Streetwise Professor

July 4, 2022

Gettysburg: A Movie Out of Time

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:29 pm

Seeing as Friday-Sunday were the 159th anniversary of the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg, I decided to watch the eponymous movie again. It’s long, so I broke up the watching in parts to match the three days, saving the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble charge climax for yesterday, 3 July.

I still rate the film as one of the best Civil War movies. Now admittedly, that’s a low bar. There aren’t a lot of great ones. Unlike WWII, Korea or Vietnam movies which can focus on a squad or other small group of men and build on the interpersonal dynamics of men under mortal threat, in the Civil War pretty much the smallest group was the company, which in turn was usually part of a regiment that operated as a unit. That doesn’t lend itself to the same cinematic treatment as say Sands of Iwo Jima or Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan. Even WWII movies that focus on big battles, like The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far, tell the story through the actions of small groups of men.

This is why some of the better Civil War movies involve guerrilla warfare, which involves smaller groups, and which can also utilize tropes from Westerns: Confederate guerrilla bands in Missouri, for example, were the proto-outlaw gangs of the post-Civil War West.

So Gettysburg spends little time focused on the enlisted men: the one main enlisted character, Buster Kilrain, is an everyman foil to the intellectual Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Instead, most of the film’s main characters are generals–Buford, and especially Lee and Longstreet, with Hancock, Hood, Trimble and Stuart also getting attention. The private soldiers are parts of masses of men, sweeping forward across open fields or firing volleys from behind stone walls, not individuals.

Like the book on which it is based, The Killer Angels, the movie does a pretty good job of depicting Lee’s decision making, and the tension with Longstreet. It doesn’t take a Jubal Early Longstreet is the Devil approach, nor does it condemn Lee for fighting, and fighting the way he did on those three days. Yes, I would say that a viewer will lean towards sympathizing with Longstreet and questioning Lee’s judgment, but there is considerable basis in the historical record for that interpretation so I don’t take the depiction as unfair to Lee. And it gives Lee plenty of opportunity to explain himself and his objections to Longstreet’s contrary views. Both sides are presented fairly, and it’s really up to you to decide.

The main thing that struck me upon rewatching in 2022 is that the movie could not have been made today. Not a prayer in hell. And that does not speak well of us.

For one thing, the focus is on the Confederacy. John Buford is lionized in the first 45 minutes or so, and Chamberlain of course gets a lot of play, but the emphasis is clearly on the Confederate command and Lee’s decision making: Meade barely makes a cameo. The tragic figures are mainly Confederates, especially Lewis Armistead and Richard B. Garnett. During the remarkable Pickett’s charge scene, the Confederate advance is clearly the dramatic focus.

Nowadays, of course, the Confederacy and Confederates are synonymous with evil. Lee has been knocked off his pedestal–literally. In fact he has literally been knocked off of several pedestals in Richmond and Charlottesville and elsewhere. Monuments to Confederate enlisted men are under threat all over the South. The thought of treating Confederates at all sympathetically is an anathema.

The film and Killer Angels let the characters from both sides speak about their reasons for fighting. Confederate brigadier James L. Kemper expresses the Southern justification for secession to visiting Englishman Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, who has considerable sympathy for it. No doubt you will disagree with Kemper, but the movie presents the Southern view honestly, thereby allowing you to judge it on its merits without having to deal with an ideologically twisted, tendentious presentation of it: the only hint of directorial/authorial judgment is George Pickett’s clownish summary of the Southern cause. Similarly, when Thomas Chamberlain, Lawrence’s brother, converses with a captured private, the Southerner disclaims any racial motivation for his taking up arms, and Chamberlain takes him at his word: no way that would be allowed today.

Even a Northern view, expressed by Kilrain, would be verbotten 29 years after the film was released. Kilrain expresses what at the time was a conventional view among conservatives, and which many old school liberals held as well:

Chamberlain: What do you think of Negroes?

Kilrain: Well, if you mean the race… I don’t really know. This is not a thing to be ashamed of. The thing is, you cannot judge a race. Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit. You take men one at a time. To me, there was never any difference.

In this identitarian age, this is wrongthink that if expressed, puts one at risk of cancelation, loss of job, loss of friends, and perhaps even social death.

For in 2022 (Woke Year 7, at least), in contrast to 1993 (Clinton Year 1), judging by the group is a moral imperative. Judging individuals “one at a time” on their merits, independent of their racial/gender group is considered a sure sign of cis patriarchal white supremacism, and hence evil.

So watching the movie in 2022 made me sad. Not because watching Lewis Armistead’s torment at raising his hand against his best friend and getting shot down by his best friend’s men is sad, but because in 2022 America you are not allowed to find that sad and tragic and human, because Confederacy, and you are prohibited from sympathizing with Armistead as a man irrespective of the nature of the cause for which he perished. Because today a movie that reflects Lincoln’s Second Inaugural (“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right”–which implicitly acknowledges that we might be wrong), as Gettysburg does, is currently outside the bounds of accepted civil discourse. Now charity is a fugitive, and malice is regnant.

And that is precisely why a second Civil War is not inconceivable today. Which is the saddest thing of all.

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  1. Thank you for the post. Just watched it this weekend as well and was explaining to my wife that this would never be made today… Giving the south their voice alongside the north.

    They want eliminate from history great men because they don’t conform to today’s standards.

    Comment by CP — July 4, 2022 @ 7:36 pm

  2. Professor, Happy Independence Day!!! Although I’m not American, I think USA is great country!

    Comment by mmt — July 5, 2022 @ 4:34 am

  3. I offer you what is claimed to be the first ever “Western” film.

    Comment by dearieme — July 5, 2022 @ 4:44 am

  4. “The thought of treating Confederates at all sympathetically is an anathema.”
    Once upon a time it was good manners to honour your enemies.

    Comment by dearieme — July 5, 2022 @ 4:55 am

  5. What bothers me about the entire woke treatment of the defeated in the Civil War is that if the people who they fired their guns at could essentially forgive them and accept them back as their fellow citizens, 160 years later why does this generation of historical illiterates treat them worse?

    Comment by MARK — July 5, 2022 @ 3:08 pm

  6. Thanks, @mmt. Much appreciated and I agree!

    Comment by cpirrong — July 5, 2022 @ 5:33 pm

  7. @dearieme. Hilarious. Thanks for sending that along.

    Comment by cpirrong — July 5, 2022 @ 5:35 pm

  8. @MARK. They have an answer for that. The people who fought and forgave were racists too, dontcha know. They were bad, bad, bad people to forgive.

    To hell with Christian charity and a desire for civil peace.

    Comment by cpirrong — July 5, 2022 @ 5:36 pm

  9. @CP. You are welcome. I often remark on how these people judge so harshly, and never think that they will be judged. That their beliefs will not be admired or accepted in the years to come. It is really arrogant and narcissistic. They really think they are the be all and end all.

    Comment by cpirrong — July 5, 2022 @ 5:38 pm

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