A Half-Hearted Review of HISTORY’S “Gettysburg”

I say half-hearted because I only made it through the first hour of the movie.  It was much worse than I had anticipated, but before proceeding.  Of course, I understand that I was not the target audience for this documentary film.  The problems for me started with the opening scenes, which placed the viewer on the battlefield on the morning of the first day without any context whatsoever.  I didn’t find such a move to be dramatic in any way, just confusing.  It goes without saying that I didn’t learn anything new about the battle, but I did appreciate the attempt to highlight the experiences of eight individuals; unfortunately, the script was so disjointed that I found it impossible to identify with anyone in the film.  At one point the issue of escaped slaves was raised and a moment later was dropped.  It seemed completely removed from the broader narrative.

I will leave it to others to point out the mistakes involving uniforms, attack formations, etc.  The biggest disappointment was the movie’s supposed realism.  The problem of representing the horrors of a Civil War battles in film was the subject of a recent post.  Let’s just say that I was yawning by the 10-minute mark of the film.  I couldn’t get beyond the slow-motion sequences of bullets hitting bone and men falling to the ground.  The special effects were also a major disappointment.  Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting an alien to pop out of Lee’s stomach, but I was expecting something more.  The map graphics depicting the movement of troops was little better than the old Gettysburg Electric Map. In fact, I couldn’t pinpoint Ridley Scott’s imprint on the film at all.  Overall, the organization of the film reminded me of their recent American history documentary, America: The Story of Us.  Take a minute to watch a clip and tell me I am wrong.

I turned the channel with even more admiration for what Ken Burns accomplished twenty years ago.

OK…that’s about all I can muster.  What did you think?

35 comments… add one

  • Mike Holcomb May 31, 2011

    I saw Ridley Scott’s imprint in the “Black Hawk Down”/”Gladiator”-ization of the battle scenes. But it seemed like the the battle stuff wasn’t scripted or storyboarded. There was no flow or sense of military objective. Maybe that was the point? I dunno. I thought the talking head material was disappointingly rote and boilerplate…especially given the cast of experts. Like you, I tuned out after an hour. (After the solemnity-piercing…though welcome by that point…Geico caveman commercial with the hapless re-enactors, to be exact.) I’ve got the second hour on the DVR, but it’s not “must see TV” for me based on that first one.

  • Ken Noe May 31, 2011

    Essentially what I watched was battle porn, “Saving Private Ryan” death scenes connected by brief snippets of bad narrative. Not to mention the factual errors, Atari-level CGI, the same three dozen sweaty reenactors, bad beards, William Barksdale’s ever-rearing horse, the “Story of Us” flying minie ball, and shockingly crass commercials that trivialized and commodified Gettysburg in the grand tradition of Gettysburg exploitation. I did like the bad orthodontia.

    • Mike Holcomb May 31, 2011

      Ken: Yeah…that horse was seriously jacked-up. Do you think they drove home the “Barksdale was chomping at the bit” metaphor emphatically enough?

  • Lee White May 31, 2011

    I couldnt muster even that much, after refusing to watch the first playing I caught part of the replay out of morbid sense of curiosity. It was something that almost makes Gods and Generals look good. On the uniforms and tactics, it has nothing redeeming, it is so bad it has done something Ive never seen before, united all the reenactors (authentic and farb) in condemnation of it. They filmed it in South Africa so I guess that can say something about it. I dont think it would help a general audience either, too confusing. Oh well, I could go on, sadly there needs to be a good popular Civil War film, but this isnt it.

  • Bennet Young May 31, 2011

    They did not drop slavery altogether. They made a big point about how many slaves each “highlighted” Confederate owned. Surely they could have found one or two Confederates who fought there who did not own any? Other than that, the main point seemed they tried to do for Dawes what Maxwell’s Gettysburg did for Chamberlain.

    • Kevin Levin May 31, 2011

      You are right. At one point Peter Carmichael made an important point about Barksdale’s commitment to protecting slavery, which is important, but it seemed out of place in the overall narrative given the lack of context in identifying slavery’s overall importance as well as how the war had changed for Confederates following emancipation.

      • Mike Holcomb May 31, 2011

        Honestly? My simplistic, non-ideological takeaway from the Barksdale sequence was, “Barksdale loved slavery. Therefore we have to show him getting his…in slow motion…twice.” (With the mandatory small side-order of valor and courage thrown in, of course.)

        • Mike Holcomb May 31, 2011

          And that he had a jittery horse.

