I can’t believe I haven’t reviewed the movie Gettysburg yet. It was only the thing that got this whole historical obsession started in the first place. Fair warning – this is much less of a formal review and much more of an opinion piece since I am certain I have lost the ability to review this movie objectively.
Backstory: Back in 9th grade, the culmination of the unit on the American Civil War involved hiding in a darkened classroom for three days watching this film as a dramatic interpretation of everything we had just studied.
Afterwards, a classmate made an offhand comment about how it compared to the book, which got everyone’s attention because we hadn’t known the film was based on a book. So I had to read the book (Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara). Then it looked like Killer Angels was part of a trilogy, so I read those other two books (prequel Gods and Generals, after which the film was named, and sequel The Last Full Measure, both written by Jeff Shaara.) All three books gave a human voice to these players like nothing I had seen before. So I had to start reading biographies of everyone to see how their fictional selves compared to their real life selves.
And … it just kind of snowballed from there.
Anyway, it was time for my annual rewatch of Gettysburg, which usually takes place during the summer, most likely around the 4th of July. I’m not sure how this became an annual tradition, but it’s a thing. Most likely it started because I wanted to pregame the big reenactment at Gettysburg in the best way I know how.
This is one of my all-time favorite movies, and I sometimes pop it in as background noise. To me it’s as comfortable as a favorite hoodie or snuggling under sheets fresh from the dryer. Ok, that might be a weird analogy for a war movie, but you get the point.
This time, however … I don’t know what happened but I wasn’t quite feeling it. A lot of the things I used to really enjoy were kind of bothersome this time. For example, Tom Berenger as Longstreet’s beard has a grey patch that keeps jumping around between scenes. Or Martin Sheen as Lee had a gravitas that was annoying this time. Also, his southern accent was painful, but even more painful was watching him on a horse. Or C. Thomas Howell’s really, super fake mutton chops as Thomas Chamberlain. Normally I’m quite ok with them but their fakeness particularly bothered. Or the fact that Hancock’s role (admittedly not as robust as I would prefer in the book as well) was almost solely about his relationship with Armistead. Fremantle went from bothersome to straight up annoying. Ellis Spear’s beard of fakeness grated.
Don’t get me wrong, there were still parts I greatly enjoyed, like the live-action shot of G.K. Warren on Little Round top. The actor and his staff were strategically placed to hide the statue representing the same event. I enjoyed the hide-the-monument game the producers did such a good job of. Lawrence was still (mostly) flawless, as was Buster. Tom Chamberlain’s youthful, boyish energy came across much better than in Gods and Generals, probably because the actor was a good 20 years younger now. It was wonderful to see local spots in the background again, like the red barn up the Emmitsburg Pike. I haven’t been through the battlefield in a couple of years now and miss it more than expected.
Another thing I noticed this time was inspired by a blog I follow that had a post comparing the similarities of the art of Winslow Homer and of some scene staging during the film. Much like how I noticed some of the scenes in Gods and Generals were staged like Mort Kunstler paintings, or how the opening credits of Gettysburg compare the historical person’s photographs with their modern actor counterparts. [ youtube link of opening credits here ]
A Mort Kunstler screencap:
A Winslow Homer screencap:
So in general, this particular Gettysburg experience left a lot to be desired. Perhaps next time will be better? What follows are the notes I took while watching the film (in bold), with explanation of the comments to the side in italics:
Opening credit sequence – photos to actors – the main players were pretty decent adaptations of their historical counterparts.
Opening credits photos concept art – one of the opening images is the Winslow Homer painting in sepia tone that is later recreated with Tom Chamberlain and some prisoners.
The sound track ❤ ❤ – nothing quite as grounding as the GB soundtrack
Inability to say cavalry – CA-VAL-RY is the thing with horses. CAL-VA-RY is the place where Jesus died. The actors need to get whacked upside the head every time they say the horse thing wrong.
Southern accents & hair – yikes
Longstreet’s Tan – also yikes
everyone take a shot at longstreet’s beard’s white spot – Historical friend Mel and I used to joke that we should take a shot every time Longstreet’s beard’s white spot moves around.
Martin Sheen vs Robert Duvall – I was very firmly in the Martin Sheen camp until this watching. Does this mean I have to watch Gods and Generals again?
