Starring: Martin Sheen, Jeff Daniels, Tom Berenger
Period of history in focus: American Civil War (specifically July 1-3 1863)
I chose Gettysburg for multiple reasons: to focus on American history, because it is so epic and ambitious in scope, and for the beards. All right, so maybe not that last part. Although you have to admit the beards in the movie are all fantastic – even the terrible ones are so obviously terrible that they become amusing.
The movie is based on a book by Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels, technically a work of fiction, but a lot of research went into it. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 and covers the battle of Gettysburg from both sides of the war as well as various officers. The movie attempts this same scope, and it’s an impressive piece of work, but at four plus hours you have to start to wonder: couldn’t they have cut something out? In the preface to his novel, Shaara acknowledges that he excluded some minor characters in interest of condensing everything and making it simple enough to follow. The movie, it seems, tried to almost exactly follow the book and in moments suffers for this attempt to leave no novel character behind.
There are some small inaccuracies, but largely these don’t matter. Many of my complaints surrounding the film (and these are mostly small complaints) focus more on the content of the movie and trying to view it as a real movie, not strictly as a history film. However, Gettysburg deserves praise for its ambition and its accuracy, particularly:
– The careful attention that went into representing both sides and not demonizing one or the other
– Showing the grounds, having characters discuss why certain parts of ground and certain battle attacks work so the audience understands how the battles work and the advantages and disadvantages each side had.
– Allowing characters to speak their opinions about the war. While I still believe that the root of the war cannot be divorced from slavery, I appreciate characters speaking out about what they believe and why they’re fighting. Of course not everybody is obsessed with slavery, and it’s important to note that all conflicts contain complexity.
Let’s start with a couple of complaints.
Seeing as how the movie intends to focus on the officers surrounding Gettysburg and how the decisions they made affected the battle (and perhaps…the outcome of the war?) there is barely any of the “common soldier” in the film. We do get a brief glimpse when Chamberlain deals with the mutineers at the beginning of the film, but the men who volunteer to join the group after an inspiring speech are quickly forgotten, and everybody else mainly serves as cannon fodder. I understand the decision – the movie is so crammed with characters and fights already that putting in an additional storyline might feel like too much, but could we get a little more aside from mass mobs yelling?
In an attempt to narrow the focus of his novel, Shaara focused on a core group of men, but the result in the movie makes this disjointed. Early on we get Chamberlain marching with his men and Buford moving in to defend the high ground. After this battle, Buford essentially disappears from the film and after the battle at Little Round Top, Chamberlain doesn’t get much of anything to do. While Longstreet and Lee pull through the entire film on the Confederate side, I felt like connecting with the Union side was more difficult and we never really get to see Meade or any of the other big players in action. Another result of this decision means that certain aspects of the battle had to be truncated. Certainly Chamberlain defended Little Round Top (and he deserved his Medal of Honor, HOLY CRAP) but he wasn’t the only one who did. The battle on day one, where Buford positions himself and his cavalry against bad odds was a moment of great battle planning, but the day wasn’t a resounding victory on the side of the Union. They lost one of their best generals about half an hour in, and a great deal of men had to retreat through the town proper of Gettysburg, attempting to barricade the streets while civilians crouched in their cellars. The movie tends to lean toward a view that the South’s mistakes cost them every day, whereas the first day might have almost been considered a victory on Robert E. Lee’s end.
Speaking of the Lee’s mistakes, he certainly acted too brashly at Gettysburg. However, I didn’t feel like the movie did a good enough job driving a couple points home: the Southern army had won a huge battle Chancellorsville in Virginia only a couple months before. Going on the offensive had helped Lee to win huge (despite the loss of right hand man, Jackson) and also aided in his decision to move north and try to end the war by bringing battles into new territory. If Lee had won Gettysburg and managed to swing down into Washington DC before the Union army could get there? Who knows what might have happened. Longstreet, who advises caution and defense throughout the film, was not at Chancellorsville and he did not understand Lee’s enthusiasm and complete confidence in his army’s ability. The Confederate army did view Lee in a form of hero worship. They loved him and their willingness to fight for him was a definite advantage over the Union army, who had been under several rather ineffective generals. For people who have not researched the battle or the war, I think Lee can come across as foolish and make a modern viewer wonder why the heck everyone loved him so much. These psychological factors could be further explored.
