Documentary Review of Gettysburg (2011)

by JoHarrington

Tony and Ridley Scott are the directors of this gritty docu-drama, which focuses on lesser known stories from the Battle of Gettysburg. Originally shown on The History Channel.

I reached the closing credits visibly moved by what I'd just witnessed on my screen. 'Gettysburg' is a documentary which pulls no punches, though the 'viewer discretion' disclaimers felt a little over the top.

But what do you expect? This was a 94 minute production made by the people who brought us 'Alien', 'Blade Runner' and 'Prometheus'.

History purists will be tearing their hair out over some of the detail, but 'Gettysburg' delivers big-time on its remit.

The History Channel's Gettysburg (2011)

Gritty Docu-Drama as an Introduction to Gettysburg

There has been so much written, filmed and spoken about the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg. But this was something different.

Image:  Tony and Ridley Scott's Gettysburg stillTony and Ridley Scott set out to create a cinematic style docu-drama, which would interest people who wouldn't normally know or care about historical events. 

The result has frequently been described, a little too harshly, as more style than substance.

Watching the scenes unfold is certainly an emotional experience.  Re-enactments and CGI are used to really give a sense of what was going on.  Sam Rockwell's voice-over contextualizes the action, while 'talking head' academic experts are inserted between scenes to delve a little deeper.

I cried.  I reached the end with tears running down my face.  It's that sort of intense viewing, which really plays on the heart and replays in your head.

Most Gettysburg documentaries focus upon the same old stories, as seminal and important as they are.  This one dug out some of the lesser known tales.

Eight men are chosen, straddling both grey and blue sides of the great divide.  Their individual experiences are highlighted in close focus.  We see the battle through their eyes and become emotionally invested in their Fate.

Given the circumstances, that's a bit of an error and the reason for those real tears shed.  But for overall viewing, it's perfect.  It strips away the heroism and history to show us the ugliness of war and the reality of having to run against those cannons and musket balls.

You will see amputations and other horrific injuries.  But this is not a gore-fest.  There is more seen in your mind's eye, through letting your imagination journey along the implications, than there is on the screen.

History Trailer - Gettysburg Trailer

I love that they used Placebo's cover of 'Running Up That Hill' in the trailer. It's not in the actual documentary at all, but it's very fitting.

Buy Gettysburg on Blu-Ray/DVD Combo

Shifting Focus to Obscure Gettysburg Histories

Usually a history of the Battle of Gettysburg looks from the viewpoint of Generals Lee and Meade, or the famous charges of Joshua Chamberlain and George Pickett.

Meade is one of the eight highlighted here, but only briefly.  The rest barely score a mention, and it's this which has incensed many precious viewers.

Personally, I thought it a point in the documentary's favor. While not wishing to lessen the considerable importance of all of the above, those stories can be heard anywhere.

Instead we got to hear more about those who would ordinarily fade into the background, as mere cannon fodder and background screams.  Ordinary soldiers came to the forefront here, though some were slightly famous at the time.

For example, Amos Humiston's is one of the more poignant commonplace tales to come from Gettysburg.  His body was found to be clutching a photograph of his three children.

A national press campaign finally put a name to him, as his wife came forward. She became symbolic of the loss and grieving amongst families and friends in 1863.

Humiston's story is told in this documentary.

Watch Gettysburg (2011) on Amazon Instant Video

Extended Trailer for The History Channel's Gettysburg

How Historically Accurate was Gettysburg?

Some screaming critics have dismissed it out of hand for not mentioning Chamberlain or using the wrong buttons on uniforms.

Let me first say that I'm not an expert on this battle.  I'm an historian, but I'm more use tearing to pieces a battle in Britain, than in the USA.

Nevertheless I did notice a disconnection between what was seen and what was heard.  The footage, in all its drama and heart-rending grittiness, didn't always ring true.  The narration, utterly hyperbolic in part, did follow the reality much more closely.

I was intrigued enough to do some digging, which uncovered Garry Adelman's guest blogging on Civil War Memory.  Adelman was one of the 'talking head' historians and battlefield guides featured in the documentary.  He put the filming into context too.

It appears that the experts came on board after the scenes had been filmed.  They were able to influence the narration and the final edit, but couldn't do anything about screw top canteens and other anachronisms, which had crept into filming.

(In truth, unless you are an avid historian and know about Gettysburg with an obsessive's focus, you won't spot a single anachronism.  There's nothing jarring here.  We literally are talking about the wrong buttons on Confederate uniforms and the like.)

There is nothing in Gettysburg which simply did not happen.  In that regard, it is historically accurate.  But there is a lot of omission and tight focus, which may be misleading.

I've mentioned that I loved the way that more obscure people were targeted, but that ended up implying that they were the most important individuals there.  Picket's Charge is shown (without Picket), but looking only at a single troop involved in the suicidal marching towards Union lines.  It gives the impression that only thirty or so men did this, rather than the 12,500 in reality.

Similarly, when Lieutenant Colonel Dawes's Iron Brigade overwhelmed Confederate soldiers at the half-built railway, it left viewers with the impression that it was alone. The reality was that many more units were involved in that one.

The devil is in details like these, but the overall telling was accurate; at least insofar as I can ascertain.

Great Books about the Battle of Gettysburg

Buy these histories to discover much more about this famous pivotal battle in the American Civil War.

Buy Gettysburg (2011) Outside the USA

Gettysburg on Amazon (Canada)

Gettysburg on Amazon (France)

Gettysburg on Amazon (Italy)

Gettysburg on Amazon (Japan)
Please note that this is an American import, thus it is in English.

