February 04, 2005

Speaking of Virginia Secession.....

I popped in my tape of the second half of Gettysburg tonight. I don't believe I've blogged about this movie before, so here are some random observations:

- In many respects, the movie isn't a drama so much as historical tableux. A good many of the scenes are "staged" to the point of woodeness in order to get a general theme across instead of depicting genuine events.

- Casting Jeff Daniels as Joshua Chamberlain was a stroke of genius. I think he gets Chamberlain absolutely bang on. Oddly, the war was the high point of Chamberlain's life. Although he later became governor of Maine and president of Bowdoin, his post-war life was rather listless and unsatisfactory.

- Absurdly enough, I think Longstreet probably was Tom Berenger's finest role.

YIPS from Steve: Heresy! Everyone knows that Berenger's finest role was in one of the great cheezy soft-core prison break movies "Chasers"chasers.jpeg where he played the heroic Chief Petty Officer Rock Reilly. You got to love a movie where the plot can be summarized thusly: "On his last day before retirement, this tough Navy cop has to escort this crazy nympho AWOL sailor to the brig. And Crispin Glover acts really weird." I mean, it's one of Dennis Hopper's finest directorial efforts of early 1994.

Yeah, I can hear you, and you're saying, "Steve, you're nuts: clearly the Sniper Trilogy (Sniper, Sniper 2, and the cleverly titled "Navy SEAL snipers and the Prisoner of Azkaban shoot the Jedis, dude"
is the epitome of the Berrenger oevre." And I'm hearing you, I really am. Except I've got one word for you: Erika Eleniak.


Okay, that's three words, but you get my drift.

If only we could bring about the long-hoped for cinematic pairing of Tom Berenger and Kurt Russell, I could shuffle off this mortal coil a contented man indeed.

Okay, back to Robbo's erudite musings.

- Martin Sheen did pretty well as Lee, although I think the writers tried too hard to paint Lee as a Jebus-freak fatalist too distanced from reality. Part of this was the strongly pro-Longstreet stance of the movie, which in turn was a result of Michael Shaara's pro-Longstreet stance in The Killer Angels, on which it was based.

- I hate to think that people who see this film come away thinking they know everything about the battle of Gettysburg. They don't. The book on which it's based never purported to be a comprehensive history of the battle, but instead focused on the individual viewpoints of several men involved in it. The fights for Culp's Hill and Cemetary Hill, for example, barely get a mention, as does the bulk of the action along Cemetary Ridge on the second day.

- I dislike the fact that the plucky sergeant Buster Kilrain gets to utter the expression "Killer Angel" as a description of Mankind. At least according to Shaara, Chamberlain's father used that expression and Chamberlain, as a young student, crafted a rhetorical exercise around it.

- C. Thomas Howell needed a better dialogue coach. Nobody I've ever met from Maine talked like that. Also, the scene where he interviews the reb prisoners was stolen - lock, stock and barrel - from a painting by Winslow Homer. Typically, the producers did not understand the painting, because among the prisoners they had the dumb yokel do all the talking instead of his social superior, the haughty cavalier.

- The fight for Little Round Top did not take place in a forest. The hill had been clear-cut the winter before the battle. Contemporary photos show that it was all boulders.

- Pickett's Charge was not anywhere near as close as suggested by the movie. For a good nuts and bolts overview, I recommend Earl J. Hess's Pickett's Charge - The Last Attack at Gettysburg. Also, people from North Carolina are still incensed that Virginia managed to claim all the glory for this attack, despite the fact that two out of the three divisions involved, Pettigrew's and Trimble's, were largely from Carolina.

- I think both the movie and the book unjustly build up Longstreet's position at the expense of Lee. Manuevering in front of the Federal position (moving the army around to the right) would have been both useless and dangerous. Lee understood that on the third day he had no good options and that his only chance to win, however slim, was by cashing in on the psychological advantage of his army's prior victories and charging straight ahead. Basically, he was throwing a Hail Mary.

