Tuesday, October 08, 2013

A Real History Lesson

Twenty years ago today, I was baffled by the timing of the debut of "Gettysburg."

1993 was a good year for the movie to come out. You see, as a student of American history, I knew that the actual battle occurred 130 years earlier — in July of 1863 — and the famous address that Abraham Lincoln gave at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery was in November of that year.

But the movie made its debut in October, which has no connection to the Battle of Gettysburg at all.

That's quibbling, I suppose, because, other than the timing of the release of the movie, I have few complaints about it. I was already familiar with the story of that three–day battle, and the movie was faithful to the events.

I've been studying American history nearly all my life. I don't remember now whether I gravitated to a study of history on my own or if someone influential in my life introduced me to it and encouraged my interest in it. Maybe it was the stories of heroism and valor that drew me to history.

There were plenty of those at Gettysburg.

Over the years, I have grown excited about the release of a movie that was about some dramatic time in history, but most of the time I have been disappointed. For whatever reason, many filmmakers seem to feel a need to embellish stories that need no embellishment.

Not so with director Ronald Maxwell's "Gettysburg." That was a wise decision. The Battle of Gettysburg needed nothing added to it. It was the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. There was plenty of drama to be found in that fact.

But it was once you went beneath the surface that you found the real drama, and Maxwell touched all the right buttons.

The film focused on the most noteworthy figures from that battle — Robert E. Lee (played by Martin Sheen), James Longstreet (Tom Berenger), Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) — whose individual stories told the bigger story of the battle.

I remember when I first saw this movie — on cable — and decided, after I had seen it, to give a tape of it to Mom for Christmas. After she saw it, she asked me if the Chamberlain character had really existed, and I told her he had.

Chamberlain was a college professor from Maine whose unorthodox battle strategies produced an astonishing Union victory on Little Round Top — and may well have altered the course of both the battle and the war.

I'll never forget the look on Mom's face when I explained to her that the Chamberlain story, as presented in "Gettysburg," was absolutely true. None of it was made up.

Mom probably heard the story of Chamberlain and his bayonet charge on the second day of the battle, but it slipped her mind. She knew about Pickett's Charge, of course. Everyone — or nearly everyone — has read about that in their history books.

But the odds against Pickett's Charge were quite long — the Union had captured the high ground much earlier in the battle, and the Confederates who executed the charge had to cross an open field for more than a mile. They were sitting ducks for a barrage of Union fire. By the time of the charge, the outcome was already known.

It was different the day before at Little Round Top. The Union held the high ground then, too, but it was reeling from some setbacks, and the Confederates had a real opportunity to succeed with a flanking maneuver. Chamberlain's troops held off the Confederates as long as possible, then, with ammunition running low, Chamberlain ordered the charge.

As I say, had it not been for Chamberlain, the battle and the war might have been lost, and history would have been changed.

"Gettysburg" was the kind of historical movie I'd like to see more frequently — a good, solid history lesson delivered by a top–notch cast and a director who understands that the story alone is worth the price of admission.