit”, Kilrain refers to men as “killer angels”.

     Longstreet’s brigade commanders discuss the war around the camp fire. They are all agreed that the war is about states’ rights and Northern aggression. A British observer named Fremantle listens to the speechifying with a “hey, I’m only here to watch the killing” look.

     General Trimble (Morgan Sheppard) visits Lee to complain about his corps commander Ewell’s failure to take “that hill”, Cemetery Ridge. Lee defuses his anger, but obviously empathizes with his frustration. Meanwhile, on Cemetery Ridge, Gen. Meade arrives to ask if his subordinates have put his army in a good defensive position. Buford and others assure him it is “good ground”. Buford pats himself on the back for “holding the high ground”.
the 20th Maine defends Little Round Top

Rebels advance up Little Round Top

      The second big set piece takes place on Little Round Top where the 20th Maine is stationed on the very end of the Union line. Chamberlain is ordered to hold his position at all costs. The situation is clearly outlined for the audience through some more speechifying. The subsequent series of assaults by Alabama infantry that culminates in hand to hand fighting and finally in a bayonet charge are the high water mark of the film. The second day ends with the Union still holding its fishhook line on Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top.

     The last day is portentously set up by the melodramatic story of pre-Civil War BFFs Gen. Armistead (Louis Jordan) and Union Gen. Hancock. Armistead tells Longstreet of their teary parting at the beginning of the war and his desire for a reunion in the midst of the battle. This effectively adds a human element to the next day’s carnage. At Lee’s headquarters, the joy-riding Stuart returns to a wood-shed moment from the fatherly Lee. The encounter accurately reflects Lee’s command style of giving his generals lots of room for initiative and then gently scolding them if their decisions are flawed.

      The third set piece is the famous Pickett’s Charge. It is shown in what seems like real time. The plan is outlined by Longstreet to his generals (and the audience). The theme of Longstreet’s reluctance to launch what he is sure will be a failed attack reappears. The 30 reeanactor cannons fill in noisily for the actual over one hundred. The 5,000 reenactors fill in for the actual 15,000 in Pickett’s Charge. There is a long stretch featuring tracking shots that has no dialogue and relies on the beating of drums that evolves into the score. The Rebels march stoically into a metal storm of first shrapnel, then canister, and finally volleys. One has to admire the dedication of those men. As to why they did it, there is a telling moment when Armistead bucks up a cringing youngster with the question “what will you think of yourself in the morning?” He responds with “I won’t think too highly of myself, but at least I’ll be alive to think!” Just kidding – he continues on after properly being shamed into doing the honorable thing.

      The movie reaches a second climax (the first being the bayonet charge) with Armistead (hat on sword) reaching the Union line but falling mortally wounded. Jordan gets to chew the scenery with his death scene including a wheezing begging of forgiveness from Hancock. On the other side of the corpse strewn field, Lee rides among the survivors taking the blame for the disaster and encountering the distraught Pickett who cannot reform his division because “General Lee, sir, I have no division”.

CLOSING: Joshua Chamberlain and his brother Thomas embrace as the sun goes down. The closing credits tell us what happened to the main characters. Pictures of the real historical figures make you feel guilty for laughing at the seemingly ridiculous facial hair of the actors. They actually looked a lot like their characters.


Acting - 6

Action – 9

Accuracy – 9

Realism - 9

Plot - 9

Overall - 10

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Only if they are a Civil War buff. This movie is the anti-“Gone with the Wind”. There is absolutely no romance (except between Armistead and Hancock – which is thankfully unrequitted). In fact only one female speaks in the movie. Interestingly, the line by a Northern belle (“I thought the war was in Virginia”) is uttered by director Maxwell’s daughter. The movie does have a lot of talking and is not graphic in its violence. It is also very educational which might be appealing to some females.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: It amazes me that some critics question the accuracy of the movie. Trust me, you are not going to get more accuracy than this movie. The small faults can be excused by the fact that the movie is technically based on a novel, but the novel is a masterpiece of imagining around historical facts. Shaara imagines conversations and thoughts of the historical figures that populate the movie, but all of it rings true. The movie is faithful to the book and few have questioned the accuracy and authenticity of the book.