- For all that, I have always enjoyed this movie. It gets a lot of details right, at least within the limited scope of its vision. If you haven't seen it, I'd recommend it. But for Heaven's sake, stay clear of its horrid prequel Gods and Generals.

YIPS from Steve: If you are going to bag on Gettysburg, you left out the two most important pot-shots: what the eff was the deal with the whiskers in that movie? I kept expecting a Reb sentry to whack Longstreet across the puss with the butt of his rifle, yellling "Pete! Yah got ee mutant killah squirrel attached to ye face!"

Killer angels, fah: the movie was really "The Killer Squirrel Sideburns." Of all the bad hairdo's C. Thomas Howell's was the worst: I mean, it looked liked they crazy-glued two mating badgers to his cheeks. Which, now that you think about it, would explain some of his acting scene choices, not to mention dialect (I mean, can you deliver a Maine accent with mating rodents glued to your face? I didn't think so.

The other problem with the movie is, well, everyone was too damn fat. I mean, not grossly overweight in a Michael "Oops, I just ate Sudan" Moore sort of way, it's just that if you've ever seen the uniforms in the Museum of the Confederacy (or in the Smithsonian, now that they are moving away from the "Social History R Us" approach in the Museum of American History and actually showing exhibits that range on stuff like the Civil War and the Revolution, instead of compelling exhibits of "the social struggle of immigrant left-handed bi-sexual Cod packers on Tuesday, March 25, 1883 as the story of Amerika" sort of crap), Lee & Co. were a heck of a lot thinner. It's not just the whole "people were smaller then" bit (I remember when I was a security guard at Mystic Seaport in college and I'd be on the Morgan, the whaling ship there, and classes would come through the middle deck and teachers (if they weren't talking about what life was like aboard slave ships) would point out the low ceilings as a sign of how much people were shorter then, and I would always laugh because the ceilings were low as that was the deck where they worked basically on their hands and knees separating the blubber from the whale skin, but I digress...), but it was that at least by our standards both armies, particularly the Army of Northern Virginia, were dramatically undernourished. One of the things that Gettysburg had going for it was a shoe factory, which was part of the reason drawing the inital Confederate interest in the town (other than the fact that, like Bastogne, it was a pivotal crossroad.) Martin Sheen's Lee, however, looks like he just came away from a week at Camp Ben & Jerry.

I disagree with Rob though on the whole playing of Lee as a mystical Jeebus freek: I do really think there is something to explaining the tactical mistakes he made in the Gettysburg campaign as a result of the hubris gained from the smashing victory at Chancellorsville the month before. Lee was not mystic about such things to the degree, say, Lincoln was, but part and parcel of the times was a greater willingness to see the Hand of the Divine in everyday events, and at Chancellorsville, the Hand of the Lawhd was certainly holding the bat which was hitting fungoes upside the head of the Union general staff. Overconfidence was understandable.

As to Kathy's comment about what is it about us easterners and the Civil War, I'd answer with the pivotal role played by the First Minnesota Regiment during the Second Day.

The last problem with the movie? No damn Lincoln! The whole thing gained meaning because of the Gettysburg Address: all they needed to do was to get Sam Waterson to read the durn thing right at the end, while showing the images of the battlefield, and you got yourself a winner. I mean, a movie about Gettysburg without the Address would be like doing a remake of The Ten Commandments without, well, Mount Sinai and Moses bringing down the law. I mean, sure, you get all the cool stuff what with the Anne Baxter swooning "Moses....MOSES," and Yul Brenner as the decidely Metrosexual Ramses camping it up, and of course Charlton in his finest role when he's not playing beside a monkey, but without Sinai, its "Just those Wacky Jews A Fleein' Pharoh." It's what comes after that gives the whole thing meaning.

Hopefully this summer we'll be able to do a LLama team visit to Gettysburg, if the Butcher's Wife and the Dear One can be properly appeased, mollified, and humored. There's some good bloggy potential from that....