Gettysburg on Amazon (Spain)
Please note that this is an American import, so it is in English.

Gettysburg on Amazon (Spain)
Please note that this is in Italian with the option of English subtitles too.

Gettysbury on Amazon (UK)

Gettysburg Not Filmed at Gettysburg Battleground

The background did not entirely match the actual battlefield at Gettysburg.

This is because it wasn't filmed there. It wasn't even shot in the USA.  Tony and Ridley Scott took their cast to South Africa to record all of the footage.  It made their budget stretch even further.

On one hand, this meant that you didn't get a film crew traipsing all over a place of historical significance, blowing up actual pieces of heritage.

On the other, it meant some topographical leaps.  For example, the rolling hills of Pennsylvania looked distinctly like actual mountains, particularly on the charges!

Did Scott's Gettysburg Favor the Union Over the Confederates?

In my viewing, I certainly thought so; but I've heard commentators opining that it was the other way round.

One thing which struck me throughout the docu-drama was the lack of balance in uniforms.  I'm not talking about the nit-picking wrong buttons here, but the whole outfit.

Union soldiers, practically without exception, were smartly turned out in their blue army uniforms. They might be sweat-soaked and grimy by the finish, but they looked like a solid unit.

In contrast, the Confederates largely looked like they'd just come out of the fields, by-passing a bath in order to get there. 

Where were the grey uniforms, which I've seen so much of in actual photographs?  Apparently in the wash, because the bulk of the Southerners were clad in an array of different trousers, shirts and waistcoats.

It wasn't that there weren't any grey uniforms at all, but not many.  I soon learned to tell the armies apart by whether they were in a uniform (Union) or in their farming clothes (Confederate).

There was also a lot of emphasis upon whether the Confederate under focus owned slaves or not, and if so, how many.  Some would say that this was justified, as that was the point of the whole battle.  But frankly the documentary didn't establish that, beyond a brief (and highly poignant) scene concerning an escaping female slave.

We weren't similarly told which of the Union officers and soldiers also owned slaves, or supported its institution.  There wasn't a single Confederate highlighted who didn't own them (in reality around 52% or less did not own slaves).

Nor was there any mention of the other issues which led to the American Civil War.  Nothing there about the states seceding from the Union, and the subsequent Union invasion/reclamation (depending on which side you're on); nor the Morrill Tariff and other protectionism; nor the disparate representation in government; nor the real threat of poverty in the North, if the rich South was allowed to leave.

Ok, I didn't expect more minor issues like the State's Right debate to turn up, but the rest were quite big.

Instead we were left with a vague feeling that it was something to do with slavery; and the South were the only slave owners and they were prepared to protect that with their lives.  Without putting on the proper uniforms.

However, other commentators have argued that the Confederate stories were the most moving. While the Union stories tended to be all-action, testosterone fests, without the same emotional depth.

Frankly, as an independent observer, that wasn't my enduring impression at all.  They all tugged at my heart-strings!

Did Scott's Gettysburg Favor the Union or the Confederacy?

Please feel free to state your case here.
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Gettysburg: A Documentary to Spark Interest in an Important Historical Event

In all of the wrangling, we shouldn't lose sight of the original objective. In that it succeeded hands down!

Since the screening of Gettysburg, on Memorial Day 2011, guides at the battlefield have recorded an increased number of people visiting.

They came because they saw the documentary and now wanted to visit the real location. The humanity of the docu-drama had done its job. 

Those without any inkling of the reality, nor any prior interest in history, were suddenly turning up to find out what had happened back there in July 1863.  If it was in the nature of those visiting a film set, then it didn't matter.  They were still there.

Naturally, the first thing that the Gettysburg tour guides had to do was expand their visitors' horizons.  But this was done in an atmosphere of genuine fascination.

The original remit of Tony and Ridley Scott was to do just this.  They succeeded with aplomb and a highly memorable telling of the mud-and-guts actuality of the battle itself.

In my opinion, that counts for a lot.  Once they're through the door, then they can learn about history.  What's so wrong about that?

It certainly moved me to tears; and caused me to mention the story to everyone in my vicinity for days afterwards.  Despite its shortcomings, it is a movie which I would recommend, especially to newcomers to the history of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Good Books about the American Civil War

Read these histories to place the Battle of Gettysburg into its wider context.

Articles about the American Civil War

When we imagine the heat and blood of Gettysburg, it's the men that we see standing or falling in the blasts. But there were women there too, in the ranks, with their muskets.
The Battle of Gettysburg was a pivotal point during the American Civil War. It's been the location of countless ghostly tales ever since.
The Battle of Sharpsburg, aka Antietam, was the bloody start to the Maryland Campaign of the American Civil War. Today it's one of America's most haunted sites.
Do American Civil War soldiers still fight on South Mountain? Their ghosts have been seen, felt and heard upon those once treacherous slopes.
Updated: 03/19/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 10/20/2012

Would you recommend this documentary?

Yes, the horror often does get lost under crowing about the glory. That's the pity of war, because then it does keep on happening over and over again.

Darla Sue Dollman on 10/20/2012

I watched this, too. I've read so much about Gettysburg--it is a true horror story, particularly the aftermath, the suffering of the injured soldiers and what was left for the people of the town to deal with when the soldiers moved on. Difficult topic, but important to remember so history does not repeat itself when we argue over political differences.

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