     The Battle of Gettysburg is probably the most important battle ever fought on American soil. It lasted three days and involved well over 100,000 men. It would be impossible for any movie to cover the battle in detail. The screenwriter wisely focuses on one key action per day. Buford’s holding action, the defense of Little Round Top, and Pickett’s Charge are adeptly reenacted. The three set pieces are much better and more enjoyable than any documentary could do.

     The strategy and tactics are true to the battle. The command decisions are accurate. The movie does a great job of showing the hows and whys of the battle. There is no historical revisionism here. The motivations of both sides and of the individual leaders are clear, although the movie can be faulted for downplaying the South’s desire to maintain slavery.

     As far as historical realism, anyone who is familiar with historical reenactors knows they are obsessed with authenticity. “Gettysburg” makes fantastic use of this resource. CGI cannot compare to the real thing and reenactors are as close to the real thing as you are going to get. These are people who insist on having the correct buttons on their uniforms. The participation of over 5,000 is incredible. This movie is their shining moment and they have a lot to be proud of. Their participation takes the movie to unparalleled heights of accuracy in tactics, uniforms and equipment, and soldier life. One example will suffice. There is a moment in the Little Round Top scene where a soldier does not use the ramrod to pack down the powder and ball, instead he taps the butt of the rifle on the ground. Only a reenactor would know Civil War soldiers sometimes did this in battle. I have to say that although I still do not know how they decide who will die, these reenactors really stepped up their game in dying. The deaths are not cheesy or ridiculous. Also, some of the reenactors seemingly were given speaking parts and they do a commendable job for amateurs.

Daniels as Chamberlain
CRITIQUE: “Gettysburg” is not a perfect war movie. It has some flaws. The acting is spotty. It appears some of the actors are not motivated by the made-for-TV nature of the production and perhaps their salaries matched their performances. Louis Jordan in particular chews the scenery. This dynamic makes the good performances stand out. Jeff Daniels deserved an Academy Award nomination. Joshua Chamberlain was virtually unknown before the movie and Daniels delivered him the fame he deserves. Chamberlain was a remarkable man and one of the great soldiers of the Civil War. Daniels is brilliant in his portrayal of the reluctant warrior who rises to leadership in the cauldron of battle. He nails the character’s humanity. Tom Berenger’s Longstreet is properly morose (although the movie does not mention the recent deaths of three of his children) and tactiturn. Lang gets Pickett’s flamboyance down pat. Sheen is not great, but his seemingly lackluster performance would have been more acceptable if the movie had alluded to his heart disease.

     The movie has been criticized for its pro-South slant. This reflects the book. Shaara obviously found the “Lost Cause” appealing. It must have been fun imagining the stilted speaking style of the Southern aristocrats. The movie actually edits the speechifying commendably. The brushing over of slavery as the key cause of the conflict is upsetting.
     The sound effects are superb. The sounds of battle are realistic. The cannon fire in particular (while not nearly loud enough) is as close to being there as you can get. More importantly, the score by Randy Edelman is one of the best in war movie history. The music matches the mood perfectly. Do not forget that the score was meant for a TV movie. That is hard to fathom.

a face full of grapeshot
     The combat is well done, thanks again to the reenactors. Unfortunately, due to the PG nature of TV movies (at least ones made in the 1990s), the violence is not graphically realistic. There is little bloodshed. An R-rated version would have been awesome. There is one cool shot where some Rebels get a face full of grapeshot, but there is no spray of blood. The hand to hand combat on Little Round Top is cool.