If we explore the psychological ramifications of battle plans (I am sure you are asking) wouldn’t this cause the movie to balloon to five or six hours? Most likely. Here’s my suggestion: cut some of it out. Usually I complain that there’s not enough, they should be more accurate, but in the case of Gettysburg, I think the movie could benefit from less. Cut out a couple of officers and allow us to really connect to these men. Longstreet is great, but they don’t ever mention that his three children had died and what cause this had on his personality. We get only a little bit of Buford and he disappears. Hancock and Armistead are largely reduced for pining after each other. The first time I ever watched this movie, I had a hard time telling people apart and remembering their relationships. The second time, I think I only knew because I’d done the research. We should get to know some of these men better. The spy is a fun touch, but is he needed? What about the single scene Stuart appears in? What about the single scene the disgruntled mutineer appears in? Or the single scene the man complaining about Ewell appears in? These men come in and deliver information and flit out again, surely there’s a better way to center everything.
One final bit before I move onto the (many) admirable qualities of the movie. This a film mostly about battle, but for that there are maybe two shots of women and a single black character. One woman speaks and she only gets one line, “I thought the fighting was in Virginia!” The runaway slave? Says nothing. My brother argued that if he spoke they would have had to pay him, but then why include him at all? Chamberlain and other men on the Union side claim they are fighting to end slavery and free a people, but then when you show a man desperate to gain his freedom you don’t let him speak? I am uncomfortable with white people discussing the plight of slaves in the first place, and then not letting the one slave in the movie speak seems horribly wrong. If he’s not going to talk, don’t show him. There is some role some woman could play somewhere.
Wait. One more thing. Why is Lee wearing a blue coat? I don’t believe this is gray. Somebody please explain this to me.
All right! Let’s move on.
Showing both sides of the conflict
This is the greatest strength the movie has. We have to remember (especially me, from a northern perspective) that the southern side was not some demon army full of horrible slave abusing assholes. Sure, they were in there, but the Union army had it’s share of complete jerks. Allowing a solid half of the movie (possibly more) focus on Longstreet and Lee gives the audience the perspective that both sides of this army are entirely human. The movie is not graphically violent in the sense that many modern war movies are – such as Saving Private Ryan – but it does give an idea of the toll both sides endured.
For the South, I was particularly struck by Longstreet’s comments about how the men were running into slaughter and in the aftermath of the battle when Lee tells Pickett to rally up his division, we get what might be the most stand out line in the movie, “Sir, I have no division.” The look on Lee’s face as it dawns on him what he has done to these men who are completely loyal to him is fantastic. The solidarity of the men of Virginia gives us a sense of how cohesive the Confederate army really was.
On the Union side, I think the best bits go to Chamberlain, played wonderfully by Jeff Daniels. We learn he was a professor, why he feels it is his duty to fight, and a true sense of his character. While he does a great job playing soldier, I couldn’t help but feel the gentleness inside Chamberlain. The battle at Little Round Top is a great moment that shows the desperation of the Union side and the horrible position Chamberlain’s men face. When a couple of the holdout mutineers agree to fight in the middle of this battle and Chamberlain orders to get them guns, his brother replies that there are no guns. Chamberlain’s response: Wait for a minute, and then there will be some available. Because the men with the weapons will die. That filled me with such a sense of horror at war really can be.
The ground and battle tactics
Somebody coming to this movie for mindless action fun is guaranteed to be disappointed. Part of the interest of the film stems from tactics. When Buford arrives at Gettysburg with his cavalry (as the first one to establish himself there), he makes sure that his army takes the high ground and positions themselves in a way that the Confederates are forced to basically run down a lane single file before they can arrange properly. He harps on this point pretty hard, and I laughed a couple times at Sam Elliot’s shouting “HIGH GROUND!” but he got the point across. Where they position themselves is crucial, especially considering how outnumbered Buford and his men are. Divisions in the Confederate army were also larger than in the Union, so what might appear to be about an equal fight (say five Confederate to four Union) is actually a substantial man advantage for the Confederates. The Union divisions marching their way will be traveling quickly and early and will likely be tired upon arrival – particularly Chamberlain’s men.
