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Gettysburg (Ridley Scott's) [Blu-ray]
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A brand-new, feature length special from HISTORY, Gettysburg will strip away the romanticised veneer of the Civil War and present the engagement in a new light: a visceral, terrifying experience with everything on the line. At its core, this is the story of the soldiers on the ground, not the generals who commanded from behind the frontlines. Compelling CGI and powerful action footage place viewers in the midst of the fighting, delivering both an emotional cinematic experience and an information packed look at the turning points, technology, and little known facts of perhaps America s greatest battle.
The epic battle of Gettysburg, fought over a three-day period at the beginning of July 1863, was bloody, brutal, and bitter--making it ideally suited to the History Channel's testosterone-fueled documentary approach. Viewers familiar with offerings like Battles B.C., Patton 360, and multiple others will recognize this style: loud and kinetic, flashy and unsubtle, Gettysburg blends reenactments, photos, CGI (used to depict and dissect the weaponry that made the Civil War's body count so high in general, with some 50,000 casualties at Gettysburg alone), Sam Rockwell's macho voice-over narration, actors reading the reminiscences of the participants, and a variety of expert talking heads holding forth. For the most part, it works; historians and Civil War buffs have already noted some of the factual errors, important omissions, and other problems with the material, but those less versed in the details will come away from this 94-minute program (which was executive produced by noted directors Tony and Ridley Scott) with a good deal of information about the confrontation that inspired President Abraham Lincoln's immortal address, referenced near the end of the documentary. Typical of the History Channel, some of this information is delivered in hyperbolic, melodramatic fashion. Gettysburg was "the largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere," while the cannons that blasted away at Gen. Robert E. Lee's men during the fateful attack known as Pickett's Charge was "the largest artillery barrage ever" in that same sphere; numerous other events are the biggest, the most iconic, the most important, and so on. The overheated writing does Gettysburg no favors, but director Adrian Moat and the other filmmakers' decision to focus on a variety of individuals on both sides was a wise one. Thus we learn about characters like Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles of the North, who had killed his wife's lover before the war and successfully used "the first plea of temporary insanity in U.S. history" to win acquittal; Pvt. Amos Humiston, another Yank, who died on the streets of the Pennsylvania town with nothing to identify him except a photo of his three sons; Confederate Lt. Gen. Dick Ewell, who had vowed revenge after losing a leg earlier in the war; Col. James Wallace, a Marylander who was both a Union officer and slave owner; and numerous others. In the end, it's these portraits that help distinguish the program from the many, many others of its ilk. --Sam Graham
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It covered no new ground. Very Boring!
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The narration repeats the same general exclamatory statements over and over again. How many times do we have to hear, "this could determine the outcome of the Civil War," or "this would be one of the iconic moments of the War," in the narrator's deep, dramatic tone? It reminded me of the aforementioned America: the Story of Us, when they had to have a commentator say every five minutes or so, "we are a nation of innovators," or "ours is a history of struggle." Such repeated statements are meant to add weight and power to the piece, but instead just make it into overly exaggerated melodrama.
You can see the mark of the modern war film making style in the piece, especially given that Tony and Ridley Scott are the producers behind it. The documentary is obviously trying to give it a Saving Private Ryan feel, with plenty of bullet impact noises, blood and grit, and even the noisy-silence sound of someone suffering shock (reminiscent of several moments with Tom Hanks character in Private Ryan). But alas, this stylistic war film feel is not supported by an informative narrative. This is a documentary, and thus the informative value should be at least as important as the entertainment value.
As someone who has studied the Battle of Gettysburg, and has taught college classes on the Civil War, I was also appalled by the glaring omissions of important players and events from the story. They fail to discuss in any detail at all how the battle started. Thus, they do not discuss General John Buford's cavalry and their role in holding the high ground for the Union Army when the Confederates arrived. On the second day's engagement, they focus on the assaults on Cemetery Ridge and Culp's Hill, but do not mention the assault on Little Round Top. An all important player like Gouverneur K. Warren, who recognized the significance of (and lack of defenses on) Little Round Top, and called for reinforcements to hold the hill, is omitted. If anyone turned the tide of the battle, it was Warren. This, of course, also leads to the role played by Colonel Strong Vincent's brigade, and the included 20th Maine Regiment of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. The latter is one of the most fascinating characters in the Union Army at Gettysburg, but he also is omitted from the story. On the Confederate side of this engagement, they focus all of their attention on Barksdale's Brigade, but do not mention the roll of John Bell Hood or Colonel William Oates. No play for the Texans or the Alabamians--Mississippi's sons get all the focus of discussion. And for the final day, with Pickett's Charge, they do not even discuss George Pickett himself in any detail. Nor do they mention the roles played by Lewis Armistead, or any of Pickett's brigade commanders. On the Union side, General Winfield Scott Hancock's role in holding the Union center is also overlooked. Given the personal connection between Scott and Armistead (friends before the war), this could have been a wonderful way to put an exclamation point on the brother-against-brother nature of the American Civil War. This may seem like nitpicking, but these people and events are so essential to the story that they should not be overlooked in any complete discussion of the Battle of Gettysburg. At least some of them should have made it into this documentary.
