05 December 2007 by Published in: General musings 29 comments

Reader Billy left this in a comment to my last post: Regarding the movie GETTYSBURG, I hope you will sometime post a critique of it. As an amateur battle historian I thought it was pretty accurate although I agree that the acting was not the best in some cases. But overall I like the movie and usually watch it every July 3. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried watching it the first time. Some of my Confederate family members made the trip with Pickett that day (or should I say they preceded Pickett that day) and two of them lay now in unmarked graves some where on that field without even a stone to mark their passing. But I remember them and admire their bravery that day.

In any case I would LOVE to hear a thoughful critique of the movie and comments from fellow posters

Billy, your wish is my command.

Billy is referring to Ron Maxwell’s Gettysburg, facetiously known to many as “The Movie”.

The first time I saw the movie was on a big screen in a theater, so I found it terribly moving. Parts of it are powerful. I saw it with a friend who is an SCV member who had ancestors who crossed that field with Pickett, and he was sobbing like a baby.

However, it’s critical to remember that this is a Hollywood movie based on a novel, Michael Shaara’s magical The Killer Angels. This means that the movie picks up on all of the inaccuracies contained in the novel. As just one example, during the early scenes addressing the first day of the battle, Sam Elliott’s John Buford (by far, THE best casting and portrayal in the movie) is seen huddling with brigade commanders William Gamble and Thomas Devin, and Gamble’s character goes off on a rant about how Buford’s troopers held against Longstreet’s infantry at Thoroughfare Gap. Nice scene, good dramatic effect. The biggest problem, of course, is that Buford did no such thing. When the fighting occurred at Thoroughfare Gap on August 28, 1863, Buford’s brigade was nowhere near there. Instead, Longstreet encountered stubborn resistance from Union infantry. This inaccuracy was plucked from The Killer Angels verbatim. There are a number of other problems like this.

I’ve always thought that the combat in the movie is depicted far too antiseptically. There’s no blood, and there’s no real violence. The experience of combat just isn’t really captured. Maxwell always said that he didn’t want it to be too violent or too bloody, but it just doesn’t accurately capture the hell of Civil War combat. The depiction of Buford’s stand is not accurate in terms of how things actually played out.

I also think that Ron Maxwell is an atrocious director. He just doesn’t have the ability to create a compelling movie, and only flashes of this movie are compelling. There are just too many long, boring campfire scenes. He didn’t require his actors to be realistic in their depictions like Sam Elliott was–you will note that Elliott’s uniform is the only one that is dirty and dusty. The rest look like they’re dressed up in the Sunday finery and look like they never went on a long march. For the most part, the uniforms look brand new.

Maxwell also allowed Martin Sheen to play Robert E. Lee any way he wanted, irrespective of how it was written or how the real Lee conducted himself. Robert E. Lee never, ever would have been seen walking around camp in his shirt sleeves and with his vest unbuttoned. Proper Victorian gentlemen did no such thing.

One of the opening scenes of the movie is of the spy Harrison being confronted by a rotund, old Confederate sergeant. I’ve seen lots of photos of Confederate soldiers, but I can honestly say that I have never seen one that was a fat old man. Confederate soldiers typically didn’t have the rations to be fat. It’s laughable.

The movie places way too much emphasis on Little Round Top and on Pickett’s Charge, to the exclusion of other important aspects of the battle. There is, for instance, no mention of the brutal, close-in fighting for Culp’s Hill. Had the Confederates driven the Federals from the trenches along Culp’s Hill, the battle would have been over. Likewise, George Sears Greene’s defense of Culp’s Hill was at least as heroic as Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top, but doesn’t even get a mention.

That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have its moments. I thought that it was a real shame that Jeff Daniels did not receive an Oscar nomination for his moving portrayal of J. L. Chamberlain. The same holds true for Elliott’s depiction of Buford. Although only on the screen for a few minutes, Elliott steals the movie and holds you rapt as he brings John Buford to life. Richard Jordan’s portrayal of Armistead was quite good, as was Stephen Lang’s George Pickett. I thought Tom Berenger was good too, even though he distinctly looked like a man with a dead animal on his face and not a beard.

The scenes of the preparations for Pickett’s Charge were well done and quite impressive, and the spontaneous demonstration in favor of Sheen’s Robert E. Lee that broke out (that really was spontaneous and did not appear in the script) was indeed quite a moving sight. So was hearing Jeff Daniels order the bayonet at the climax of the Little Round Top scenes.

