One of the keys to a good presentation is deciding what story you want to tell. That, in the end, was the problem with THC’s Gettysburg: it could not decide what story it wanted to tell, and it had only two hours in which to tell it all.
Yes, there were mistakes. Some involved detail, some involved botching simple facts, and some showed sloppiness. Most atrocious was the issue of terrain: few scenes got that correct. But, in the end, there were several approaches here, and they were all collapsed together into a single mess.
One approach, and the one with most promise, was an exploration of the battle as certain individuals experienced it. Built up in a more dramatic sense, we could have learned more about several important actors. Some people have complained about the lack of Buford, Chamberlain, and Longstreet. I direct you to Ted Turner’s rendition of this battle. This holy trinity of Killer Angels has already gotten its due (and more): these three were not the only individuals of interest during the battle. Yes, the usual high points received short shift, but that did not bother me, although I can well understand how those expecting a rendering of the entire battle would have found all this troubling. That goes to the issue of expectations, of which more in a moment.
Another approach was the attempt to explore certain back stories about technology, weaponry, African Americans, civilians, medical practices, and the like. This could have been an interesting hour in itself, instead of the snippets that were rarely developed. Instead, it was as if the knowledge was snuck in during the pauses between stories, and rarely was it developed to leave a more developed impression.
Finally, there was the traditional documentary narrative, talking heads and all, with maps and so on, in what turned out to be a meager effort to tell the story of the battle. There was potential here for an interesting story as well. The talking heads did their jobs with the usual skill in explaining the obvious in dramatic and enthusiastic fashion. Maybe there was a lot of coffee consumed between takes. But I missed the bookcases and ties.
THC’s Gettysburg could not make up its mind which story it wanted to tell. As gory as the images of combat were, I rarely got the sense that I was watching a large-scale battle. Commanders were treated in sketchy style: there were better ways to link the individual stories to a larger narrative, and perhaps telling fewer of those stories in more depth was the way to go. Even the nods in the right direction remained underdeveloped, and as for the combat scenes, I still prefer the opening minutes of Glory. I had no idea why we were watching this movie, or what the film makers wanted us to learn.
And this, in the end, brings me to my other serious criticism: the publicity for the film was sorely lacking. A viewer simply did not know what to anticipate, and so much of the criticism I’ve seen is grounded in the end upon various expectations of what people thought they were going to see. Oh, bloggers were offered trinkets for posting about the movie (I have yet to hear back from THC on that issue), but this is a case where previews and giving viewers a more directed sense of what they were about to see would have helped tremendously. That said, given the collision of approaches here, perhaps an effort to educate expectations and anticipate anticipations would have simply added to the confusion.
Yes, there were many little things wrong here: my favorite remains the insignia for infantry, which was represented as the crossed rifles of kiddie kepis. And there were bigger things wrong here, with terrain leading the way visually along with the occasional factual gaffe. But the real problem was that the Scotts could not decide the story they wanted to tell, and the publicity for the show left audience members anticipating all sorts of things. It’s a sign of the erratic nature of the PR machine that while they contacted me about Gettysburg, I’ve heard not a word about tonight’s Lee & Grant … so I await that production with interest.