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Gettysburg

Posted by keith1942 on June 12, 2013

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This was the final screening at the National Media Museum’s Widescreen Weekend in April. It was presented in a 70mm print; this was the original UK print in 1.85:1. There was an introduction by Sheldon Hall who placed this epic reconstruction of the major battle of the US Civil War in the cinematic context. He noted some of the predecessors on film and for television. This version started out as a mini-series for Turner Television, directed by Ronald F Maxwell, and was then given a limited theatrical release. The filming depended on the contribution of over 3,000 volunteers from the historical re-enactment societies, all of whom performed for free. And the film was shot on the original location, now a Nationals Park. This theatrical version runs for 254 minutes, though that is shorter than the actual battle.

The recreation is impressive. Thousands of men toil across fields, through woods, up rocky inclines, while shot and shell fall among them. One can see why Gettysburg, and indeed the US Cilia War in its entirety, was such a bloody conflict. It was also, as Sheldon noted a great conflict for beards and moustaches, which grace nearly all the main characters.

The approach if Gettysburg is to focus on key individuals, mainly generals and officers. On the Union side the key individual is Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), a liberal teacher enrolled in the army. By his side is a somewhat stereotypical Irish sergeant major to whom he explains the morality of the war. The character enables the film to present moments of ‘progressive’ Union rhetoric [one of the subjects at the college where Chamberlain worked]. However, the film overall fails to project the moral and political superiority of the Union. This is an example that two US academic call the ‘curiously blame-free experience’ which is seen as the Civil War. A course that Hollywood, aiming at audiences in both the North and the South, has tended to follow.

It seemed to me that the film actually spends more time and feeling on the Confederacy than on the Union: their characters appear first in the ‘cast list’. [This is also true of Maxwell’s prequel Gods and Generals, 2002]. The key Confederate character is General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen). For me one puzzle was his reputation, both at the end of the film when he is cheered by the Confederate survivors and historically, at least in the South. The Confederate battle seems poorly managed. The Calvary under J.E.B. Stuart is out of control. The early engagements lack initiative. And the central event is ‘Pickett’s charge’ personally ordered by Lee. We watch several thousand confederate soldiers march up a long slope as the Union artillery and troops mow them down. Equally puzzling is that it looks just like one of the inane attacks ordered by British Generals in World War I. One would have thought that those military professionals would have studied the US Civil War and learned some lessons.

The most interesting character on the Confederate side is Brigadier-General Lewis Amistead (Richard Jordan). We see him in several times in conversations among the officers: on every occasion he worries that a close friend {Major-General Hancock) is present in the Union army. Even as he approaches death this is his main concern. Jordan seems deliberately to play this as a suppressed gay attraction: an aspect that stands out from the military characterisations of the film generally.

One aspect that made the film interesting to see again was the recent release of Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012). That film focuses on the Union and on the politics behind the battles. It also addresses with more [if limited] emphasis the question of colour and of slavery.

See American History and Contemporary Hollywood Film by Trevor McCrisken and Andrew Peter, Edinburgh University Press 2005.

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