That movie easily could have been nearly an hour shorter without the weepy campfire scenes, and little would have been missed. Instead of a bloated and boring movie that’s far too long, it could have been short and sweet and very powerfully presented. In the hands of another director, instead of a hack like Maxwell, it could have been a great film.

I can’t be completely negative about it, though. It has introduced a lot of people to the Battle of Gettysburg, and has generated interest in the Civil War in young folks who might not have had an interest otherwise, and for that reason alone, it’s a worthy film.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. dan
    Wed 05th Dec 2007 at 11:54 pm

    If you want see Gettysburg, don’t bother. Read “Killer Angels” instead. Also, know that Jeff Shaara is not half the writer that his father was, avoid everything he has written on the Civil War. Also, the charge of the Army of Tennessee at Franklin was over two miles of open ground without any artillery prep, while Pickett had to contend with one mile and had a two hour artillery barrage to prepare the way (and inform the Yanks that he was coming). As a former yank, I appreciate the sacrifice of your hero ancestors of Picketts’ Charge, and as an American, too. Gettysburg is just a bad movie. It’s bad because it was created and filmed as a TV series then the marketing folks determined to market it as a movie for theatrical release. It just doesn’t work. Need a good Civil War movie… Gone With the Wind. This is not THE movie by any stretch. Hollywierd has never really done a very good job with the War. Watch Ken Burns’ Civil War instead. Off hand I can’t really think of a great Civil War film. But, most importantly stay clear of Jeff Shaara’s so-called Civil War novels, they are utterly awful.

  2. Wed 05th Dec 2007 at 11:56 pm

    Dan,

    I wholeheartedly agree with you about Jeff Shaara.

    Eric

  3. dan
    Thu 06th Dec 2007 at 12:16 am

    sorry for the 2nd post… GLORY is an excellent movie.

  4. Mike Nugent
    Thu 06th Dec 2007 at 8:31 am

    I’d agree with most of the points made about “Gettysburg”. Despite their flaws though, I like both the novel “The Killer Angels” and the movie and recommend them with the important caveat that they are NOT history.

    “Gettysburg” is a faithful adaptation of “The Killer Angels” a novel told within a relatively accurate historical context. As has been mentioned, “The Killer Angels” contains numerous inaccuracies and factual errors which “Gettysburg” not only repeats, but in some cases amplifies. To put it mildly, a great deal of “artistic license” was taken. As reenactors were used for extras, the movie features representatives from all aspects of that hobby, from the very authentic to the downright laughable.

    While it’s easy to nit-pick the mistakes and inaccuracies in the movie, I don’t think you can deny its value. “Gettysburg” sparked a huge resurgence in interest in the actual events of the battle and in the Civil War in general. Taking that one step farther, the resurgence in interest in the War has yielded new scholarship (obviously you still have to sort the wheat from the chaff) as well as preservation and restoration efforts. In fact one of the first major steps towards the restoration of the GNMP to its 1863 appearance (burying the overhead power and telephone lines along the Emittsburg Road) was paid for by the movie’s production company.

    The movie’s impact went well beyond the GNMP and extended to Civil War sites around the country. The “Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum” (his former home) in Brunswick, ME, used to get five or six hundred visitors per year (its only opened seasonally). The year following the release of the movie, it got fully ten times that and nearly fifteen years later it still gets a great many visitors who first heard of Joshua Chamberlain in the movie.

    I am not usually a fan of historical fiction but I see its real value as the motivation for some to look into the actual history behind the fictionalized story. “The Killer Angels” and “Gettysburg” were doubtlessly the seed that started a good many students of the Civil War on their way.

    All-in-all a net gain IMHO.

  5. Stephen Keating
    Thu 06th Dec 2007 at 10:37 am

    As far as Culp’s Hill is concerned, wasn’t there a scene cut out that shows Lee confronting Ewell and friends about the failure to take it on the first day? Not that this addresses your observation about Gen. Greene. I have noticed that in the begining of the film an actor protraying Ewell is mentioned, but never seen. Guess I have to wait for the Directors Cut.

  6. Mike Peters
    Thu 06th Dec 2007 at 11:30 am

    Dan wrote the following:

    “Need a good Civil War movieโ€ฆ Gone With the Wind.”

