Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Generals (again).....but these at Gettysburg

On our trip into Arkansas a few weeks ago I bought, for a couple of dollars, a two-tape VHS set of the 1993 movie Gettysburg - 4hours 14 mins long! I let the set remain in our pile of "to watch" items, kept moving it to the bottom, regretted buying it - asked myself why I did. I dislike most war movies - about any war. I think my motive lay in the interests of continued education in things American. Anyway - we watched it - turns out it was $2 well-spent!

Gettysburg, about an epic battle in Pennsylvania during the Civil War, focuses on just three days at the beginning of July 1863, when a mighty confrontation between the Confederacy forces and The Union army took place, a battle which historians say was decisive in the eventual outcome of the Civil war....yet that war went on for another two years.

The film is based on Michael Shaara's meticulously researched 1974 novel The Killer Angels. It has also been shown on TV as a mini-series.

The story is told from the viewpoint of the Generals and Officers on both sides of the north/south divide, rather from the points of view of ordinary soldiers.

Maybe all the talk of Generals during the last week, or reports of secession petitions currently being prepared by several states, subconsciously led me to choose this movie when asked the regular question, "What shall we watch tonight then, there's nothing on TV".

One thing the movie taught me: in 1863 Generals were Generals, with no time for canoodling with their biographers or corresponding with wanna-be whatevers.

Linked Wikipedia articles about the film and the book contain all relevant facts, which I'll not re-hash here; also there are several reviews on-line from the 1990s and later.

I'll limit my own observations to matters I found particularly memorable. Acting honours have to be dished out equally to those portraying all main roles: Martin Sheen, Tom Berenger(whatever happend to him?) Jeff Daniels and Richard Jordan all did sterling work.... as did my old favourite Sam Eliott, looking and sounding as at home as ever in such a setting.

The film's focus is not, mercifully, on blood, gore and severed limbs (though there are some of those). The horror aspect was, while not played down completely, not graphically and obscenely pushed full-on into the audience's faces. Focus was trained on tactics, plans, and motivations. For this reason the movie has been shown in schools, and has proved invaluable to re-enactment groups - many of which were in the supporting cast of thousands. Battle scenes are amazing!

Two things I remember best: the mainly fictional character of "Buster" (name's an anachronism) Kilrain, private in the Union army under command of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels). Chamberlain is obviously very fond of the old rascal - nicely played by Kevin Conway with a strong Irish accent. I loved one of Buster's speeches early in the movie. I feel sure it must come directly from the novel:
Yes, it did - found it at Goodreads:

Kilrain ~~~
“The truth is, Colonel, that there's no divine spark, bless you. There's many a man alive no more value than a dead dog. Believe me, when you've seen them hang each other...Equality? Christ in Heaven. What I'm fighting for is the right to prove I'm a better man than many. Where have you seen this divine spark in operation, Colonel? Where have you noted this magnificent equality? The Great White Joker in the Sky dooms us all to stupidity or poverty from birth. no two things on earth are equal or have an equal chance, not a leaf nor a tree. There's many a man worse than me, and some better, but I don't think race or country matters a damn. What matters is justice. 'Tis why I'm here. I'll be treated as I deserve, not as my father deserved. I'm Kilrain, and I God damn all gentlemen. I don't know who me father was and I don't give a damn. There's only one aristocracy, and that's right here - " he tapped his white skull with a thick finger - "and YOU, Colonel laddie, are a member of it and don't even know it. You are damned good at everything I've seen you do, a lovely soldier, an honest man, and you got a good heart on you too, which is rare in clever men. Strange thing. I'm not a clever man meself, but I know it when I run across it. The strange and marvelous thing about you, Colonel darlin', is that you believe in mankind, even preachers, whereas when you've got my great experience of the world you will have learned that good men are rare, much rarer than you think.”

Secondly, and rather surprisingly, there's an English character in the movie: one Arthur Fremantle (Lieutenant Colonel, British Coldstream Guards). He's an interesting character historically (See Wikipedia HERE)

In the film Fremantle is portrayed far too stereotypically, and rather comically, English upper-crust for my taste. No doubt he was all of that - but I doubt he'd have wandered about the camp with a china cup and saucer (little finger ready to be raised no doubt). His accent was painful - in reality I suspect it wasn't quite as bad as that! I understand, too, that there was an error in portraying him wearing the red dress uniform. He had been travelling for a long time, had sold all his luggage at a point earlier. He'd have been dressed in some kind of 19th century traveller's garb - dusty and well-worn. For me this was the single weakness in an otherwise very strong movie.

A quote of Fremantle's (from Goodreads, and the novel)
“The great experiment. In democracy. The equality of rabble. In not much more than a generation they have come back to CLASS. As the French have done. What a tragic thing, that Revolution. Bloody George was a bloody fool. But no matter. The experiment doesn't work. Give them fifty years, and all that equality rot is gone. Here they have the same love of the land and of tradition, of the right form, of breeding, in their horses, their women. Of course slavery is a bit embarrassing, but that, of course, will go. But the point is they do it all exactly as we do in Europe. And the North does not. THAT'S what the war is really about. The North has those huge bloody cities and a thousand religions, and the only aristocracy is the aristocracy of wealth. The Northerner doesn't give a damn for tradition, or breeding, or the Old Country. He hates the Old Country. Odd. You very rarely hear a Southerner refer to "the Old Country". In that painted way a German does. Or an Italian. Well, of course, the South IS the Old Country. They haven't left Europe. They've merely transplanted it. And THAT'S what the war is about.”

Those two quotes come from the novel and the film, and were written by Michael Shaara in the 1970s. He was speaking with a level of hindsight not available in 1863 - that needs to be kept in mind, but in no way de-values the words.

An interesting aside - there's a piece published just last month at Bangor (Maine) Daily News website, by Michael Shaara's son, Jeff:

Michael Shaara identified with Brewer’s Joshua Chamberlain.


♥ Sonny ♥ said...

Sam Elliot is my favorite also. I would love to see that movie.

I checked netflix and they dont have it..

Tom Berenger was in a recent 3 night special by Kevin Costner, The Hatfields and McCoys. It was excellent and got many emmy nominations-- won 3.. I have watched it several times.

I'll check amazon and see if anyone has Gettysburg for sale.
thanks for telling us about it.

Twilight said...

Sonny ~~~ My favourite role of Sam Elliott's was Wade Garret in Roadhouse. :-) but any role is a good role for HIM.

I think DVD or Blu-rays of the film are sure to be be around for renting - somewhere, Sonny.
It's worth seeking out.

I haven't seen Hatfield s & McCoys - must see if that's on DVD for rent. Used to enjoy Tom Berenger's movies, but he seemed to suddenly disappear.

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