Note: I had not originally planned to watch this cable television presentation when it aired last night. I had other things to do. However, I saw many people posting about the show, and the response was mixed, leaning toward the negative. So I sat down to watch the show. What follows are my notes taken as I watched: I have some reflections on the enterprise, which I’ll share later.
I am all for a movie that realistically portrays the horror of combat, even if that portrayal in the end relies heavily upon imagination.
The opening terrain scene suggests Gettysburg was fought in the Pacific Northwest. Oops.
Opening scene: the Railroad Cut. It’s the story of Rufus Dawes and the 6th Wisconsin. Does anyone reload? Often the sun is to their left (west), whereas it was to the east during this action (in fact, lighting is inconsistent). I see no other units in action in the background. The infantry insignia was a bugle, not crossed rifles. Peter Carmichael makes a talking head appearance. So does Garry Adelman.
Next scene: the collapse of the XI Corps north of town, featuring the story of Amos Humiston and Richard S. Ewell. Finally, someone’s reloading. It’s clear that what we will have are battle scenes linked together by rather lean interpretation/narrative, with talking heads looking earnest and intense. But I don’t see any black Confederates. Someone didn’t get the memo. We do see African American citizens flee, and the story of the Underground Railroad is retold–quickly. Ed Ayers appears at this point in time: apparently the talking heads have been told not to wear ties unless they are in military uniform (Captain Stephen Knott, USN).
And now we see Culp’s Hill and a discussion of Dawes and his men digging in, although the field fortifications on Culp’s Hill were as much building up as “digging in.” An ad reminds us that tomorrow there’s a Lee and Grant show. Hmmm. John Burns is tied to Dodge trucks, and the ensuing commercial is narrated by John Buford … I mean Sam Elliott.
Ewell’s decision not to attack Cemetery Hill is passed over briefly. The discussion blurs Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill, as well as the timing involved. Then we go to a slaveholding Mississippi doctor, and we see the first black in Confederate lines. Doubtless we’ll hear a lot about that. What follows is a short (and graphic) discussion of the impact of a Civil War bullet on human flesh and bone. More is made of the presence of blacks behind Confederate lines, but not as Confederate soldiers.
On to George G. Meade, and a somewhat inaccurate discussion of Union deployment, followed by James M/ McPherson’s first appearance. The fishhook did not long survive Daniel Sickles, and it was the Confederate attack that did much to restore it.
Moving on to July 2 … and the Pacific Northwest scene-setting shot. Hari Jones is amongthe talking heads, but he addresses William Barksdale and the assault on the Union left. An inserted discussion of the use of the telegraph seems besides the point. The focus on the Signal Corps is interesting, although in truth the signalmen were deceived by Longstreet’s countermarch to believe that the assault would be on the right and not the left. Meade did not know about Longstreet’s march until the Confederates engaged Dan Sickles’s III Corps. The map rendering of Sickles’s position is off, and the Union did not know what was coming. Someone’s been careless in assembling the narrative. The terrain along the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield is all wrong, to be polite. Yes, there are wooded areas, but there was also open space. So far, by the way, only Mississippi’s shown up for the Confederacy.
Barksdale’s men advance, after offering a rather odd rendition of the Rebel yell. Maybe that’s why the general has such a difficult time managing his horse. The terrain continues to be off: there seem to be a lot more significant heights than Little Round Top and Big Round Top in the near background. Garry Adelman’s getting really good air time, but does that compensate for the errors? Not all the reinforcements that went to the Union left came from Culp’s Hill. Again, the terrain’s all wrong when it comes to the Union artillery stopping Barksdale, but that’s the way it is: not enough reenactors to give a sense of the scale of battle. Barksdale goes down, and that’s that. George Wunderlich is also getting a good deal of face time. It’s an interesting assortment of talking heads.
Back to Culp’s Hill. For once, this looks like Culp’s Hill. But first, another commercial tied in to the show, one people seem to like. The Geico caveman is wearing three stars on his shoulder straps, so he shouldn’t be talking about authenticity. Then more John Buford/Sam Elliott being Ram Tough. Uh-huh. Another Confederate’s introduced (a Maryland soldier, Ridgely Howard … another slaveholder … there’s been one non-slaveholding Confederate to date). We break away for a discussion of field hospitals, the wounded, and amputations. The back to the Union right, where Rufus Dawes prepares a counterattack, while to the right the Marylander Howard participates in the Confederate breakthrough. Nice snippet on the Bureau of Military Intelligence, but once more one wonders why that’s mentioned.
On to July 3. The fighting opens at Culp’s Hill, where Marylander fights Marylander. Union colonel James Wallace (a slaveholder, btw) survives; Howard goes down, next to an infantryman wearing a cavalryman’s pants. Union soldiers rescued him from possible death. But this is all prelude to what we all know happens next: Pickett’s Charge.
… except we have another Mississippian, Joe Davis (who was involved in the same fight at the Railroad Cut on July 1). Once more, terrain’s badly wrong (as in the berm behind Union artillery). Sean Rich tells us about the impact of artillery noise on cannoneers. Love the hill slopes and inappropriate terrain all around. Even the portrayal of the line of attack from birdeye’s range is off badly. But the story is the artillery. Henry J. Hunt would have liked this.
The fighting along Emmitsburg Road is badly misrepresented (the Yankees were not that close), although the Bloody Angle fighting is not as bad. More graphic images of the dead, and yet one does not get a good grasp of the scale of the carnage until the representation of the field on July 4. After a short section recapping what happened to those people who survived the battle (as well as Humiston’s identification), the movie ends.
Assessment to follow …
Brooks writes…”The opening terrain scene suggests Gettysburg was fought in the Pacific Northwest. Oops.”
Actually I have heard it was South Africa of all places…South Africa?
I just call them as they look to me … wherever the scene was shot, it was not south central Pennsylvania. Nor did the street fighting in Gettysburg look like Gettysburg.
I recorded it and plan to watch it in the next day or so. I’m not very hopeful of its merit.
You said: “Then we go to a slaveholding Mississippi doctor, and we see the first black in Confederate lines. Doubtless we’ll hear a lot about that.”
I missed that, Brooks. 🙂
The number of short-lived references to this, that, and the other simply confused things. But I’m sure someone will mention this sooner or later, and someone else may make much of this. As with so many other things, the point was underdeveloped, but that was part of the problem with the presentation.
Classic comment from Kevin L.’s blog:
“Well at least it wasn’t American Pickers or Swamp People or whatever crap they put on.”
See – it could be worse!
Okay, so I’m a philistine, I still thought it was better than beards and b-actors…