July first, second, and third, 1863 -- three days of horror in a small Pennsylvania farm town, the largest battle ever fought in the Western hemisphere.
Modern Americans haven't shown themselves to be too keen on the Civil War, although the sociopolitical arrangement that we see today was shaped by the war. In a 2007 telephone sample, college students were asked if the American Civil War occurred in the half-century between 1850-1900. Only 43% identified this period as the correct one. This is, however, an improvement upon 1986 numbers: during a survey in that year, only 32% answered the question correctly. I suppose most of them have heard of the Gettysburg address, though I doubt many have read Gary Wills' book on the subject.
In any case, even for those who have some interest in the battle in this remote town, there are myths floating around. (The battle began over shoes.) This film fills in some of the factual details that every American citizen ought to have SOME familiarity with. Not that -- as a film -- it's unimpeachable. It's filled with clichés and modernistic touches. Deaths are shown in slow motion -- we can blame Sam Pekinpah for that -- while blood squirts all over the place and innumerable CGIs produce fountains of fuzzy brown dust along with some convincing layouts of the environment.
It began when Robert E. Lee decided that Virginia, where most of the previous engagement had taken place, had just about exhausted the state's resource. He moved his army north, through Maryland, and into Pennsylvania, threatening Harrisburg and Washington, DC. He also hoped to pick up volunteers from Maryland, a slave-owning border state, and perhaps demonstrate to France and England that the Confederate Southern States deserved official recognition as a separate country. Neither hope was to be realized.
The gist of the battle is this. On day one, the two armies meet -- bit by it -- and the Union retreats to high ground and the Confederates drive the enemy out of Gettysburg, with Union officers hopping fences and hiding in cellars. A tactical victory for the South.
Day two: Lee is hobbled by a lack of intelligence. His cavalry, under J.E.B. Stuart is off someplace capturing supply wagons. The Union now occupy a ridge south of the town. Under General Mead they form a splendid defensive position -- almost a circle of men, protecting their position from attack from any direction. Lee attacks both flanks and after much carnage on both sides, a disproportionate amount of it due to General Daniel Sickles, a "political general" among the Federals, whose mistake is not discovered soon enough for correction. Lee's assaults are repulsed. No mention of Joshua Chamberlain or Little Round Top.
Day three: Lee guesses that Mead, having been attacked on the flanks, will reenforce his flanks at the expense of the center of his line. Therefore he marshals his men and after a ferocious but minimally effective bombardment, his thousands of troops assault the center of the line. This is generally and inaccurately called Pickett's charge on Cemetery Ridge. His men are slaughtered. Nothing about the irony of Hancock and Armistead. The next day, Lee takes his weary troops back to Virginia. The pursuit of the exhausted Union is late and perfunctory and Lincoln, fed up with non-aggressive generals, fires Mead.
The program treats the Battle of Gettysburg almost in isolation from outside influences. There's virtually nothing about politics or long-term strategy or the issues that caused this devastating conflict. What we see is almost a reenactment of the battle in more modern terms than usual. I mean, the violence is more graphic. There's blood everywhere, dripping, squirting, clotting. The photography is crisp but faddish, with desaturated color and wide-angled lenses turning sweaty, dirty faces into porpoises. Deaths are shown in slow motion. During pauses in the action, loud heartbeats rattle the woofers. Fortunately, there isn't the instantaneous cutting, swish pans, and wobbling camera -- otherwise we might as well be watching an old-fashioned "action movie" that's "based on a true story." Wardrobe has done a credible job. The costumes are convincing and so is the makeup. There are informative CGIs too. We can follow the path of a Minié ball as it enters the human body. An image shows us how a cannon is loaded and fired. There are several talking heads that add to our grasp of what's going on, and that's helpful because the story unfolding on the screen is sometimes murky. (There are too few maps.) But the film does deal with usually deemphasized incidents -- the futile battle of stupid Sickles in the peach orchard, the confused night-time assault on Culp's hill.
It was a momentous couple of days -- fifty thousand men dead, wounded, or missing. Americans butchering other Americans. The first general to die was a Union man, General Reynolds, but lots of generals were killed. With his last breath one of them, a Confederate hero, whispered to a wounded comrade, "Tell them that I died like a brave man." What a waste.
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