(Fast forward to about 3:30 to hear Buford)
There is another moment where the audience receives a quick glimpse about the importance of high ground, which concerns Ewell and Cemetery Hill. This is the man who insists he could have taken it with a small number of men. The situation went something like this: Lee ordered Ewell to take men to the hill and determine if he could take it. If not, then he should not charge. When Ewell approached it was already dark and there were men up there. He didn’t feel that losing the men he would have to lose to charge up and take the hill would be feasible. Some people have wondered whether this changed the outcome of the battle. Having a hill is incredibly important. It’s why the South also fights so hard in an attempt to take Little Round Top, which brilliantly shows the desperation and loneliness of Chamberlain’s troops.
The final battle in the film also gets into the issue. Lee wants to charge straight ahead and attack the center. Longstreet wants to move into a defensive position. The Union army expects attacks on the right and left. Lee’s plan here might seem a little suicidal – as Longstreet says multiple times, the Confederate soldiers have about a mile across broad field and THEN they have to climb a fence. How could this possibly work? There is one piece of the plan that might have changed the tone of the battle if it had gone as planned: the artillery. Lee wants to use his cannons to weaken the Union artillery so the charge is not as dangerous. Unfortunately, he could not foresee that this would not work. Apparently, the cannons were working off a Virginia made fuse, and the men were used to working with a fuse that was more slow burning, which made their aim all wrong. Whether they realized this up for question. The other reason Lee decided on this course of action dealt with Chancellorsville – something that really should have been mentioned more in the film – where Lee had won a resounding victory by sending his soldiers directly into the central flank of the Union army.
Longstreet’s defensive suggestion that the army pull back and cut off the Union from Washington DC might have been the more prudent decision, but he hadn’t been at Chancellorsville and Lee was ready to end the war already.
In the end it’s difficult to claim that the Union army won the battle, seeing as how both sides suffered brutal casualties, but Lee was the one who retreated and withdrew to the south.
Why are they fighting?
This is something the movie touches on multiple times, and I think it was a great idea. As I said earlier, I believe that the root of the Civil War does boil down to slavery, but it was more complicated than that. The movie starts with Chamberlain giving his speech about freeing slaves, but moves onto a deal of other perspectives.
It’s not entirely fair to call BS on the southerners who claim they are fighting for their rights. Particularly the poor white men fighting for the Confederates. It’s easy to think of the antebellum south as the land where everybody owned a plantation and dueled each other. In truth, an incredibly small portion of people owned that many slaves. Most slave owners had fewer than ten, and many more than that had none at all. Poor whites were treated badly. They were looked down on by “gentlemen” and struggled to keep up their farms. For awhile, poor white men couldn’t vote because they didn’t own land or didn’t own enough land. To help rally these men to their cause, the richer white men began to draw in the poor men with promises of having a voice in the government and being a unified people. Many of the men who ended up fighting wanted to protect their homes. Keep in mind that most of the fighting happened in the south and the mindset of their culture. A man was the master of his own little universe. In his household he had complete control to do whatever he wanted. So the idea of some foreign government trying to get involved in their personal lives was a slap in the face.
My favorite comment made on this side of the argument comes from Longstreet: We should have freed the slaves before ever declaring war. What would have happened then? Could the south have let go, or was it just the men truly fighting for a Cause? (Fun fact: Robert E. Lee owned no slaves.)
This is an ultimate cause of us vs. them mentality and all of it is intertwined with fighting for basic civil rights and the freedom of people too long oppressed.
Watch the movie! But only if you have four hours to spend. I would also recommend getting a simple guide to the battle before watching the movie as it makes everything easier to follow. And stay true to the beard.
Michael Shaara. The Killer Angels. The novel the movie is based on. The writing can be a little off putting at times, but it is a fantastic layout of the characters and setting for the battle.
James McPherson. Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg. The shortest book you will find on the battle, McPherson leads the reader on a fake tour of the battle ground, explaining various aspects and tactics of the battle.
Stephanie McCurry. Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country. The title might be intimidating, but the book is interesting. McCurry focuses on the poor white population and explains how their lives worked to help give the reader an idea of what they might have been fighting for when the war started.
Mastervision American History Series. Smithsonian’s Great Battles of the Civil War. If you don’t want to read and see it all laid out before you, watch this! Includes all of the large battles you could ever want to know about.
FOR NEXT WEEK:
The next three episodes of The Tudors while I figure out what to watch. Suggestions welcome!