    Dan,

    Can’t agree with you on this one. While I am a Clark Gable fan, I don’t think that GWTW is truly a Civil War movie. It is a movie about Scarlet O’Hara, who happens to live in the South during the War of the Rebellion. Not enough war scenes, too much melodrama, IMHO.

    Now for old CW movies I’d cast my vote for either “Red Badge of Courage” or “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”

    Mike

  7. Chuck
    Thu 06th Dec 2007 at 12:09 pm

    Glory and Red Badge of Courage are both good films. Another interesting little film is “Pharaoh’s Army”.

  8. Alton Bunn
    Thu 06th Dec 2007 at 12:43 pm

    There has already been an extended version of The Movie. You used to be able to get the boxed set that contained it and TBS or TNT used to broadcast it. It includes the only scene with Ewell. I have it and the extra material bogs it down IMHO, though I liked the scene where Buford’s voices his opinion about politicians.

  9. billy
    Thu 06th Dec 2007 at 1:05 pm

    I have enjoyed the thoughful comments about the film. I can not disagree with any of them either pro or con. I think the movie has flashes of greatness and lots of less than greatness.

    For me the most interesting portion is the Pickett’s Charge sequence which seemed pretty accurate to me. Have you ever wondered what a brigade of Confederate infantry looked like as it moved out of the woods to the edge of the field into line of battle? It is there. Have you ever tried to imagine the sound of a regiment of Confederate infantry as it fixes bayonets and shoulders arms? It is there. The shouted commands? They are there too. Have you been curious as to the speed of a Confederate divison as it marches in line of battle over open ground? It is there. What was it like at the Copse of Trees? It is there too.

    So for me, I am willing to overlook the flaws in favor of those parts which are realistic and great. Those parts which are great are enhanced by a fine musical score. And in that end–while it entertainment, not history–I think the movie offers much to those folks who are curious about the battle of Gettysburg.

  10. Mike Nugent
    Thu 06th Dec 2007 at 1:34 pm

    Thanks for the reminder about the soundtrack. It really is superb.

  11. Dan
    Thu 06th Dec 2007 at 3:54 pm

    >I thought Tom Berenger was good too, even though he distinctly looked >like a man with a dead animal on his face and not a beard.

    It’s funny, your choice of words here, Eric; I remember reading an essay by William C. Davis that referred to the movie and took issue with, among other things, “the restless beaver miscast as Longstreet’s beard”.

  12. Dan
    Thu 06th Dec 2007 at 5:11 pm

    I really liked “Gettysburg” when I first saw it in the theater; repeated viewings have tended not to fare as well, and now I mostly see the flaws.
    Still, it’s no worse, and in several cases much better, than that “other” movie (“Gods & Generals”).

  13. Scott Smart
    Thu 06th Dec 2007 at 6:33 pm

    Considering the problem of trying to depict something like Gburg, I think the movie did a creditable job, and I value the work Brian Pohanka did on it. For me, I think it does the best job of showing the scope of battle warfare in this period. What I consider its shortcoming is that in most movies designed in this way, there is a contrast of the two opposing headquarters. In this one, that is lacking. I guess that is symptomatic of the novel (and carried to horrendous extreme in G&G). It seems like the idea of Meade being awakened on the eve of the battle, and told he was to relieve Hooker (and knowing that Reynolds would refuse to do so for very good reasons) would be very dramatic. You could do alot with that, the tension with Butterfield and Sickles, etc.

    (And of course, the third day cavalry battles would be of interest :))

  14. Thu 06th Dec 2007 at 6:41 pm

    Scott,

    I actually agree with you about a lot of this. Your point about Meade is very well-taken. Meade is barely mentioned, let alone portrayed.

    Brian told me lots of stories about trying to rein in Maxwell and the actors. He failed miserably with Martin Sheen, as I mentioned above.

    Eric

  15. Matt McKeon
    Thu 06th Dec 2007 at 9:09 pm

    I think Sheen gets a bum rap. He’s dumpy in uniform and awkward on a horse, but he did have a clear idea of how to play Lee: out of touch in a scary way. Its a point of view.

    I thought Lang as Pickett was great. A brave man, a believer, with the failure of the attack, its not just a military loss, its a loss of faith.

    Other points:
    Many are killed in the movie, but none bleed. Many are thrown comically in the air, but no one loses an arm or a head.