     The movie does a great job in teaching the battle. The narration and map at the beginning establish the situation and the dialogue makes it clear what the big picture is throughout the battle. I can think of no other war movie that attempts to tell the story of a specific historical battle that does a better job in replacing the written word. It is superior to “Waterloo”, “Midway”, “Pearl Harbor”, etc. in this respect.

CONCLUSION: “Gettysburg” has been harshly judged by critics who are not familiar with the Civil War, The Killer Angels, or the way people talked and groomed in the 1860s. I’ll grant you the beards look fake, but if you stick around for the closing credits, you will see that the actors look a lot like their characters. Even a minor figure like Harrison is a lookalike. Such fidelity to accuracy was not necessary, but indicates the care with which the movie was made. If you criticize the screenplay, you are essentially criticizing a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. The movie follows the book very closely. The dialogue is almost word for word from the book, which is a good thing. The scenes in the book are replicated in the movie with the only significant difference between the book and the movie being the fact that the movie deletes some scenes. It could be argued that the movie improves on the book. There is little reason to read the novel if you see the movie.

      “Gettysburg” is very underrated at #46. There are several movies ahead of it which I have seen, but not reviewed yet that are inferior to it. It is a classic example of how a labor of love can overcome a small budget and low expectations. Many military history buffs rank Pickett’s Charge as one of the top moments in their “if I could witness an event” lists. This movie achieves that dream and throws in one of the all-time great battle scenes (the defense of Little Round Top).

     On a personal note, I took my History Club on a field trip to see this movie during its brief run in the theaters.  We had to travel two hours to see it.  It was worth it, although I can't say the students were thrilled with the length.

the trailer

fix bayonets!


  1. I had a hard time watching it, not because it wasn't good, I thought it was and to me it did ooze authenticity, no, I always, forgive, it's very shameful, a hard tim telling parties apart and I had a hard time understanding them as well. So I read the English subtitles and some of the scenes were so highly populated that it was hard to keep an eye on the subtitles and look who was killing whom.
    I will have to watch it again on a bigger screen and - ha - maybe read the novel first (even if it isn't part of the readalong, I do intend to read it).
    I didn't doubt those beards but they looked silly.
    Those re-enactors are amazing. They really put a lot into it.
    I think this is one of the best reviews you wrote.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I am rereading the book right now and I am amazed at how closely the movie follows the book. If you did not know better, you would swear the book was a novelization of the movie. Much of the dialogue is straight from the book.

    This might help your confusion - the Yankees are wearing blue and the Rebels are wearing everything else but blue (and they even wore that earlier in the war).

    I think the quality of the beards is attributable to the low budget of a made for TV movie.

  3. I appreciate your "cliff's notes" version of Gettysburg. Sure, it's a great movie but, at 4 hours long...a bit painful - especially for someone like me who usually isn't a fan of war movies.

  4. It's definitely not for the average viewer - unless they have to write a report on Gettysburg and don't like to read. However, we are talking about a three day battle so how do you cover it in less than 4 hours? I find the length to be appropriate especially when you consider that it was meant to be a miniseries, not a theatrical movie.

  5. A snippet of your review will appear on War Through the Generations on Dec. 5. Thank you for continuing to participate in our challenges. We hope to see you in the new year with WWI

  6. Thanks for this great review. I found the characters very moving. The realism of the dusty roads and the long walks made me realize how the soldiers had to feel very strongly about the issues. Longstreet, Chamberlain and his brother were the triangle that helped me understand best. Thanks for the new insights.

  7. Thank you for your kind words. By the way, many soldiers died on the march due to heat exhaustion. Can you imagine doing that in woolen uniforms?

    Actually, the men were not motivated by the issues. American soldiers have always been predominately motivated by peer pressure. You march, fight, and die because you do not want to let your buddies down. Many of the Southern soldiers did not own slaves or really care about states' rights (few young Americans have ever cared about politics). Many of the Northern soldiers were racist when it came to blacks and were not fighting to abolish slavery. In fact, there were riots in New York City when the draft was instituted partly because men did not want to risk their lives to end slavery. Chamberlain is not a typical Northerner.

