Saturday Movie Review: Gettysburg

Saturday, June 24, 2006
Posted by Loner

Well, I got to hand it to you, George. You sure got a talent for trivializing the momentous and complicating the obvious. You ever consider running for Congress?

My wife and I were attending a family event in Pennsylvania this time a week ago. On the Friday before last we availed ourselves of the opportunity to visit Gettysburg. I'd only visited the battlefield and cemetery once while I worked in Pennsylvania and that was on my first full day in the state. I arrived a day before the hardware I'd come to install; not my error and one of which I took full advantage. I spent part of my first weekend at Valley Forge (just up the road a couple of miles) and in and around Independence Hall in Philadelphia. I went down the Main Line and through West Philly to enter Philadelphia. Many miles in the other direction US Route 30 goes through Gettysburg and I occasionally drove through, but never stopped, on my way to a sales office in Chambersburg, a town where you could imagine Confederate troops coming up the road and not seeming all that out of place.

While in Gettysburg we spent the bulk of our time at Little Round Top, the Angle and in the National Cemetery after spending some time at the diorama and displays south from the Visitor Center along Tanneytown Road. My wife wasn't nearly as familiar with the history of those three days which began on the road from Chambersburg 143 years ago a week from now and the diorama and recorded presentation are, I think, an excellent introduction which had been suggested to us by her niece.

While in the Visitor Center to get water (it was hot and humid) before we walked across the road and into the National Cemetery, I noticed that Gettysburg was playing, it looked like continuously, in the store area. It wasn't playing when I was there in 1996, but then the first DVD players and discs may have been being introduced in Japan on the day I was there.

Gettysburg is a very long movie at 4 hours and 21 minutes, but now that the viewer is watching it at home there is absolutely no reason not to take a break after day one and another after day two in the historical action. Ronald F. Maxwell, the screenwriter and director for producer Ted Turner, did a good job of adapting Michael Shaara's 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning (very well deserved) The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War. I think it a success as both drama and history (Pickett's charge, for instance, occurs in real time. That Chamberlain isn't quite where he should be is understandable given that this is a movie.) Filming took place in and around Gettysburg and for anyone who has been there this is a big plus. The mix of battle and maneuvering, the pace, is at times a little confusing, but things never drag or, alternately, become too confusing to follow. At least, that's my informed view.

The acting is serviceable to excellent and I was especially impressed by three performances. I think Martin Sheen, a strange choice, is outstanding as General Robert E. Lee. He's believable as someone who is revered even by those who disagree with him and, as with the Shaara novel, his disagreement with Lieutenant General James Longstreet (Tom Berenger) is a major focus of the movie. The second performance, the highlight of which is a long soliloquy of sorts to which Longstreet listens, is that of Richard Jordan as Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistad. As it turns out, Jordan probably gave his finest performance in his last role. He died of a brain tumor before the movie was released. Finally, I must note that prior to Gettysburg I had little to no use for Jeff Daniels. His portrayal of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain led me to do a 180 with regard to his skills within the space of time in which he and the other actors portraying the 20th Maine hold their ground on Little Round Top.

Gettysburg, as I noted, is a big investment in time, but I think well worth it and there are extras on the DVD for those who want to invest two or three times more time. I also recommend a visit to Gettysburg to anyone who has the time and the opportunity to do so.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

—Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863

I had intended to wait until next weekend to do this review, but The Road Warrior is a movie I may know too well and I've as yet been unable to shape what I know into something I'm willing to have read so, perhaps, for the Independence Day (230 years ago) Weekend this will be the last you've read by me. If so, I salute the dead politicians (statesmen by definition) who created and maintained the country of which I am proud to be a citizen. Of course, me being me, I offer Montaigne's qualifier in "Of Vanity" on his pleasure at being made a citizen of Rome in 1581:

Being a citizen of no city, I am very pleased to be one of the noblest city that ever was or will be. If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off—though I don't know.


terrye said...


Killer Angles was one of those books I could honestly say I could not ut down.

My ex visited Gettysburg as a boy and began a lifelong fascination with the Civil War and its battles and Generals. About this battle he would say that Lee's chvalrous refusal to abandon in the field despite the advice of the wise Longstreet would turn the war. But then again my ex never really thought the South had a chance in th elong run, not with Lincoln in the White House.