There are some positive points to the documentary, and any fair assessment of the piece requires that these be mentioned. First, the personal stories of some of the common soldiers are compelling, and do convey the emotion that those soldiers must have felt. I felt this was especially true of the story of Amos Humiston, which is one of my favorite stories from the Battle of Gettysburg, and one I have highlighted myself in classes I have taught on the battle. I am glad that he was one character they included in the story. Other positive aspects of the piece are details about certain elements of the battle (weaponry, field medicine, communications). Such details are brought home with good use of expert commentary, and effective use of the aforementioned graphics and imagery. In this case, the stylistic filmmaking is used to great effect.
But what ultimately makes Gettysburg, overall, a failed piece, is that it fails to convey the scope of the battle, an overall narrative of the story of the battle, and favors style over important detail. Thus, its value as an educational piece is limited. Now, I do know the common argument in reply to this--this kind documentary could get young people interested in the topic. My reply to that is that we do not need to reduce a documentary's informative aspects, i.e. "dumb down," the piece just to have more slick production values to get the young people who watch Iron Man interested in history. When we teach history, we should try to make it accessible to the common man, but not by appealing to the lowest common denominator. Rather, we should aspire to the highest quality of substance and story. Gettysburg fails to do so.
For the record, I have nothing against looking at Gettysburg from a different vantage point. If you want a documentary that just relates the facts and details, there are dozens of decent choices in the DVD marketplace. The harshest critics of "Gettysburg" will claim that the show is inaccurate--but I believe incomplete is a better interpretation. By focusing singularly on the soldiers as a narrative hook, the documentary aspect of the interviews can be hit-or-miss. In detailing specific movements (between live action segments), lively graphics are employed but information is still somewhat limited. By no means is this a comprehensive dissection of the battle, nor was it intended to be. This was designed for a more visceral response putting you in the action. I do agree, however, that much of the detailing in the recreation could have been better researched. If you're going to go all out, get simple observable details right (canteens and uniforms, equipment). And the South Africa location doesn't read as particularly authentic.
It all boils down to expectations. I didn't hate this production as much as some of the more vocal purists did. And while I don't disagree with their primary reservations, I think the show offers a unique and different perspective. I personally don't want to sit through yet another dry scholarly accounting of the events--the facts aren't changing! The problem comes that the History Channel itself determines viewer expectation. Their brand should stand for accuracy and completeness in things historical--especially documentaries! In an effort to drive ratings, though, the network is clearly at a crossroads with its ever expanding slate of non-history related reality programming. "Gettysburg" was a big and bold (and perhaps controversial) attempt to revitalize their brand. I suspect it will entertain new viewers who aren't students of the Civil War. But it certainly left itself open to criticism from those with a more intimate knowledge of history. If you see this as a history based war movie (which I claim it strives to be) as opposed to a standard documentary, the program isn't all bad. About 2 1/2 stars for the elements that work. KGHarris, 9/11.
It is so easy to get it right that I am appalled at how often these programs get it wrong. I give a few examples:
1. Stonewall Jackson did NOT die in battle as stated in the program. He was shot by his own pickets and died a month later of pneumonia.
2. Clara Barton did NOT found the Red Cross. That honor goes to Jean Henri Dunant of Switzerland. Barton can only be credited with bringing the Red Cross to the US.
3. Meade's battle formation did not see the potential value of Little Round Top, although Sickles' move forward further exposed the vulnerable weakness of the Union left flank. Warren's quick assessment of the danger and the sacrifice of commanders like Strong Vincent and Paddy O'Rourke made the difference.
4. While I am relieved not to hear so much about Pickett (who hated having his name attached to that disastrous charge) there was no mention of Pettigrew and Trimble, whose units sacrificed far more during the charge.
5. And finally -- perhaps a point that only I can make -- the reference to men under Davis futilely planting a flag on the Union wall is not only without substantiation, but has been disproved by the publication of the diary written by Lt. William H. Peel, Company C of the 11th Mississippi. Since I am the transcriber and researcher who published the diary (available on Amazon) I can state with confidence that the flag story told by Pvt. Joseph Marable was fabricated by that gentlemen for his own reasons. There never was proof that it happened and Peel's account proves that it could not have happened.
Perhaps a future researcher will see this and pay heed. For my own part I am so tired of the endless parade of documentaries that not only leave out essential elements, but exacerbate our national ignorance with factual fallacies and the repetition of long disproved myths.