  8. If four hours is too much for one sitting for someone I would suggest watching until the intermission (which is half way into the movie) and then watching the rest
    when they feel like it. Whatever the case it's
    definitely a great movie.

    I didn't find the movie to be "Pro-South". I thought
    it presented a balanced view of BOTH sides of the war.
    I think critics calling it "Pro South" are really
    just "Anti South" and they are upset that a movie
    doesn't totally demonize the South.

  9. I am a Tennessean I was raised a stones throw from the Stones River. My Family history tells many stories of how the northern troops were to southerners it was a free-for-all. At most every southern estate they were killing indiscriminately, raping women, urinating and crapping in their fresh water wells, and food stores that they could not carry. I am a Proud Southerner and I am married to a woman of color.
    I was always told it was States Rights, it wasn't until I entered the public school system that I was told it was About Slavery.

  10. I can tell which side you are on based on your reference to Stones River instead of calling it the Battle of Murfreesboro.

    As teacher I take a multi-causal approach to the Civil War, but I strongly believe slavery was the most significant cause. The movie certainly vocalizes the Southern argument that the war was about states'rights. This is one reason the film leans toward the Confederate side (although not nearly as obviously as "Gods and Generals").

  11. Reading this for fun, trying to find comments about the fake beards. However, it seems hard to think you know a person's side simply because they are used to hearing a battle site referred to in the local terminology. Even if you are quite familiar with the various histories, you still name battle sites the way you heard it as a youth.
    Since Chamberlain and his anti-slavery speeches are the highlight of the film, I find it hard to say the movie leaned to the southern cause--rather, it presented the popular view of many in the south at the time. remember the scene where Tom Chamberlain talks to a prisoner who said he was fighting for "our rats." No, the southern view is never seriously given weight.

  12. In one scene so many of the guys portraying the 20th Maine are wearing black slouch hats they look like they should be the 20th Illinois instead. Vicksburg rather than Gettysburg.

  13. If that's the best complaint you have I would say the movie did an outstanding job. I did notice that a bunch of people walked out of the theater over that. LOL

  14. I love this movie. In fact it is my most favorite movie of all.

    The only "flaw" it has is if you have not read "The Killer Angels", it is easy to misunderstand it. In fact, I just took one critic to task for not reading the book in this point-by-point critique of his review of "Gettysburg" I just did:

  15. I read your post and you make some interesting points. My big problem with most of the negative reviewers is they don't know much about the Civil War and the battle and thus assume the movie is trite when in reality that is the way soldiers talked and behaved. Some even criticized the facial hair when if you stick around for the credits you will see that the actors looked remarkably like the real persons.

    The movie was also criticized for being pro-South when this simply reflects the Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

  16. Great movie and a great review. It has been a long time since I have watched it but I remember being reminded of a Shakespearean tragedy with the occasional "soliloquies" from the various characters. Some of my friends found those monologs to be a bit mawkish but I think it was an effective way to establish their motivation. I agree with you about Martin Sheen, probably not his best work. He was probably miscast for the part. On the other hand, we're talking about Marse Robert. Who's going to play THAT part and not face some chilly criticism?

    1. I thought Martin Sheen did a good job. But not mentioning that Lee just wasn't himself made Sheen look like he was just "mailing it in".

      I had a friend at the time that was incensed at the portrayal of Lee as anything other than the greatest General ever. When I tried to tell him that some people thought Lee was having heart issues at the time of Gettysburg he got very, very mad at me, said it just didn't happen.

    2. People do not realize how much health plays a role in some of the turning points in history. If Lee had not been suffering from the effects of the heart condition that eventually took his life, he probably would have won this battle and the war. I think the movie made the assumption that the audience was aware that he was not on top of his game. Your analysis of Sheen's performance is spot on. He portrayed Lee as exhausted, which was appropriate. This whole scenario reminds me of Waterloo where Napoleon's health was a factor.