  • Scott Manning May 31, 2011

    For all the hype they gave the film, it was very disappointing. I completely agree with you about the disjointed script and the lack of context that permeated most of the sequences. The film just seemed incomplete. I watched it with several people who knew very little about the battle and they were clearly confused and eventually bored.

    What really bugged me about the whole thing was how small everything felt. The makers splurged on the slow-motion action sequences, but most of the time I was left with my imagination to get over the fact that there were rarely more than 20 guys on the screen. I thought they would at least try to demonstrate what 160 guns looked like before Pickett’s Charge, but they showed less than 10 and told us that Harrisburg could hear them. Then they told us that 12,000 men marched in the charge, yet the most we saw on the screen was less than 50. I expected more with names like Ridley Scott involved.

    Then there was the historical commentary. They had several legitimate historians (e.g., James McPherson). Yet, the guy who got the most time was the “weapons expert” from Pawn Stars whereas McPherson had something like two or three lines. The worst moment was when one of the commentators said that Pickett’s Charge had a legitimate chance of success. Another claimed that Lincoln had fired five generals who commanded the Army of the Potomac (McClellan, Burnside, Hooker, and who else?). Another said that this battle was Lee’s best chance to win the war. Another said that Lee could have threatened Washington. Please!

    There were some good parts to the film. They at least mentioned Culp’s Hill and Sickles, two often neglected aspects of the battle. In addition, there was hardly a mention of Little Round Top. However, these hardly made up for everything else.

    In the end, the film was an incomplete and often inaccurate mess.

    • Ed Norris May 31, 2011

      > Another claimed that Lincoln had fired five generals who commanded the Army of the Potomac (McClellan, Burnside, Hooker, and who else?).

      Well if it’s like our counting of Presidents, McClellan is counted as two. I’m guessing they are referring to Pope, which isn’t correct but he is sometimes lumped in after 1st McCllellan. Or maybe McDowell.

      • Scott Manning May 31, 2011

        Possibly, but McClellan wasn’t fired after the Peninsula Campaign. He was still commander of the Army of the Potomac until after Antietam.

  • Chris Evans May 31, 2011

    I didn’t think it was completely terrible. but I believe the context of the different battles were sadly lacking. Too many key characters and parts of the battle were left out without any mention of them at all. I think documentaries have started to rely too much on recreated battle scenes instead of using paintings, photographs, and maps to a more dramatic effect. Also, things like the terrain they used were at times nothing like the real thing. ‘Gettysburg’ ,for example, made their set look at like Little Round Top. And in the documentary where the heck was example of battlefield courage like the 1st Minnesota and the dramatic story of Oates and Chamberlain. I guess they didn’t want Chamberlain depicted again but they could have told the compelling story of Oates for a different, equally dramatic perspective.
    Thanks for the review,
    Chris

    • TF Smith May 31, 2011

      Okay, I’ll be the contrarian – I thought the production values were very good, and – given the audience and venue – I think the experts interviewed did well. I also think the program did well in regards to the real impact of battle on flesh and bone, and the focus – as the narrator said – on a few selected individuals in the course of a 2 hour (less commercials) program was a reasonable approach.

      I think they deserve an A for several points, including, most significantly, the section on AAs, the economic value of slavery to slaveholders in antebellum America, and the actions of the ANV in the Pennsylvania campaign regarding enslavement; that truly stood out for me.

      If anything, I think they underplayed it, but I appreciated the simple fact it was included. When have those facts ever shown up in a mass market program centered on Gettysburg before?

      I also really appreciated the sections focusing on Amos Humiston and Dawes and the Iron Brigade; nicely done. And the Geico commercial was a hoot.

      Best,

      • Kevin Levin May 31, 2011

        Thanks for adding another perspective.

        • TF Smith May 31, 2011

          Thank you for hosting it; always enjoyable to visit.

          The perfect is the enemy of the good, at times; I think this program was a cut above quite a bit of what gets produced and broadcast, including – unfortunately – a fair bit of the History channel’s output.

          The Grant and Lee one tonight should be interesting, but I have class; I’ll try and record it.

      • Chris Evans May 31, 2011

        The segment on the Iron Brigade was pretty good but it appeared completely out of nowhere. No mention of the help he got from the 95th New York (I believe) in taking the cut.

        Its fine they mentioned the things about slavery but having a documentary on the ‘Battle of Gettysburg’ and not mentioning people like Buford and Hancock that were so crucial to the battle has to bring it down a couple of notches.

        Now that I think about, its surprising that the John Burns story was included in it, also.

        Chris

        • Chris Evans May 31, 2011

          Meant to say John Burns story ‘wasn’t included in it’.