Posted by Robert at February 4, 2005 11:58 PM

I myself wouldn't have fought there, were I Lee. He was between the Union army and Washington. I'd have left a corps to delay Meade, withdrawn under cover of night, and moved on the capital.

The key for the South was winning a political victory. Militarily, the blockade and the campaigns in the west were not going well. If the Union could find someone in the east to simply be competent against Lee (and Meade was the best they had to date), the South was doomed militarily. If Lee could have induced a panic in Washington he might have forced a political solution.

Posted by: The Colossus at February 5, 2005 06:33 AM

I think the movie does a good job of showing that Lee got drawn into a fight before he was ready, thanks to the hot-dogging of Stuart and the ineptitude of Harry Heth.

Posted by: Robert the LB at February 5, 2005 11:02 AM

"The fight for Little Round Top did not take place in a forest. The hill had been clear-cut the winter before the battle. Contemporary photos show that it was all boulders."

The good point of them filming on location was that they got the layout right; you can stand right where 20th Maine was. However, being a National Park, clear-cutting that hill to look as it would have during the battle is a bit of a no-no. At least, though, if you visit Gettysburg and then see the movie shortly thereafter (or before), visualizing it is that much easier.

I think you're right; they did build up Longstreet at the expense of Lee. Lee was one of the best tacticians of the day, though Sheen's portrayal (and/or the writing) could give the viewer some doubt.

Posted by: Lysander at February 5, 2005 11:55 AM


What is it about you East Coasters and the Civil War?

Posted by: Kathy at February 5, 2005 02:59 PM

Kathy, just don't go to the Old South. Exit 118 off I-95 in Virginny has a Stonewall Jackson Shrine. Not a memorial, not a state historic site, not a national park. A shrine (says so right on the sign). The only other person I've seen a shrine to is the Virgin Mary.
PS, the Hudson Valley is much more into the Revolution than the Civil War.

Posted by: Robert at February 5, 2005 04:47 PM

Stevie darlin',

I may live in Minnesota now, but I'm not native. I'm from Nebraska which was still a territory during that period o' time and played absolutely no part in that war. Hence we didn't focus too much on the Civil War in school. We got the basics, but we never reached the peaks of nuttiness you East Coast residents seem to hit about all of this junk.

Oh, and happy birthday ;)

Posted by: Kathy at February 5, 2005 06:06 PM

now THAT explains everything!

Which leads to the question on my mind: was "Nebraska" Springsteen's most misunderstood act of genius, or clearly the product of mixing excessive quantities of breath mints, robitussin, and toxic Jersey Turnpike rest-stop coffee in unhealthy doses?

Me, I'm voting for the latter.

Posted by: Steve the LB at February 5, 2005 07:20 PM

Drifting OT for a moment, you cameloids might like to check out a book called "Prince Charlie's Bluff: A Novel of the Kingdom of Virginia," by Donald Thomas. IIRC (and it's been quite a while since I read it), Bonnie Prince Charlie escapes to Virginia and sets up a renegade Stuart kingdom in the colony, something like the Umayyads in Andalusia. Given the range of interests on this blog, you might enjoy it.

Fair warning, though: I thought "Nebraska" was terrific. I liked a lot of the pre-political Springsteen oeuvre.

Posted by: utron at February 5, 2005 08:56 PM

you're not sleeping much because of the new wee one, are you?

Nothing else could explain the rampant slap-happiness of today's posting.


P.S. Springsteen's "Nebraska" sucked. But everyone else who lived there thought it was cool.

Posted by: Kathy at February 5, 2005 10:25 PM

Frankly, I thought Martin Sheen in Gettyburg gave the second worse performance of his life ( the first being "Spawn" ... then again, maybe it was a tie ). He evoked as much of Lee in that performance as my cat could.

Posted by: Robin Roberts at February 5, 2005 11:00 PM

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Posted by: ashlee simpson at July 18, 2005 09:27 PM
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