  17. I have friends that just could not believe soldiers would charge right at cannons, as they did during Pickett's Charge. I tried to explain that it was an infantryman's highest honor to capture a cannon...but they wouldn't believe me.

    As to how the re-enactors know who is supposed to die: A Unit is told "You're playing the 12th Ohio here, and they took 20% casualties at this spot." So they draw straws or whatever to see who "dies" at that spot. I saw a very large reenactment at Perryville several years ago. When the Rebs fired in to the Union line and the boys in blue dropped dead it sent shivers down my spine and the crowd moaned. Instinctively we know when someone "drops dead" as opposed to the Hollyweird version of bullets throwing bodies back. The crowd and I were both just stunned.

    1. I'm not disputing your comment about the incentive of capturing a cannon, but I would argue the prime reason for the seemingly suicidal attacks like Pickett's Charge is the same for all American wars - peer pressure. You go forward into the cannon's maw because your buddies are going. Same reason why Marines waded over a coral reef to get to Tarawa. Only in the Civil War, you would have to add in honor.

      I love the reenactment story.

      I would like to correspond with you.

  18. The one casting choice that bothers me the most is General Hood, who should be a lot younger than the actor playing him. He's a minor character in the movie, so it is very forgivable, but he's a major character in the war as a whole and it would have been an added bonus if they could have shown a bit more of his character and foreshadowed his later role and fate.

    1. Sorry, I'm more interested that they get a good actor than that they get an actor that looks like the historical character. Hood would make a good biopic. He certainly had his ups and downs.

  19. I disliked the treatment of Gen Meade (the book is worse).He was the better general there. Shaara used Longstreet's memoir as his source and boy does it show.

    1. He does come off as something of a figurehead in the movie, as Hancock seems to be providing the bulk of the actual army leadership in the film and Meade seems merely content to ratify his commanders' decisions. But wasn't Meade a fairly restrained figure during the battle as well? Not that it served his army badly, though he is usually criticized for not aggressively following up on Lee during his retreat after the battle.

    2. The movie gets the Union command dynamic accurate. Meade was a war council type general and was more worried about not losing rather than winning the battle. He was, however, exactly what the army needed during the battle. Not so much after.

    3. Meade has been criticized for too active during the battle.During the 2nd day he was told of a breakthrough and drew his sword to await it. The Council of war was because at Chancellorsville Hooker

    4. had held one and ignored the results infuriating Meade who wanted to stay-Hooker subsequently misrepresented the vote-further annoying Meade. He wanted the record straight

    5. For some reason Meade is involved in a lot of stories that make him look slightly silly, from complaining about being called a "goggle-eyed snapping turtle" to feuding with the press to getting caught in the middle of a tirade from the First Lady to riding around bareheaded and cheering at news of Lee's surrender. Perhaps it is because he normally looked so serious, and people liked to remember the stories where he lost his usual calm.

    6. I agree with your theory. Meade deserves better from history.

  20. I liked the movie. And your right, would have been much better if it were an R rated film, but I understand the times when it was made, budgeting, made for TV etc.
    What would be totally magnificent is if some film maker with the budget, & balls, would make a CW film, say about Antietam ( bloodiest day in American history) or Shiloh, or 30 yrs. later a new Gettysburg with "Saving Private Ryan" type scenes, not over the top of course, just realistic, show people just how horrible war at this time was. Give them a since of what a slow velocity .69 calibre mine bullet, or an iron cannon ball did to human flesh & bone. Maybe give/reignite a newer American generation as to what this war was about.

  21. All the experts here lol.

  22. Only complaint was the acting when soldiers are shot and dying. Most was way over dramatic and phony looking. Over acting when getting shot, stabbed with a bayonet, sword etc ruins the effect.


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