          Chris

  • Those were my thoughts exactly; great minds think alike. Another point, which shouldn’t be surprising, is where were the female historians? McPherson, Carmichael, etc. are esteemed scholars (which is so much better than America: The Story of Us!), but I wondered why they didn’t use someone like Chandra Manning to provide a little diversity among the “talking heads.”

    • Kevin Levin May 31, 2011

      You make an excellent point. They could have interviewed Carol Reardon on military matters and Margaret Creighton on African Americans and Gettysburg.

  • Lyle Smith May 31, 2011

    I never expect much from Hollywood because it is a money making enterprise, and like Brook Brothers apparently did during the Civil War, they often cut some corners. That said I think you’re spot on when you suggest that Gettysburg is comparable to the History Channel’s ‘America: The Story of Us’. I couldn’t watch the whole thing due to other stuff going on at the same time, but what little I saw reminded me exactly of ‘America: The Story of Us’.

    Oh well. Cheap is cheap.

    • I may be wrong, but I think the reason why it reminds us so much of that documentary (and I use that term loosely) is because it had the same narrator and sound effects. Could that be it?

  • Rob May 31, 2011

    I think they only thing that could be worse, is if they actually go through with the Cleburne movie.

  • John G May 31, 2011

    I agree. I anticipated this film with much glee. I thought here would be a great re-telling of the battle. My question is…WHERE WAS JOSHUA L. CHAMBERLAIN? Maybe I nodded off. Quite possibly THE moment of the battle that made things turn around for the north was Chamberlain’s stand on Little Round Top. And the Scott’s did not do it justice. I realize every detail can’t be told but leaving out the Round Tops? Really? I also think that the scenes were shot way to close. And the re-coloring or whatever they did just made things almost look like a comic book. I have an idea, why not do a 3 or four night mini-series on Gettysburg and tell EVERYTHING. The historical significance of the battle alone merits a closer look. Well at least it wasn’t American Pickers or Swamp People or whatever crap they put on.

  • TF Smith May 31, 2011

    “Well at least it wasn’t American Pickers or Swamp People or whatever crap they put on.”

    See – it could be worse!

  • Shane May 31, 2011

    I could barely watch past an hour. Poor people who may want to learn something about the battle are sure to be confused as heck. There were no points of reference about the flow of the fight and for sure you are left in a daze wondering what just happened for the last two hours. Are there any filmmakers out there that can get it right?

    • Kevin Levin May 31, 2011

      It’s a good question. I think one of the problems is that we do not have a visual record of Civil War battles as we do for WWI, WWII, Vietnam, etc.

  • jeff bell May 31, 2011

    I also fell asleep half-way through it – I must admit I more enjoyed Harry Morgan as Grant and John Wayne as Sherman in “How the West was Won” the previous evening.

  • John Buchanan Jun 1, 2011

    Didn’t even bother watching.

    The Story of GI Joe and Battleground were on TCM! Burgess Meredith, Robert Mitchum, Van Johnson & Jame Whitmore!

  • Dr. Sisco Jun 1, 2011

    I concur about the numerous errors/omissions; but the discussions about the damages done to human flesh were well done for cable. However, the Geico ad (I did laugh) undercut any seriousness the filmmakers intended.
    Nothing will replace the Ken Burns opus.

  • Greg Taylor Jun 1, 2011

    I only lasted 19 minutes. Besides the historical inaccuracies, disjointed story-line and lack of a cohesive theme the cinemagraphic style made it torture to watch. The best word I can use to describe it is claustrophobic. To me it had a video game feel to it- ie: Grand Theft Auto. Maybe this style appeals to the younger set, but I doubt many of them watched.

  • Warren Jun 2, 2011

    After seeing the trailer, I could tell that this would have nothing redeeming for me, my family, my friends, or my classroom. I tried to warn my friends. Most of them (and most of them are involved in history professionally in one form or another) managed to last 15 minutes before turning it off in disgust.

  • Al Mackey Jun 5, 2011

    I tend to cut them a great deal of slack on the Gettysburg documentary. In my opinion, Gettysburg was so complex that it’s not possible to put the battle into context, put each day into the context of the battle, go over the actions of each day, get into the personalities involved, and tell a coherent story in a single 105-minute film. Maybe I’m wrong. I liked the fact that they talked about some folks not normally talked about in Gettysburg documentaries. I liked the fact that there was some attention given to the fierce fighting on Day One, which is usually completely skipped over. I liked the fact that it wasn’t Larry the Cable Guy, Ice Road Truckers, Pawn Stars, or Modern Marvels. I recognize that the weaknesses already pointed out are valid criticisms.

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