Before I start to turn negative, I want to establish that there are
things I like very much about Gettysburg. Despite its length (more than four
hours), I watched it through in a straight shot except for pauses to read Wikipedia, and I am not known as a patient man, so you know it
has an interesting running narrative.
I especially liked the middle third of the film, which features Jeff
Daniels delivering the performance of his lifetime as Col. Joshua
Chamberlain, the classics teacher who volunteered for the Union army
because he was an idealist who believed in the Northern cause. Chamberlain
and his Maine volunteers pulled off an almost unbelievable defense of the
Union's left flank at Little Round Top, capped by a remarkable and
improbably successful bayonet charge which they made out of desperation
when they ran out of ammunition. This surprise tactic was a hell of a
piece of soldiering, both courageous and brilliant, and it came from a
professor of rhetoric and religion, not a West Point grad.
I liked many other things about the film as well. I appreciate that it
was played out on the actual Gettysburg battle site, which has been
preserved in virtually its original condition, and I appreciate that the
film was made by consulting with many scholars, and that all of the extras
were played by experienced Civil War re-enactors, who provided authentic
clothing and weaponry.
There are flaws as well. Since I'm not a Civil War buff, I would have
appreciated more graphics to show me precisely how the tactics were
intended to work, and I would have really appreciated it if some of the
fictional speechifyin' had been toned down. Despite those quibbles, I can
say that Gettysburg is a stirring and realistic film. The Chamberlain
third, if considered on its own, would be an unqualified masterpiece.
But there is a great flaw in the center of it, and that is an
important one: Martin Sheen plays Robert E. Lee as a dotty, diminutive,
illogical old fool who rode his tiny horse clumsily and never found
a hat that fit him properly.
It is true that Lee made an incomprehensibly poor tactical decision in
ordering Pickett's Charge on the final day of battle. He sent 13-15,000 men to march uphill into an
open field in the face of Union artillery and sharpshooters who not only
held the high ground, but were protected by entrenched positions.
Furthermore, he ordered that assault after his right hand man, Longstreet,
told him it was a suicide mission, using these words:
"General, I have been a soldier all my
life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads,
companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as
any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand
men ever arrayed for battle can take that position."
The results demonstrated that Longstreet was right. More than half of the
Confederate troops were shot or captured, and just about all of the
generals and colonels were lost. But Lee knew it would be an extremely
difficult task and there were good reasons why he ordered it anyway. It's
worthwhile to remember that if Lee had followed Longstreet's advice, he
would have gained significant short-term advantages, but would almost
certainly have lost the war anyway. Unlike General Longstreet, Lee was
focused not on tactical gain, but on long-term strategic and political
objectives. He knew that a decisive Rebel victory at Gettysburg could well
prompt European intervention, and might well cause the Union to sue for
peace, and if he could soundly defeat the Army of the Potomac at
Gettysburg, he was prepared to march directly to a virtually undefended
Washington, not with an assault, but with peace offered from strength.
Lee knew that a series of tactical victories would not bring about
peace, but would only prolong war. He was not a fool. He knew of the
Northern advantages in industrial output and manpower, and he knew that a
loss at Gettysburg, or even an inconclusive victory, would mean a long and
drawn-out war that he was probably bound to lose. He wanted and needed a
crushing victory at Gettysburg to secure his overall objectives, and the
only way to get that was to split the Northern army, which would have
allowed him to win in a rout. He felt that Pickett's Charge was his one
chance to do that, so he opted for a high risk strategy with a potential
high reward. He had pulled off similar upsets in the past, and in fact the
entire assault on Pennsylvania was based on a comparable gamble. Like
Joshua Chamberlain at Little Round Top, Lee knew what he had to do, stayed
focused on it, and rolled the dice when he felt there was no other good
option. The only difference between the two surprising strategies is that
one worked and the other failed.
The film doesn't really capture the essence or the magnitude of Lee's
pragmatic calculation. Instead it portrays Lee as some kind of a mystic
who thought that Pickett's Charge would surely have to succeed because he
unjustified faith in his troops, whose subsequent defeat turned him into a doddering,
blubbering senile coot.
That portrayal spoils the film for me.