Friday, 15 December 2017

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Gettysburg (American Civil War)

Mel Gibson's Braveheart presented the story of William Wallace, but provided an account that was largely fictionalized and at best a distortion of what really happened (for one thing, I found out that Queen Isabella would have been 2 years old at the time the film takes place; that romance never happened). Gettysburg, released in 1993 and directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, is exactly the opposite. From its opening moments, the film stresses its thorough research and intricate attention to detail. We see this first emphasized in the opening credits (and later returns during the epilogue), during which photographs of real historical figures are compared with photos of the actors portraying them. The resemblance is not always identical (one might note for instance that some actors have shorter beards than the actual people), but it shows an attention to detail not always seen in historical dramas, and certainly one not present in Braveheart.

Gettysburg chronicles the events leading up to and over the course of the famous battle which turned the tide of the American Civil War. It is easy to forget that in its early years, the Confederate Army was actually winning. They were claiming town after town and pushing their way towards Washington. For many it seemed only a matter of time before Washington surrendered and independence was granted to the South. That all changed as soon as both sides converged on the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Three days of intense fighting a mountain of casualties on both sides ended up turning the tide for the Union. From there, they pushed the Confederates back until they had no choice but to surrender. Put mildly, there is a reason this remains one of the most famous events of the war.

Gettysburg chronicles the events of the battle on both sides, with a huge cast to fill the roles of its participants. At just over four hours long, it is a fairly comprehensive account of the battle and one of the most authentic depictions of the Civil War you can get. But it is more than just a mere dramatization of the battle. It is also a complex look at the intricacies and unpredictability of military leadership. Among the huge cast, most of the focus is on the roles of officers, particularly Generals.

The generals' games is a dangerous one. Vast armies, unfavourable conditions, and trying to give yourself the upper hand. It takes a certain amount of skill to be a general, to be able to take risks and out-smart an opponent of equal intellect. This makes up much of the film's first act. We move back and forth between the two sides. On the one side we see the frequent tension between General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) and Lieutenant General James Longstreet (Tom Berenger). On the other, we have the Union generals. Both work against one another.

More interesting is the decision for the Union portions to focus primarily on Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a respectable commander trying to carry out his orders in a difficult situation. Chamberlain is made into a respectable figure from the beginning. His introductory scene shows him struggling to get out of bed, giving us a sense that he is not a particularly unusual figure. He then addresses a group of deserters by giving them the situation but promising not to mistreat them (even inspiring many of them to rejoin). We also see Chamberlain spending much of the film trying to balance out two interests: the well-being of his men and fulfilling his obligations as a soldier.

This is not to say that the Union is wholly glorified, nor the Confederacy wholly condemned. Throughout the film we get momentary interactions between Union and Confederate soldiers (usually POWs) that remind us both sides are human: the soldier who talks about his life in Tennessee, the captured officer at Little Round Top who simply asks for water, General Armistead (Richard Jordan) requesting to see an old friend who happened to end up on the Union side. In fact, on both sides the subject comes up repeatedly that the war has been going on and on, both sides hoping it will soon end. They also frequently bring up the divided American society, specifically the idea that soldiers on both sides have people they know, often very old friends, among the enemy.

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