Interpretation

Choice of Cast

Video Sources: The Washington Post [1] ; Lee’s former soldier [2] 

Violence, or Lack Thereof

Many critics complained that the film was not violent enough, and that the portrayal of soldiers being killed in battle lacked the necessary blood and gore to accurately represent what Civil War soldiers went through. It lacked any attempt to show the dismemberment and horrendous damage that resulted from new technological advances in weaponry.[3] The blame for this falls on the traditional idea of war during the 1860’s. The Civil War was the last “pageant war” where bravery on the battlefield was what mattered.[4] During this time, war was viewed as being carried out by chivalrous, heroic men whose dedication to their ideals drew them to the battlefield where they proved their courage and brotherhood.[5] One Vietnam veteran and historian criticized the film’s interpretation of the Civil War for “play-acting” with “meat-grinder violence;” he stated that the lack of “horror” is the biggest issue with Gettysburg.[6] However, the movie began as a television production and was based on a novel, which may explain some of the absence of gore since novels can only explain violence with words and television must limit what they show.[7]

Aide-to-Camp Buster Kilrain speaks with Colonel Chamberlain after suffering a shot to the arm during the 20th Maine’s fight for Little Round Top, Gettysburg (1993)

Perspective

One historian complained that the real events of the battle were “exaggerated for dramatic effect” and other parts were “wiped off of the page to suit a storyline.”[8] The filmmaker’s interpretation of the battle only shows certain stories and perspectives. For example, General George Meade, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, only has a few lines throughout the entire movie. Key figures such as General A.P. Hill and General Warren are omitted. Michael Shaara, the author of The Killer Angels, explained that he condensed some of the events of the battle for “the sake of clarity” and got rid of minor characters to make things easier to understand.[9] Yet, General Meade was one of the most important figures present at the battle. The viewer misses an opportunity to learn about all of the major historical figures who had a part in the battle’s outcome. Another complaint is that, although the viewers are learning about the key commanders of the battle, they do not get to learn about the perspective of the enlisted soldiers who carried out the fighting.

Lost Cause

The film’s interpretation is based heavily in the Lost Cause ideology. Confederates after the war defended their actions and their failure through what is known as the Lost Cause. One main point of this was that if the South had secured a victory at Gettysburg, the war would have ended there.[10] The Lost Cause has become part of the narrative of the Civil War- and that has carried over to our modern understanding of it.[11] Two ideas presented in this film that reinforce this outlook on the war include: the idea that Gettysburg cost the Confederacy the war and each side’s purpose for fighting the war was honorable in its own respect.

General Lee ( Martin Sheen) rides amongst a group of cheering soldiers before Pickett’s Charge, Gettysburg (1993)

Hindsight

The biggest issue with this film is that everything is presented from a perspective of hindsight. The idea that this battle would decide the entire war, for both the North and the South, was emphasized over and over.[12] The importance of the battle is not something that would have been known at the time. Gettysburg was important to the course of the war. However, following the battle both armies ended up right back in Virginia as they had been before, fighting for another two years.[13] One historian stated that “only later, when the true significance of the victory could be assessed, did the battle gain the prominence we assign it today.”[14] Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s line in the film that, “if we lose this fight, I think we lose the war” was not something he would have been able to say at that time. The characters also explain the situation with great knowledge about the ramifications that their decisions would have later on.


“…had I but followed your advice, instead of pursuing the course that I did, how different all would have been!” -General Lee, in a letter to James Longstreet [15] 


Lack of Animosity

The movie shows that the soldiers of the Union and Confederacy had a mutual understanding, which downplays sources of friction by conveying that these foes fought each other only out of duty instead of true animosity.[16] One historian wrote that the way in which the subject is presented makes it “easy to revere the conflict while overlooking less tidy complexities. The reasons for fighting, the sentimental attachment between the two armies, the heroism of the soldiers, and the treatment of the battle as the victory that saved the Union all strike deep mythological chords within the American soul.”[17] The conflict is over-simplified into a fight between “reluctant killers.”[18] In reality, the war featured ugly atrocities and created animosity that made reunion very difficult.[19]

 Clip in which Tom Chamberlain speaks with a Confederate prisoner about their reasons for fighting, Gettysburg (1993) 

Reasons for Fighting

The reasons for fighting are also over-simplified. Plainly put, all of the Northern soldiers are fighting for emancipation and the Southern soldiers are fighting for state rights. By having the Northern soldiers be so committed to and vocal about the importance of emancipation, the movie overlooks the true nature of public sentiment at that time. It took eighteen months for Lincoln to find a good time to present emancipation because of the great risk it entailed politically; many Union soldiers did not at first see the war as one that would destroy slavery, and often got on board with emancipation only to eliminate Southern planters’ labor source, to bring the war to an end, or to punish the South for rebelling.[20] The racial issues of the Civil War were far more complex than what is shown in this movie. The line by a captured Georgian soldier, “let us live the way we do,” denies that the war had any root in slavery; however, alternatively portraying all Southerners as “die-hard, pro-slavery” fanatics would also be inaccurate.[21] The movie seems to dodge the issue or simplify it when it does surface.


[1] Ken Ringle, “Gettysburg,” The Washington Post, 1993,

[2] Brian Holden Reid, Robert E. Lee: Icon for a Nation (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), 32.

[3] Philip Beidler, “Ted Turner Et Al. at Gettysburg; Or, Re-Enactors in the Attic,” Virginia Quarterly Review: A National Journal of Literature and Discussion 75, no. 3 (1999): 3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 4.

[7] William Alan Blair, William Pencak, and NetLibrary, Inc., Making and Remaking Pennsylvania’s Civil War (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), 258.

[8] Jeffrey Parrotte, “History and Memory in ‘Gettysburg’” (master’s thesis, Syracuse University, 2008), 3.

[9] Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels (New York: McKay, 1974), To the Reader.

[10] Jeffrey Parrotte, “History and Memory in ‘Gettysburg’” (master’s thesis, Syracuse University, 2008), 11-12.

[11] Ibid, 17.

[12] Ibid, 18.

[13] William Alan Blair, William Pencak, and NetLibrary, Inc., Making and Remaking Pennsylvania’s Civil War (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), 255.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, Lee’s Dispatches: Unpublished Letters of General
Robert E. Lee, C.S.A., to Jefferson Davis and the War Department of the Confederate States of America, 1862-1865 (New York: Putnam, 1957), 114.

[16] Ibid, 246.

[17] Ibid.

[18] William Alan Blair, William Pencak, and NetLibrary, Inc., Making and Remaking Pennsylvania’s Civil War (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), 250.

[19] Ibid, 253.

[20] Ibid, 248.

[21] Ibid, 249.