No guts, but glory: “Gettysburg” (the movie) and the antiseptic Civil War.

gettysburg poster

This week is the 152nd anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the climactic engagement of the Civil War and the largest battle fought in the Western Hemisphere. Around this time every year I re-watch (not all in one sitting) the 1993 film Gettysburg, directed by Ronald Maxwell, which is an adaptation of Michael Shaara’s wonderful, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 novel The Killer Angels. This is one of my favorite films and also generally highly-regarded among historians for its accuracy and attention to historical detail. As good as it is, however, Gettysburg‘s much-discussed accuracy really only goes so far. What it chooses to show is pretty much true to what the battle was really like. There’s quite a lot, though, that the movie doesn’t show us, and those aspects too are an important dimension of the war. Thinking about this raises some interesting questions about the depiction of history in popular entertainment, and the duty that filmmakers and storytellers have to provide realistic recreations of the past.

Gettysburg is an extremely long movie, 4 hours and 14 minutes, and very unusual for its time. It’s a broad picture of the great 1863 battle focusing on several characters, beginning on the eve of the battle with Union General John Buford (Sam Elliott), then shifting on the second day (July 2) to Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), and finally, July 3, to gloomy Confederate General James Longstreet (Tom Berenger) who is ordered by General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) to conduct a massive frontal attack whose ultimate failure Longstreet foresees. In addition to the numerous scenes of actual battles as well as planning and military conferences, there are some more human moments, such as Chamberlain dealing with a group of mutinous Maine soldiers who have tired of fighting, or the emotional struggles of the wistful Lo Armistead (Richard Jordan, in his final role) as he recalls the pain of having to take up arms against his best friends. The film does an excellent job of balancing the battle action with characters and their stories, which is difficult considering we only see three days in their lives. The writing sticks pretty faithfully to The Killer Angels, which is written in a series of internal monologues by the principal characters; in the movie some characters actually quote from these monologues, giving the dialogue an interesting 19th century rhetorical tone.

Over the film’s 4 hour plus running time we see numerous battles, from Buford’s opening engagement to the epic slaughter of Pickett’s Charge. What’s noticeable about them, however, is how tame and bloodless they appear. A lot of extras grimace, clutch their chests and collapse dramatically as they’re shot, and in a few scenes we see dead bodies draped on the scenery, but that’s about it. Probably the bloodiest scene is not a battle, but where Longstreet goes into a barn turned into a hospital to visit wounded General John Bell Hood (Patrick Gorman). Doctors are covered in bloody smocks and we see some casualties with bandaged stumps from amputations. Aside from that, the toll of the battle is remarkably invisible. Gettysburg indeed only got a PG rating, not even a PG-13, unusual for a film that probably contains half again as much gunfire and explosions as your typical Hollywood action film. It is indeed a largely antiseptic view of the Civil War, with a lot of its unpleasantness carefully left offscreen.

In reality, of course, the Civil War was the most horrendous military conflict in American history. Though 20th century battles like Normandy and Okinawa were particularly ferocious, it was the sustained high-intensity slog of the Civil War that made it so bloody. Also the nature of the weaponry and the state of tactics made it even worse. An American soldier shot with a steel bullet on Omaha Beach in 1944 at least had (statistically speaking) fairly good odds of surviving, with a lot of tissue damage and trained medics very close. A Union soldier shot with a one-inch musket ball at Gettysburg in 1863, if he survived, could expect to lose whatever limb the ball had passed through, and a harrowing trial in an unsanitary field hospital with no painkillers or sterile instruments. And the casualty rates were much higher. Shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, Alexander Gardner and other photographers took a series of photos of the battlefield dead that horrified people when they were published. They showed the awful toll of the battle: bloated, mangled corpses, blood-soaked fields, piles of bleeding amputated limbs outside of hospital tents. That was what the Civil War looked like, but very few of these kinds of images appear in the movie Gettysburg.

gettysburg dead by timothy osullivan

These and other photos of the aftermath of Gettysburg disturbed many people–exactly as they should have. Even they are fairly tame compared to what it was really like.

The emotional and moral cost of the war is at least a little better-represented. One of the most touching scenes is when Chamberlain hears from his brother Thomas (C. Thomas Howell) about the death (off-screen) of their friend Kilrain (Kevin Conway). Daniels portrays this scene perfectly, choking up and seeming almost unable to function for a while. At the end, Lee and Longstreet huddle around a small campfire, lamenting how the price of Southern independence is getting ever higher. There’s also a few very brief references to slavery, both from Union and Southern characters, but no more engagement with the thorny moral questions of the conflict than this. The Civil War was a moral catastrophe as much as a human one. Every war is, but this one was in particular.

Don’t get me wrong. I perfectly understand why the filmmakers chose to present a relatively antiseptic view of the war: they wanted the film to connect with popular audiences, and to be commercially successful. That it was. I remember trying to go see it on its opening week in October 1993 and being surprised to learn all the shows were sold out. Gettysburg had a pretty tepid marketing campaign, so its popularity was spread mostly word-of-mouth–a true organic blockbuster. It’s the kind of film that you could show your kids to introduce them to history. A middle school social studies teacher would have no problem showing parts of Gettysburg to a seventh-grade class. This is probably a good thing. Another more realistic Civil War film, Edward Zwick’s Glory (1989), gives us exploding heads, shocking racial prejudice and war atrocities committed on both sides. It’s a great film, but it’s an emotional slog to get through. It’s an entirely different kind of film.

This clip from Gettysburg showcases Richard Jordan’s powerful performance as General Armistead. Personally I think he should have gotten at least an Academy Award nomination.

We must be aware, however, of the risks of “cleaning up” history for popular consumption. Gettysburg is full of crackling muskets, waving flags, galloping horses and heroic commanders. These were genuine aspects of the real Civil War, but they were inseparable from the horror, catastrophe and moral inversion that accompanied them, and which are a part of all wars. Depicting war this way is not immoral in itself, but letting these depictions dominate society’s understanding of war is immoral. Future generations must understand the true costs of war, and today in the U.S. with an all-volunteer military, our awareness is increasingly dominated by media depictions of conflict rather than by histories or the I-was-there stories of family members, friends and other witnesses. Maybe we need pictures like Gettysburg, but we also need pictures like Glory. I enjoy Gettysburg and I will watch it again next year, but I have an excuse: I know a little bit about the darker side of the war too. Not everybody who sees the movie will have the benefit of that knowledge.

The poster art for Gettysburg is copyright (C) 1993 by Turner Pictures and New Line Cinema. I believe my inclusion of it here constitutes fair use under copyright laws. The 1863 photograph is public domain.
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5 Comments

  1. I remember a sign was posted with the running time and notice of an intermission. I didn’t like the film, the casting of well known actors (with fake beards) as Generals hindered me from getting absorbed into the story. I did enjoy a nice nap however. As my knowlege of Gettysburgh has increased over the years, its time to give it another view.

  2. It’s odd to think about it, but the scenes in the make-shift mass military hospital run by Dr. Meade in Atlanta in “Gone With The WInd” (1939) had far more of the sort of horror of war you are mentioning (remember when Scarlett stumbles into a surgery where they are about to saw off the soldier’s leg without any anesthesia?). That film was made half-a-century before “Gettysburg”.

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