As already covered in last week’s post: based on the book Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
and covers the most famous battle of the Civil War. My brother sat down and watched this movie when he came home from kindergarten one day. (Yes, my family is full of history buffs). I’ve also already mentioned that my parents took my brother and I on summer vacations to Gettysburg; it was a pleasure to return in high school and again during a college choir trip. I’m the dork that asks about the canons. I’m not entirely sure why my own high school class came to love parts of this movie, but they do bring back a fond memory or two. What I found helpful during our lessons on this were maps laid out of each day and major movements of each army. I still have that project…buried away somewhere. This is one way that the book is better than the movie; I still can’t keep everything straight. And I can’t rightly remember if our concert band played this theme or not for a concert; it is a stirring theme nevertheless.
A few casting changes: Martin Sheen portrays General Robert E. Lee, Stephen Lang now plays Major General George Pickett, Tom Berenger plays Lieutenant General James Longstreet, and Sam Elliott is Brigadier General John Buford. The film opens with pictures of the major players with the stars listed and transforms into pictures from the film, showing how close the hair and makeup department got with their work.
The two armies are circling around each other; Longstreet has a spy who scopes out the Union line, mainly since J.E.B. Stuart is nowhere to be found. Lee needs information and also begs his general to stop his habit of riding at the front of his men when they fight (Longstreet point out it’s hard to lead from the back; a popular criticism of that style of leadership in battle); this is a result of the death of Jackson; Lee cannot afford to lose Longstreet. It appears to be an accident that the armies found each other at Gettysburg, though the general consensus is, it’s good land, and it’s very hot and humid (which it is, especially in July). Buford is first to arrive at Seminary Ridge (yes, there is Seminary and Cemetery Ridge) and guesses what both Lee and Meade (new general of the Union forces) will do. Since he is there, he makes the decision to fight for the high ground. The Union retreats a bit on the first day and Longstreet wants to break away and make for Washington. Lee decides (stubbornly, in my opinion) to stay.
It is from “Buster” Kilrain we get the title of the book, remarking to Lawrence Chamberlain, “if men be angels, then they be killer angels.” He remarks that Chamberlain is an idealist; Kilrain is fighting to prove that he is better than the horrible men that do exist. On the other side of the battlefield, we meet more of the Confederate leaders, including Pickett and Freemantle, a British envoy to the South. He later remarks to Longstreet that Northern and Southern Americans have different dreams. Longstreet brings up England’s own civil war (yes, there was one, but fought differently. I believe it was mentioned in Gods and Generals that America is trying to mimic Europe’s bloody history). Longstreet also feels that the slaves should have been freed before the Confederacy ever fired on Fort Sumter. But, they’d rather lose the war than admit a mistake. And they like their leaders religious and a little mad.
A theme that echoes poignantly in this film and the books and was very true of the war; there were friends who fought each other on opposite sides. Longstreet knew Grant from the wars in Mexico. Another key friendship is between Confederate Armistead and Union Hancock, best friends from previous wars, now across the same battlefield. Hancock is not taken lightly by the Confederates; they know how well he fights and what he will do. Both men wish to visit each other, one last time, during a lull in the fighting. Longstreet even approves Armistead’s request, but they never have an opportunity.
Come the second day of battle, Confederate Hood is ordered to take the high ground around Devil’s Den, terribly rocky terrain. He tries his darndest, but ultimately fails. The 20th Maine becomes the flank of the Union army on Little Round Top and are ordered to hold the line. The Confederates move up the hill five or six times and Maine repels them, though they take hits and casualties. When they’re low on bullets, Chamberlain orders them to charge down with bayonets. This is the part that my class re-enacted when we visited Gettysburg. It is a rather amazing scene. At the end, the Confederates surrender and Maine has earned a little break.
Stuart finally arrives and faces Lee. He tries to resign for the slight he has made to his own honor, but Lee won’t let him. He needs his best cavalry leader, but Stuart needs to do better in the future. In the morning, after Lee comments that they are a day away from Independence Day and they may well gain the South’s independence, he orders Longstreet to have Pickett’s men charge the center of the Union line, correctly figuring that the flanks will be reinforced. A big problem though, there is an artillery unit smack in the middle of the line, under the command of Hancock and the Union troops have managed to fortify the center; they are well entrenched and Longstreet realizes the danger Pickett’s men will be in. Lee feels it will work.
A slight deviation from historical facts has the 20th Maine moved to the center of the Union line, figuring it will be quiet. Lawrence Chamberlain and his younger brother Thomas (whom he always has to discipline to call him “sir,” not “Lawrence”) were there on that day, asking for supplies. They take cover when Longstreet’s artillery starts firing, hoping to break the line first, sadly after they find out that Kilrain has died from his injuries the previous day. Pickett’s men charge: realize, this is a mile of open terrain for the Confederates to cross, with no cover, right at canon fire. Pickett urges his men to victory for Virginia. What Longstreet feared (since this movie was made long after the actual battle, characters can have incredible insight) occurs. It’s a slaughter. Hancock is shot and refuses to be moved until the battle is decided. Armistead is shot leading his men to the line. Pickett, far back from the action, openly worries “what’s happening to my boys?” Thomas Chamberlain finds Armistead, who is desperate to see Hancock, only to find out that Hancock has been injured. He calls out for his friend: “not both of us!” At the end of the fighting, the Union soldiers chant “Fredericksburg!” in relation to the defeat they suffered under similar circumstances there.
Lee decides to fall back; tells his men to retreat and fight another day. He comes across Pickett, who stands in shocks and informs the general, “I have no division.” The film closes on the Chamberlain brothers hugging. Pictures play again, summarizing what happened to many of the main characters. Longstreet remained Lee’s most dependable solider. He died in 1904 at the age of 83. Stuart was mortally wounded at the Battle of Yellow Tavern and dies May 12, 1864. Pickett’s division was virtually destroyed. He survives the war to great glory, but broods on the loss to his dying day. Hancock survives his wound and runs in 1880 for president, only to lose to Garfield. The package that Armistead left with Longstreet to be delivered upon his death was his personal Bible for Myra Hancock, Winifred’s wife. Chamberlain received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at Little Round Top. Lee served until the end of the war; he surrendered to Grant at Appomattox April 9, 1865. He died in 1870, “perhaps the most beloved general in American history.” (I completely agree with this).
Gettysburg is remembered as the turning point of the Civil War; it is the most North the Confederacy ever got. It is also the biggest and bloodiest battle on American soil; combined losses total over 53,000. And similar to Gods and Generals, Gettysburg was filmed on location at Gettysburg. A few scenes were filmed at a nearby farm, due to changes over the years. This is I think the only time Gettysburg allowed a movie to be filmed on location. They’re careful with re-enactors every year; the park is one of the best preserved in the country. It has set the bar for what I expect from battlefields, which is why I’ve been disappointed elsewhere.
I have traveled Virginia a little bit, but haven’t visited any of the other Civil War battlefields; it’s something I know my mother would like to do. We’d also like to visit Lee’s home in Arlington. Virginia is just chockfull of history and historical sites; it is the first colony (he he, we’ll cover that in 1776), thus a center of Colonial history and Civil War history.
As always, if you have any questions, let me know. If I can’t answer it, there’s a decent chance someone in my family can, ha ha.
Up Next: The epic, Gone with the Wind