“All I ask is that I can die in battle like a man, but I hate the idea of dying here like a hog.” Heading out onto the battlefield at Gettysburg on the first of July in 1863, Union Sergeant Amos Humiston might well have worried. His thinking about the Civil War — and how he or anyone might have been heroic under its horrific circumstances — is preserved in a letter he wrote to his wife Philinda, of Portville, New York, and read over a recreation of the battle in Gettysburg, a movie premiering on the History Channel on Memorial Day.
Near the movie’s start, Humiston is separated from his company on the first day of the three-day battle. Trapped and alone in this version of events, he’s valiant to the end, soundtrack drums pounding as he staggers and fires at an enemy soldier, then shot in his shoulder (a squib exploding in slow motion) and in his chest. Falling onto his back, his wound smoking and bloody, Humiston pulls out the ambrotype that made him famous — first as the “unknown soldier” who died at Gettysburg, and then as the father of the three children pictured in it. “Oh,” an actor reads from his letter here, “When will this rebellion cease, this cursed war be over, and we our dear ones meet to part from them no more?”
Humiston died with the ambrotype in hand, and his identity was learned only after the Philadelphia Inquirer ran story under the headline, “Whose Father Was He?” Though newspapers were back then unable print photos, Philinda eventually identified her husband and the story generated all manner of sympathy and monetary donations.
Here, Humiston is one of eight men who form Gettysburg‘s dramatic focus. Each experience during the battle is rendered in grand, bloody style (the film comes with occasional cautions for viewers, regarding the violent imagery). The idea appears to be to underline the consequences of war. “It was horrible beyond description,” says the actor playing Confederate Dr. Legrand Wilson. “If every human being could have witnessed the result of the mad passions of men I saw that night, war would cease. There would never be another battle.”
If only. This movie won’t make such results visible to “every human being,” but it does come with a related aspiration, according to Ridley Scott, who executive produced the movie with his brother Tony. “You know, when you’re watching a documentary, the danger is to romanticize,” Ridley tells an interviewer. “There was absolutely nothing romantic about this war whatsoever, no more than any other war.” His formulation is peculiar, to say the least. First, it suggests that in “watching” a film — documentary or explicitly fiction — viewers “romanticize,” as if this process occurs apart from the production. Second, it purports that slow-motion, extra-bloody, hyper-narrated imagery will somehow be un-romantic. But again and again, Gettysburg‘s reenacted violence, framed by interviews with Civil War enthusiasts, privileges motives, strategies, and backstories rather than abject, formless brutality.
You might see Scott’s declaration as an effort to expand the boundaries of documentary; surely, the debate over reenactments in the genre remains unsettled. But Gettysburg‘s contribution to that discussion is more romance, not less. From Humiston and Wilson to Union Lt. Col. Rufus Dawes (“He was tough and experienced, there’s no replacement for that on the battlefield” says George Wunderlich, Executive Director of the Museum of Civil War Medicine) and Confederate General William Barksdale (moved by a “moral aggressiveness with an unfettered hatred for the Yankees,” according to Peter Carmichael, Director of the Civil War Institute), the film offers an array of fantastic characters. Their fortunes at Gettysburg are rendered in harrowing close-ups and sensational long shots, moving up dark nighttime hills or across green fields in vivid sunlight.
Some interviewees offer commentary on strategies. Captain Steven Knott, an instructor at the U.S. Army War College, describes General Lee’s schemes even as they’re thwarted (he “knows he came close, but no cigar!”). On occasion, animated maps lay out the ground that the men on it could not have seen (one night, Southern forces miss an opportunity, says the Civil War Trust’s Gary Adelman, “Because of something so simple, darkness, they don’t know how close they are”). Or again, CGI shows how the weapons of the day probably worked. The canister was “the most devastating weapon of the day, basically tin cans packed with metal balls,” says narrator Sam Rockwell as animation shows these balls coming at you. “Guys would be completely torn apart,” adds Sean Rich, an “expert” who also stars on the History Channel’s Pawn Stars (which is airing a special Civil-War-themed episode this week). “It was so demoralizing for other soldiers who saw this.” Likely.
If you don’t see men blown apart, exactly, in Gettysburg, you do see assorted emotional approximations. Most are built with familiar fiction-film techniques, including rousing music and carefully constructed shots. When, for instance, a private is outraged by a comrade’s death, he appears to descend on the camera, his rifle raised as if to “split the skull of the Rebel who had shot” his friend. Another scene shows black subjects running through woods at night, their desperation to escape underlined by Rockwell’s narration: “If caught, reprisals are brutal, ears chopped off, hamstrings cut.”
The film pauses the battlefield action occasionally in order to provide such background, specifically condemning the South’s slave economy or extolling the bravery of women, like Gettysburg “wife and mother” Fannie Bueller, who served as makeshift nurses (“I ever saw such an unsightly set of men,” she wrote somewhere, so that she can be quoted here). And oh yes, “the fear of dying anonymously haunts troops on both sides, says historian James McPherson. “Dog tags are still 40 years away.”
Such a variety of references offers a number of general contexts, but it also dissipates the storylines. While the interviewees here can look back and put pieces together, fragmentation and lack of focus may be Gettysburg‘s most authentic effect.