At a young age I latched onto the 1993 film Gettysburg (directed by Ronald F. Maxwell) which tells the story of the three day Civil War battle that turned the tide of the war in the Northern favor. Considering our recent national crisis surrounding the resurgence of white supremacy, the time is ripe to re-evaluate media depicting the Civil War. As a history buff growing up, I was obsessed with learning everything I could about this period in time, and learned a lot from films such as this one. But was I misled in favor of a rosy, false depiction of a dark past?
Gettysburg stars a who’s who of famous gruff white men. Martin Sheen stars as Robert E. Lee, the Confederate General of the Army of Northern Virginia. Tom Berenger stars as General Longstreet, his closest advisor and friend. On the Union side we have Jeff Daniels as Joshua Chamberlain, the famous Colonel who stopped the Confederate flanking advancement at Little Round Top, and others like C. Thomas Howell as his brother Thomas, and Sam Elliott in a small but vital supporting role.
The film spreads equal time from the viewpoint of the opposing armies. It’s a movie that pivots away from slavery as the root cause of the war, mostly choosing to illustrate the hardships of men of the same country fighting one another. There’s a strong brother against brother theme- one especially explored in the subplot of the Union General Hancock (Brian Mallon) facing off against his best friend, the Confederate General Lewis Armistead (Richard Jordan).
Yet the movie doesn’t sidestep it entirely. During one scene, Thomas Chamberlain (Howell) stops alongside a road to start a conversation with a Confederate prisoner. He asks him why he’s fighting the war, and the prisoner immediately spits the question back at him. “To free the slaves of course,” he replies. The Confederate responds: “I don’t care about no ‘darkies’ one way or another…I’m fighting for my rights.” He then goes into a monologue about the importance of letting people live the way they want to live; free to be themselves. That’s the deepest the film goes into the issue. As a young boy, I took the film’s lead- as if ending slavery was a sidebar of a deeper clash of warring siblings- and the soldier’s clear racism is simply a given. The primary emotional conflict of the war is not opposing views on slavery- but whether the nation should split into two or not.
This romanticization permeates the film, with banjos playing “Dixie” in the background of what seems like every other scene. While the Union army gets their fair share of big moments-especially during a counter attack at Little Round Top where Chamberlain’s regiment is able to turn back the Confederate advance once and for all- the biggest moments are reserved for the Confederacy. Two scenes come to mind.
The first features Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) riding horseback safely behind the Confederate lines, before the final engagement of the three day battle, the doomed Pickett’s Charge. He winds up surrounded by a crowd of adoring, cheering Confederate soldiers, cheering and chanting for the man like he was a loving father. The music is as big and emotional as any John Williams score. One can’t help but get swept up in it.
The second comes after a rousing speech by General Armistead, when we see him leading the infantry of General George Pickett (Stephen Lang) on one last big assault on the Union lines. They start out slowly marching across the field, waving Confederate flags- setting up what turns out to be the emotional climax of the film. Wide, sweeping overhead crane shots capture the Army of Northern Virginia, framing them in all of their supposed glory. The music is once again big, triumphant and emotional- showing these men as brave and just while facing almost certain death- all the while being an army fighting for the continuation of slavery.
While the film doesn’t seem to come down hard on any one side of the conflict, that becomes its essential problem. As a young white boy, I learned about the Civil War as the end of a conflict- and because it was safely over, it could be looked back upon with a kind of wistful nostalgia. As the film ends with the resounding defeat of Pickett’s Charge, General Lee retires to a fireside conversation with Longstreet, where Lee is catatonic in his grievance over the failed attack. The nighttime conversation is scored by a slow, minor melody- communicating what we all know is coming for them; the now inevitable defeat of the Confederate Army. “Does it matter after all who wins? Is that ever really the question?” he asks. In garnering our sympathies to the distraught General Lee in his final scene, the movie ultimately seeks to completely erase slavery from the Civil War. Yes, it does matter who wins. It matters a lot.
Looking back, I can’t help but see this film as an inherent work of Lost Cause revisionist history. Even though the final shot is of the Chamberlain brothers embracing after finding each other alive on the field of battle, it plays as an epilogue to the film’s true ending; a mourning of the defeat of the Confederacy, played almost as the defeat of the American rebel spirit itself.
Gettysburg is the longest movie made in American history, clocking in at four and a half hours. It’s one of the most niche films ever made as well- appealing to virtually nobody except for history buffs. I’ve attempted to show it to multiple people in the past who had not shared my fascination with the Civil War, and nobody made it past the halfway mark. It’s never been a canon film or impacted the culture in any significant way, like Birth Of A Nation did in 1915. I don’t know if I’ll really be able to watch it again after what happened in Charlottesville this past weekend. The Confederacy was never really defeated- and no doubt Gettysburg is a reflection of the revisionism that has helped to keep it alive.