Gettysburg in Film

The events of July 1st through 3rd 1863 are tremendously portrayed in the film Gettysburg. Outstanding care is clearly taken to treat the battle with fairness and a dedication to accuracy. The film makers should be given tremendous credit for their work telling the story as it happened, from multiple points of view and with as little bias as can be found in a historical piece.

Film director Ron Maxwell speaks on the commentary track of the DVD explaining how he toured the battlefield at Gettysburg with Michael Shaara, the author of the book on which the film is based. Maxwell claims to have been inspired by the feeling of walking on hallowed ground. He then dedicated himself to making Shaara’s book a movie without fudging the details of history. The film producers were kept in check throughout the film-making process by the presence of thousands of historians on set. Re-enactors were hired as extras for the making of the film and brought their professionalism and dedication to history with them, never tolerating blatant historical slights.[i]

There is only one fictional character in the film, a brittle Irish sergeant in Colonel Chamberlain’s regiment, a typical stock-character. The storytellers were otherwise completely dedicated to the exclusive use of real historical figures. Ted Turner, Gettysburg’s financial supporter asked for a small role in the film. The producers would not settle for anything less than finding a real person on the battlefield for him to become. Turner thus found himself in the very real role of Confederate Colonel Patton, a relative of the WWII general, who died during Pickett’s Charge, though he was only on screen for seconds.[ii]

Most of the story, including dialogues, is pulled from reports and journal entries made by men at the battle. One might worry that this approach risks biasing the writers’ accomplishments as many are prone to glorifying themselves in their memories. The film successfully navigates around this problem by using so many points of view to tell the story. The dispute between Lee and Longstreet over Pickett’s charge is told from both their perspectives, making it possible for viewers to analyze history in a very fair context.

The film is shot entirely on location at the Gettysburg National Military Park.  Sequences were filmed on the exact ground the historic events took place, except where monuments and modern traffic interfered.  In those cases, filming was done within a few miles of the original location on incredibly similar landscapes.[iii]

Gettysburg also tells part of the history of the time in which it was made as well as it serves as a secondary source on 1863. That it took Maxwell fourteen years of active searching to find a studio to produce the movie shows that the 1990’s film industry was afraid of investing in a history story that favors accuracy over Hollywood conventions. The presence of so many dedicated Civil War re-enactors in the movie and Ted Turner’s funding show that there are those who still care a great deal about the events of the war and the political and social issues contained therein.

[i] Kees Van Oostrum, “Commentary Track,” Gettysburg, DVD, directed by Ronald F. Maxwell (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1993).

[ii] Ronald F. Maxwell, “Commentary Track,” Gettysburg, DVD, directed by Ronald F. Maxwell (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1993).

[iii] Van Oostrum.

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