    Excluding incidents from the battle is OK actually, I mean, you’re got to do it. Skipping Greene’s defense of Culp’s Hill, or a dozen other worthy incidents is unavoidable. Excluding classes of people is a problem. Instead of the umpeeth campfire scene, what about a field hospital? Where are the thousands of slave laborers in Lee’s army?

    Improved scenes: Longstreet and Fremantle. I loved when Fremantle replies to Longstreet about the English Civil War “that was ages ago. We wouldn’t dream of it now.” But later Longstreet shoots down Fremantle’s idea of a Anglo Confederate Alliance: England wouldn’t support a slave owning republic. Longstreet then muses: “We shouldn’t have freed the slaves first, then seceded.” Fremantle could have capped the conversation with “You’re rather missing the point of your cause, old chap.”

    What about Pickett’s Charge done by POV camera. Gasping for breathe, vision of backs, comrades on each side, ghastly bodies step over.

    Some of the acting by bit players is amazingly wooden.

    If the details were a little off, I really don’t care. Cap badges wrong, wrong shade of blue, rifles a model from a year later. Who cares?

  16. Thu 06th Dec 2007 at 10:37 pm

    The point about the lack of blood is absolutely correct. In my view, this is actually a positive thing about the movie. It means that it can be shown to younger students and they can get some idea of what war is like, without the blood and gore of Glory which is rated R and can’t be shown to younger students.

    And I honestly think that the soundtrack is one of the best ever. It’s absolutely perfect for the film and it sounds great even on its own.

  17. Steve Basic
    Fri 07th Dec 2007 at 3:03 am

    Evening all,

    I was fortunate to see the movie in a theater as well, and IMHO works better on the big screen than TV.

    As many have said, it is based on a novel. Obvious to me when Michael Shaara was writing this, he never went to Culp’s Hill as the Greene story is just as important as JLC on LRT.

    Buck Taylor as Gamble was very good as well, and one of my favorite performances in the movie. As for the actor who played Devin, J.D. would have done the part better. ๐Ÿ™‚

    The soundtrack is one of the lasting legacies of the movie, as it pops up every now and then on Olympics coverage, and various other sporting events. Randy Edelman’s master work composing wise, and just check out other movies he has written music for, and not even close to what he accomplished scoring Gettysburg.

    Highly recommend if you can find the 2 cd special edition set of the soundtrack, get a copy.

    Glad to see that Pharoah’s Army was mentioned as well. Very good movie, and for those who have not seen Ride With The Devil, check that one out as well.

    Regards from the Garden State,

    Steve

  18. Steve Basic
    Fri 07th Dec 2007 at 3:06 am

    One last, and am just curious…Has anyone read Pettigrew’s book??

    I am Kilrain, and I damn all gentleman.:)

    Steve

  19. Mike Nugent
    Fri 07th Dec 2007 at 7:02 pm

    Regarding the lack of gory violence: Keep in mind that “Gettysburg” was originally intended to be aired as either a made for TV movie or a mini-series, I can’t remember which. When Ted Turner saw an initial screening he made the decision to turn it into a full blown, “big screen” production.

  20. Charles Bowery
    Mon 10th Dec 2007 at 7:12 am

    THERE IS NO TIME FOR THAT, GENERAL!!!!!!!
    Sorry Eric, had to get that in once you raised the topic of The Movie. I hope Ethan Rafuse is reading. Oh, and the ground is strewn with boulders over here. ๐Ÿ™‚

  21. Mon 10th Dec 2007 at 6:26 pm

    Get it right, Charles. The line is “We have no time for that now, General!”. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Eric

  22. sync04me
    Fri 28th Dec 2007 at 5:39 pm

    What is needed is a “Saving Private Ryan” type movie about the civil war.

  23. JM
    Fri 29th Aug 2008 at 2:18 am

    Just a comment from one of the FX crew about the blod and gore stuff.
    We were quite prepared to make it gory, we even had some actual amputees on hand who had volunteered to “lose” their limbs again for the sake of the film. Almost all of this was vetoed by those on high.
    There was some blood, I spent enough hours making blood hits in the FX shack at any rate.

