Impact


“My dead and wounded were then nearly as great in number as those still on duty. They literally covered the ground. The blood stood in puddles in some places on the rocks.” [1] 


The Washington Post complained that the film was full of “shoot-‘em-up scenes” and did not fully explain why.[2] However, at least the filmmakers approached the subject with sincerity and spoke about the reverence that they had for the project. The Post stated that this is a better outlook than the “blatant commercialism” of most modern movies of the day.[3] This movie not only shows what life was like in 1863 on the battlefields of Gettysburg, it also speaks volumes about the early 1990’s when it was produced. Ronald Maxwell and his team were trying their best to be accurate and fair to both sides of the conflict; the fact that this movie is over 4 hours long is a show of their dedication to the project and their aim to fit in as much information as possible. It was filmed on and around the Gettysburg battlefield to create accurate depictions of the battle.

History in film impacts our memory and understanding of the past. Gettysburg presented an important story that would teach the public about Civil War history. One actor who played in the movie remarked that he had “never had a more intimate experience with history” before this.[4] The issue with film as a medium is that filmmakers must balance historical accuracy with mass appeal.[5] No filmmaker can promise complete accuracy or the absence of bias- especially when tying in bits of fictional narrative into a real historical event. An example of how interpretation can distort public understanding is through the presence of the only fictional main character amongst real historical figures within Gettysburg, Buster Kilrain. After the movie’s release, thousands of tourists inquired about the location of Kilrain’s grave at Gettysburg.[6] Although viewers must remember not to take fictional movies too seriously, they still impact what we remember about the past. As we have seen through the persistence of the Lost Cause, what is written about history and what is portrayed on screen continues to shape our mindsets.

The important thing to keep in mind is that, although failures on screen can affect what people know about their nation’s history, they are still being given access to events that would otherwise remain unknown.[7] With Gettysburg, the audience is left to see the “goodness” of the soldiers who fought there, while avoiding serious issues of the war.[8] What Maxwell aimed to do was to celebrate our nation’s history and highlight the heroic nature of these soldiers.[9] Regardless of its shortcomings, the viewers are able to personally connect with historical figures and see their more human side, something that nonfiction historical pieces do not always offer.


[1] John J. Pullen, The Twentieth Maine: Volunteer Regiment in the Civil War, 1st ed. (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1957), 121.

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

[3] Ibid.

[4] Brian James Egen, “My Experience on Set of the Movie ‘Gettysburg’,” Civil War 150, 2012.

[5] Jeffrey Parrotte, “History and Memory in ‘Gettysburg’” (master’s thesis, Syracuse University, 2008), 7-8.

[6] Thomas A. Desjardin and NetLibrary, Inc., These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003), 179.

[7] Jeffrey Parrotte, “History and Memory in ‘Gettysburg’” (master’s thesis, Syracuse University, 2008), 7.

[8] Ibid, 44.

[9] William Alan Blair, William Pencak, and NetLibrary, Inc., Making and Remaking Pennsylvania’s Civil War (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), 259.