A Quick, Lively Introduction to the Battle of Gettysburg
In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, the History Channel premiered the documentary Gettysburg around Memorial Day, 2011. Chopped up by interruptions, the documentary consumed two hours of air time. But on DVD or Blu-ray, it zips right along and can be watched in its entirety in less than an hour and a half.
The executive producers of Gettysburg are the Scott brothers: Ridley Scott, who directed Black Hawk Down, and Tony Scott, director of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. So it comes as no surprise that this version of the Battle of Gettysburg has action sequences similar to those seen in their movies — explosions, blood spurting, men dying in slow motion, etc. Also, the music and sound effects have electronic and percussive elements that make them similar to those heard in 21st-century action movies.
But otherwise, Gettysburg is a traditional documentary. Actor Sam Rockwell (Iron Man 2) delivers expository voice-over narration, and there are about seven talking-head Civil War experts who periodically supply scholarly commentary. The attention of the average viewer might tend to flag once in a while if it were not for the film's compelling visual rhythms and lively soundtrack.
If you're one of the millions of people who have visited the Gettysburg National Military Park and/or Adams County, Pennsylvania, you might find yourself wondering where Gettysburg was shot. The answer is — South Africa, not too far from Cape Town.
This Documentary Is Quite Different From Ted Turner's 1993 Film
Ted Turner was the driving force behind the four-and-a-quarter-hour Gettysburg that screened both in theaters and on TV in 1993. That Gettysburg featured name actors — Martin Sheen, Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels, Sam Elliott — and deployed thousands of extras. It was a docudrama: events were dramatized, and the actors spoke many lines of dialogue to advance the narrative. On May 24, 2011, a four-and-a-half-hour director's cut of the 1993 Gettysburg was released on Blu-ray.
The 2011 TV program is less than one-third the length of the director's cut of the Ted Turner Gettysburg. The History Channel program is a straightforward documentary: a voice-over narrator and a handful of talking-head experts speak nearly all the words that are heard. The actors are unknowns who speak almost no meaningful dialogue, and the production looks like it never had more than a couple of hundred extras. But the 2011 TV program has more visual flair and a more propulsive soundtrack.
The 1993 Gettysburg seems to be aimed at Civil War buffs, while the History Channel Gettysburg is apparently targeted at people who don't know much about the Battle of Gettysburg, but would like to gain a working knowledge of it quickly.
However, the two accounts of the monumental battle differ not only in form, but also in content. For the most part, the two sets of filmmakers chose to cover different aspects of the same sprawling and complicated event, and the two accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg focus on almost completely different historical figures.
History Channel's Take on the Battle of Gettysburg
Taking place in Pennsylvania during the first three days of July 1863, Gettysburg was the biggest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere and the turning point of the Civil War. (For a high-level overview, see "Summary of the Battle of Gettysburg" by About's American History Guide.)
The approach of the History Channel's Gettysburg can be illustrated by considering what seems to be its representative soldier: Lt. Col. Rufus Dawes, an Ohio man in the Union's legendary Iron Brigade. Dawes leads a successful counterattack against the Confederates on the first day, then during the next two days plays an important role in the defense of Culp's Hill. The documentary emphasizes that the loss of Culp's Hill would have been catastrophic for the Union because they would have lost their supply line via the Baltimore Pike. Later, Dawes developed what was apparently post-traumatic stress disorder.
The documentary offers tales of heroic courage, the most extreme being that of Brig. Gen. William Barksdale, a former US Congressman leading the Mississippi Brigade's attack against the Union forces. Barksdale was shot in the knee, but continued to lead, then took a cannonball in the foot. He stayed out front of his advancing men until he was felled by a bullet to his chest. He died at a Union field hospital.
But the most poignant story involves Amos Humiston, a Union sergeant from Portville, NY. He was killed in combat, but his body wasn't identified until months later when his wife saw a copy of the photo he carried of their three children.
The Documentary Occasionally Addresses Larger Issues
A century and a half has passed since the Civil War began, yet it remains a touchy subject with many Americans. In that connection, it's worth mentioning that the History Channel's Gettysburg doesn't always stick narrowly to its central subject, the Battle of Gettysburg; it occasionally steps back to deliver commentary on larger issues that are likely to make some viewers uncomfortable.
At one point, the documentary identifies economics as an underlying cause of the Civil War. The narrator states that circa 1861, "Slaves are the largest single financial asset in the United States." And one of the experts, Dr. Edward Ayers, strengthens this statement by saying, "The enslaved population of the South by itself is worth more than all the railroads and factories and banks of the United States together."
Then it's Garry Adelman, a historian with the Civil War Trust, who states the conclusion that many Americans would prefer not to reach: "Whether you're looking at states' rights, whether you're looking at political aspects of it, everything points back to slavery. Slavery is at the center of everything that caused the Civil War."
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: September 20, 2011
Runtime: 1 hour 26 minutes
Supplementary Materials: None