Friday, June 10, 2011

Got Grit?: A Review of the History Channel's "Gettysburg"

This Memorial Day, the History Channel broadcast a new two-hour documentary on the battle of Gettysburg. According to its official website, the film is supposed to "[strip] away the romanticized veneer of the Civil War to present the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in a new light--a visceral, terrifying and deeply personal experience, fought by men who put everything on the line in defense of their vision of the American future."

Tell me that's not high ambition.

Since I don't don't have the History Channel, I learned about this film belatedly through Civil War Memory, a frequently cranky Civil War blog I follow. Its take on the film was decidedly negative, but I wanted to watch it all the same. I mean, I write a lot of reviews of things, but I rarely pay attention to reviews myself. Plus, I've been interested in the battle of Gettysburg since my first visit there as a kid. I've been back to it several times since then, including a week-long visit for my honeymoon, and I am always amazed at how much of it is still new to me.

(Yes, my wife--who is not a Civil War buff--actually agreed to honeymoon in Gettysburg! That's love, folks!)

I had the opportunity to watch the film last night as my family and I house-sat for my in laws. (We got to watch it on their massive big screen TV--which I have found makes even lousy movies good.) Of course, I didn't quite know what to expect from the film. I hadn't seen too many promos about it, but everything I had read on it mentioned how realistic and gritty it was supposed to be. I guess I had high expectations about it.

Also, the fact that it had Ridley and Tony Scott attached to it as executive producers didn't lower the bar any. I half expected Russell Crowe to show up and lead a charge.

Sadly, Gettysburg is a disappointment. In general, I'm not a fan of History Channel documentaries, because they tend to take the flashy, sexy approach to history. When it comes to priorities, their primary one is to entertain, not inform. I admit that this isn't necessarily a bad approach. I just like my documentaries to do both. (Or, if they're meant merely to entertain me, I want them to have goofy storylines involving ghosts or cryptids.)

One of my main problems with Gettysburg is its panel of authorities. Like most documentaries of this kind, it brings in several personalities who are supposed to provide expert insight into the battle. With the exception of James McPherson, I had never heard of any of them. Most of them, it seemed, came not from universities, but from non-academic Civil War organizations. It also featured a few authors of popular history and maybe one or two teenagers.

Everyone gestured a lot. One guy had spiky blond hair. A passionate few even seemed more enthusiastic than Dora the Explorer on speed. I'm surprised none of them jumped out of the TV screen and grabbed me by the collar.

The overall production value on the film was also lower than I expected it to be. I've been to a few Civil War reenactments in my day, and this film was definitely a step or two above the typical reenactment. But this film still had the feel of of a bunch of good ol' boys playing dress up. I guess I wanted to feel like I was watching a real battle with this film. But that didn't happen. A "visceral, terrifying and deeply personal experience" it was not.

That said, this film did like its wounds. About every two minutes there was a close-up of a bullet striking flesh. Always with a lot of blood splatter. I think the filmmakers were trying to show what it really looked like to get shot during the Civil War. By drawing attention to it time and time again, though, they ended up doing just the opposite. It was like watching the same special effect over and over again, but from different angles.

I had a few other problems with the film. With only a two-hour time frame, it had to leave a lot of the battle out. I think its overview of the second day of the battle was particularly inadequate. To do the battle justice, though, the film would have had to run at least six hours. Of course, that's the sort of thing you can do on cable television. Three two-hour episodes over the course of three nights. A History Channel Premiere Event.

But I guess the budget didn't allow for that. The cost of fake blood must have gone up.

I also didn't learn anything new from the film. Aside from the grittier-than-usual recreations of the battle, which really weren't that gritty, Gettysburg seemed no different from any other History Channel documentary. Overall, the story it presented was too basic, too bare-bones. Originality wasn't one of its virtues. Nor did it change how I thought about the battle.

Which is too bad because I was really hoping that it would.

Note: You can now watch Gettysburg online at

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