Lawrence!! Maine accents? – Lawrence’s first appearance. Now that I’m paying more attention to it, they definitely attempt Maine accents.
regional ties strong in Maine men too, not just south? – Lawrence is discussing the Maine deserters that his unit is being stuck with, and it made me wonder about the strong regional ties between Northern States. The South obviously had very strong ties to their home states, but it was interesting to see it in the North.
Buford! such maverick so visionary – Buford’s ca-val-ry unit holding off the Confederates because he recognizes the landscape as a thing of strategic beauty. Also Sam Elliot was possibly the best casting choice of the whole movie.
REYNOLDS!! – Reynolds riding up to save the day. I wonder how different the war would have been had he accepted overall command instead of McClellan…
Monument cameo – … I don’t remember which monument this was ..
movie very Lost Cause-y – I forgot who was discussing what, but I was struck again by how this movie very strongly takes the stance that the South went to war more for States’ Rights and less to explicitly keep the institution of slavery.
Fremantle Hurts – do you disagree?
FR CORBY – there is a shot of the Irish Brigade being absolved by Fr. Corby that Hancock witnesses. Go Irish!
Endo f the line. LOL – Lawrence was told he was the end of the line, that the entire Union army stretched out to his right but ends with his unit. It made me think of a recurring theme in the Avengers films between Steve and Bucky, how they’re best friends and with each other till the end of the line.
On location – bedrock – Devil’s Den – One of the reasons they had to do so much filming on site is because of the unique way the bedrock comes through the earth, it would be impossible to find another similar landscape. This is most apparent at Devil’s Den.
Bayonet Charge – Ron Lesser – Of all the historical artists out there, Ron Lesser has my favorite interpretation of the famed Bayonet Charge by Lawrence and the 20th Maine. It might be my computer’s wallpaper. But then again, it might not be.
All the commanders knew each other – One point made at the Local Notables of PHL meeting was that all the commanders on each side knew each other. They all knew McClellan, had gone to school with him, had known he was not likely to bust a move, which is why Lee had so many early successes.
How well was Meade known? – Meade was an engineer. What did the other commanders think he would do?
they knew hancock was the best – Everyone on both sides knew Hancock was one of the best generals on either side.
Hancock meeting chamberlain? – Mixed feelings about this meeting. Maybe if it wasn’t all Hancock waxing poetic about Armistead? Unsure.
How did Confeds resupply? vs reserves? – Before Pickett’s Charge, the artillery commander Porter Alexander is explaining his reserves and how additional ammo was sent to the back. How did things like gunpowder and shot follow them around the country? What kind of logistics went into that? The answer is clearly railroads, but how did that work?
Pickett’s cannonade – Some great aerial shots of whole lines of cannon being shot.
Poor Porter Alexander – Alexander, one of the youngest officers on either side, being told he has to do an impossible job that both he and Longstreet know will fail. Don’t worry, my friend, I too have a boss with unclear/impossible expectations.
Pedigree of Armistead’s brigade? – Before Pickett’s Charge, Armistead lists the pedigree of several members of his brigade to Fremantle. It was kind of unnecessary, unless it built credibility for the validity of his Virginians’ presence in the War.
Why did Kemper ride? – They explained why Dick Garnett had to ride because of a gimpy leg, but why did Kemper ride as well?
Acting vs Horsemanship? – When doing movies like this, how are things like horsemanship weighted against acting ability? Some of the speaking roles looked good on horses and others, like Martin Sheen, looked awful.
Pickett’s charge vs Marye’s Heights – The Irish Brigade at the end of Pickett’s Charge started yelling “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” in a total reverse of Marye’s Heights at the Battle of FB. I thought it was a nice touch.
PA Irish Brigade? – The Irish Brigade yelling “Fredericksburg!” had PA flags. Was there a Pennsylvanian Irish Brigade? The only one everyone talks about is from New York.
Image Source: GK Warren on LRT, 1:47:46
Image Source: Winslow Homer, Prisoners from the Front
Image Source: Gettysburg screencap
Image Source: Battle for Little Round Top, by Ron Lesser
Image Source: Absolution Under Fire, by Paul Wood