    There was also an extensive field hospital scene shot, using the same barn that masquerades as the Codori barn in other scenes. Like several other scenes it was cut to make the movie under 6 hours ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Brian P did his level best, he really did try. I overheard Ron Maxwell telling him at one point “Brian, you just can’t fight us on everything…” I remember seeing him going around adjusting the gear on the extras, trying to do what he could. RIP Brian, I’ll always remember my pard tackling you into the mud at Cedar Creek in that lovely uniform ๐Ÿ˜‰

  24. Ralph Miller
    Wed 14th Jan 2009 at 5:08 pm

    Can anyone tell me how I can purchase a copy of the extended version that has Ewell in it? I too agree that as a factual presentation of the battle it is lacking in a lot of areas, but it is entertaining. My wife will not watch the movie with me, because I am always commenting to her about the mistakes.

  25. Chris
    Fri 10th Apr 2009 at 4:48 pm

    I just watched the movie for the 3rd time during a trip this week. I was curious of what other people thought about the historical accuracy so I found this site.

    A couple thoughts:

    – I also noticed the lack of blood. I didn’t know this was intended to be a tv series. I was thinking that this was filmed before the PG-13 rating (not sure if it was or not). The film could have been more realistic with a PG-13 rating while staying away from an R rating that would limit it’s audience.

    – Thought the Chamberlain portrayal was brilliant. Also thought Longstreet was very good. Agree with the comment about the beard.

    – Got tired of seeing guys hit with a ball (they were still using balls with rifled muskets, right?) and his body jerks and then he just falls dead….as if a bullet to the right shoulder would cause instant death.

    – One big problem with Pickett’s Charge scene: How convenient that the Federal battery was shelling the area where the Confederates were forming up in the trees, yet when the Confederates emerged from the trees to form their lines the Federal guns went silent and stayed silent until the Confederates were halfway up the hill. I think it would have been even more impactful if the Confederates had been forming up under a steady barrage of cannon fire.

  26. Wyatt
    Mon 03rd Jan 2011 at 11:04 pm

    To Chris: The fact that the guns stayed silent as the Confederates were on their way up the hill was for historical accuracy. It was a ploy by the Union to make the Confederates think that the artillery guns had run out of ammo or jammed.

  27. Peter
    Fri 05th Apr 2013 at 5:03 pm

    If Chamberlain defended the Union right flank with the 20th Maine, can someone please tell me where the two Wisconsin Iron Brigade units that were on his right, where we’re they in the fight. I stood at the end of the union line I 2003 marveling at the monument of the 20th Maine but couldn’t help but notice the two monuments yet further to the right.

  28. Bryan Cheeseboro
    Mon 03rd Jun 2013 at 1:27 pm

    I just watched the DC of the movie this weekend (I have the Limited Edition G&G/Gettysburg box set). Also, I’m currently reading the Time-Life book “Gettysburg” from the excellent “Voices of the Civil War” series.

    Like others here, I really enjoyed the movie when I saw it in the theatres years ago. But I’ve learned a lot more about the war since that time and, as with many period movies, this one is full of inaccuracies. One thing that really sticks out to me is the lack of a Black presence in thie film, as some have talked about here. No, I’m not talking about “Black Confederate soldiers;” I’m referring to the Black Confederate camp servants and laborers who were an essential part of the Army of Northern Virginia. And the movie (the original theatrical release) offers really nothing on the impact of the battle on the Gettysburg civilians, including the free African-Americans residing in Southern Pennsylviania, many of whom were kidapped by the ANV and sold into slavery. “Gods & Generals” managed to include a civilian perspective… it’s too bad “Gettysburg” could not have done the same.

    I agree with Eric that Ron Maxwell is a disappointing choice to make movies on an event as important as the Civil War. What I would most like to see is a multi-episode, HBO-style (think “Band of Brothers”) series on the war from as many perspectives as possible: Union, Confederate, White, Black (slave and free), immigrant, etc.

  29. Tom Spivey
    Fri 21st Mar 2014 at 1:59 pm

    To Peter: Chamberlain did not defend the right of the Union line at Gettysburg. His position was on the back slope of Little Round Top, which was the extreme LEFT of the line. The Iron Brigade was not on or anywhere near Little Round Top. On the first day of the battle, they fought on the outskirts of the town in the vicinity of the Chambersburg Pike. After that, they were deployed on Culp’s Hill – THAT was the right flank of the Union line.

    The monuments to the right of the 20th Maine’s on Little Round top were probably monuments to the Pennsylvania and New York units who were deployed to the right of the 20th Maine.

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