I transcribed a diray by a civil war soldier from Indiana who died outised of Atlanta, Ga. Longstreet was the General he worried about.

So much pain and suffering and loss.

Buddy Larsen said...

The Gettysburg Address if read in a calm quiet hour will bring a tear to eye everytime. Lord, the language!

Loner, be sure and catch "Gods and Generals" sometime.

Terrye, your ex was right at least twice--about the Civil War, and about marrying a gal who feels the realness of history.

loner said...

It's Taneytown Road.


I neglected to mention that while on Little Round Top where the 20th Maine was positioned a tour guide was doing his best to besmirch Chamberlain because the official account of what happened there on July 2nd was rewritten by Chamberlain after he was informed that the original was missing. It's apparently more "literary" than the original, a copy of which it turns out is in the Maine archives. I wasn't part of the group so I didn't ask if the 20th Maine had in fact retreated or surrendered on that day, but I wanted to.

The High Water Mark of the Confederacy was coming regardless of what happened on the 3rd and, while Longstreet turned out to be right, I can't but think that I would have been with Lee because of his past successes and the usual incompetence of the Union command (still evident in the aftermath of Pickett's Charge.)

Buddy Larsen said...

Loner, I agree--the critical support for Lee's thinking is in remembering that the model is always the to-date 'flow' of the war.

The Army of Northern Virgina marched north to Gettysburg, on the heels of several tremendous victories--esp the previous battle, Chancellorsville, now said to have been Lee's greatest tactical demonstration.

Following that battle, who can fault Lee for having believed--as he is said to've--that the Southern soldiers almost could not be beaten?

loner said...


I thought Gods and Generals a mediocre movie, but then I thought Jeff Shaara's first novel of the same title not nearly as compelling as his dad's The Killer Angels and I worried when I read that it was going to be made into a movie. It might have been a success (the commercial failure has probably doomed any adaptation of The Last Full Measure, but I don't refer to that) as a movie if they'd just called it Stonewall and adapted the Thomas Jackson sections of the story (Hancock is in the Armistad Gettysburg solliloquy, Chamberlain isn't important until Gettysburg, and Lee before Jackson is primarily about his rise to the top within the political realm and the chain-of-command.) Just a thought.

I was most moved during this visit while looking east to the Virginia Memorial from the Angle. I was most in danger when descending from the Pennsylvania Memorial—the bottom step on that top flight of stairs for future climbers.

I'm in total agreement regarding The Gettysburg Address. The same goes for Abraham Lincoln's Second Innaugural Address.

Buddy Larsen said...

You're right--the Second Inaugural is sublime, almost sacred. The meanings, and the words, are Biblical. Only Lincoln could have achieved that moment--heck, only Lincoln could've bled the pressure out the nation in such a way as to save that nation.

loner said...


I was obviously looking west from the Angle. I've always been dyslexic when it comes to compass directions and generally I stop and think: Is that right? Not always though. More's the pity.

The war changed Lincoln and we'll never know whether it might not have changed one of his rivals in the same way if they'd been in his position, but it's hard to imagine that union could have had a more capable defender than the one she did.


Buddy Larsen said...

His natural melancholy, his plainly-obvious and thus heartwarming efforts to benefit others by overcoming it, losing the favored son at the age of ten in 1863, Mary Todd's psychological difficulties, many things combined to make him uniquely able to feel and communicate that one clear note that we still hear, that inspires us now as it did then.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

Lee was probably closer to right in his assessment that his soldiers could not be defeated than many Northerners would like to now admit. Hindsight is always 20-20. The truth is that if he'd had his cavalry and if a few other things had fallen his way instead of against him, he would have won at Gettysburg and he probably would have gone on to take Philadelphia. The North at that point might very well have sued for peace. They were after all mostly willing to sue for peace a year later from sheer boredom.

Buddy Larsen said...

Pickett's war-winning charge was broken up by line reserve units that Lee's artillery prep should've scattered, and would've except for a matter of a couple of degrees oddity in the incline in the slope of the far side of the ridgeline.

The "far side of the hill", as Wellington said of his ridgeline at Waterloo, won the battle.

Buddy Larsen said...

Of course, the Union officers didn't advantage the ground by accident--I didn't mean to denigrate any effort by calling it accident. Just marveling at how such close, close margins changed such a huge flow of history.