I began the Fourth of July this year by watching the last 90 minutes of “Gettysburg,” Ted Turner’s epic 1993 film. My wife and I had begun watching on July 3, the date of Pickett’s Charge and the final day of the 1863 Civil War battle, but the more than four-and-a-half hour running time took me to Independence Day.
This was the extended version, the Director’s Cut, which adds 17 minutes of deleted scenes to the version shown in movie theaters, itself one of the longest movies ever offered to the American public. We had last watched the un-extended film from beginning to end on a VHS tape almost 30 years ago.
- “Gettysburg” is an ethics movie, and a great one. I don’t know why this didn’t come through to me the first time I watched it. Primarily it celebrates the Seven Enabling Virtues discussed in yesterday’s post, but the film teaches us a lot about leadership, integrity, compassion, duty, loyalty, and conflicts of interest.
If the film isn’t routinely shown in schools, and I’m sure it isn’t, that is a lost opportunity. A whole course of study could be based on the film alone, and it would be more educational than most history courses.
- Some of the added minutes extend the Pickett’s Charge re-enactment, and the length of the sequence adds to its horror and wonder. How could anyone enthusiastically follow orders to attempt such a deadly march into enemy artillery and rifle fire, while lined up like tin rabbits at a shooting gallery, in an open field, even having to climb over fences?
The film makes it clear, and this is accurate, that it was the men’s trust and admiration, almost worship, of Robert E. Lee that made such insane valor possible. At Gettysburg, Lee abused that trust. He was warned that the plan was madness, and he was so certain of his own invulnerability that he persisted.
- The film made me realize that it is likely that Lee’s famous “It was all my fault!’ refrain to his returning shattered troops signified his realization that his vanity and pride had been the direct cause for the Pickett’s Charge fiasco, and indeed the entire engagement. After the fiasco, the film shows Lee as a shattered man. General Longstreet, who repeatedly advises Lee to go around the Union entrenchment and take up a position on high ground between Pennsylvania and Washington, reminds Lee that even after the failed Confederate assault on Little Round Top on July 2, it is not too late for his plan to work. Lee replies that such a maneuver would be tantamount to a retreat, saying that he had never left the field of battle with the enemy in control, and is not about to start.
If General Lee was capable of listening to what he was really saying, he would have realized that he was using a personal motive to justify a decision that could not be justified rationally.
- At other times Lee models excellent management and leadership skill…the film would also be useful in management seminars. When he rebukes an officer or rejects his opinion, Lee always is shown praising the officer effusively to end the encounter. He is careful not to treat mistakes, even egregious ones, as wrongful acts, if the officer responsible acknowledges the error.
Strikingly, the film’s coda, in which it informs the audience with text revealing what happened to the major participants after the battle, states that Robert E. Lee is perhaps “the most beloved general in American history.” That was just 27 years ago! The movie helps us understand why Lee was beloved, and it had nothing to do with slavery.
Uber-liberal Martin Sheen plays Lee. When I first saw the film, I was distracted by Sheen’s lack of any physical resemblance to the general, but this time I found Sheen’s performance nuanced, perceptive and fascinating. At one point General Armistad comments that he doesn’t think anyone else could have held the Confederate troops together. Sheen’s artistry shows why that may have been true.
- General Longstreet (Tom Berenger, also excellent; his best career performance) struck me as a tragic figure on first viewing, but this time I saw his quiescence to Lee’s mad plan as an ethics failure. The film makes it clear that Longstreet was convinced that Pickett’s Charge would be a catastrophe, and even tells his generals that the result of the attack will probably determine the outcome of the war. Yet he takes no assertive action to stop a tactic he is certain will fail. He just watches his men get slaughtered. Longstreet also is depicted as reacting to his lack of faith in Lee’s stratagem by executing it hesitantly and sullenly.
This is the verdict of many historians as well, and it was unethical. Longstreet’s choice was to have the courage to stop the disaster, or to commit to Lee’s plan without reserve. He did neither, then blamed Lee in his memoirs and publicly for the rest of his life.
- The movie has more ethically profound quotes than most ethics movies (“A Man For All Seasons” being the primary exception). A couple of them come from the only fictional character in the book “Gettysburg” was based on, “The Killer Angels.” Sgt. Buster Kilrain, played by Kevin Conway, tells Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels)f or example:
“I don’t think race or country matters a damn. What matters, Colonel, is justice. Which is why I’m here. I’ll be treated as I deserve, not as my father deserved. I’m a Kilrain and I damn all gentlemen. There is only one aristocracy, and that is right here [points to his head]. And that’s why we’ve got to win this war.”
- This is Kilrain’s superior, Chamberlain, a college professor, channeling his sergeant later as he gives an improvised pep talk to his regiment before battle. The speech is also adapted from “The Killer Angels,” which adapted Chamberlain’s own writings:
“We are here for something new, this has not happened much, in the history of the world. We are an army out to set other men free. America should be free ground, all of it, not divided by a line between slave states and free – all the way from here to the PacificOcean. No man has to bow. No man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was.”
- The movie is notable in its portrayal of the warring officers as being completely free of hate. They were doing a job, performing a duty, and understood that the men on the other side were doing the same. The center of this uplifting aspect of the film is Confederate General Lew Armistead, a Virginian under Longstreet’s command, whose dearest friend is General Winfield Hancock on the Union side. When Armistead is fatally wounded after breaching the Union center after Pickett’s charge, he asks to see Hancock and is told that his friend has been seriously wounded too. “Oh no!” Armistead wails. “Not both of us!” (There is a street named after Armistead not far from here. I’m sure they will be changing the name shortly)
These men stayed free of hate while trying to kill each other, and our current adversarial sides can’t stop being hateful over slogans like “Black lives matter,” All lives matter,” and probably “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!”
Finally, regarding the movie itself….
- Ted Turner has often been a jerk, but the nation owes him a dept of thanks for many contributions he has made to our culture. “Gettysburg” is not the least of them.
- Critics have complained that the movie doesn’t show enough blood and gore. Indeed, it does not show much blood, and this was intentional by Turner, who wanted children to be able to see it. (Steven Spielberg made the same call in “Jurassic Park.”) The lack of modern spurting arteries and “Saving Private Ryan”-style carnage doesn’t diminish the dramatic force of the movie even slightly.
- The political bias of Hollywood has seldom been demonstrated more vividly than by its total snub of this film for Oscar recognition. The direction, cinematography, scripting and scoring were all superb. Daniels, Sheen and especially Richard Jordan as Armistead gave nomination-worthy performances. (Jordan was dying while he made the film, which is usually a plus in Oscar consideration.) As for the film itself, I would rather sit through all four hours and 37 minutes again before I would revisit “Parasite”or “1917,” “Birdman,” “Gladiator,” “American Beauty”—oh, lots of the winners and nominees since 1993.
Of course, the new Academy Awards criteria requires diversity in casting, so a film that tells the story of brave and conflicted white men wouldn’t be eligible anyway.