So I was home sick last week (for only the 2nd time in 12 years) and there’s something about staying home sick that makes us revert into little children. I was pretty sick as a kid, and so in a strange, unwelcome way, this sick day was a chance for me to flashback to my childhood. With many hours to kill and a desire to watch something I didn’t really have to watch, I popped in my DVD of Gettysburg.
Gettysburg has a prominent place in my life. I’ve been watching the film since its release in 1992. Before I was ever able to visit the battlefield, my mother’s cousin, who lives in southern P.A., sent me an envelope full of photos of key places, along with descriptions. Then, in high school, I read The Killer Angels and had my first visit to the battlefield. I then attended Gettysburg College my freshman and sophomore years, and during my spare time I wandered every inch of the National Park, often spending hours of alone time in the eerie, hallowed places. I taught myself to run by the Eternal Peace Light and Reynolds Woods; I huddled in the Pennsylvania Monument during a windstorm to meet my parents when they came to visit; I conducted interviews for an Anthropology 101 experiment with the tourists at the High Water Mark. The battlefield, the stories, the heroes, Gettysburg is in my bones.
I was a little wary of putting the DVD in the player. I haven’t watched the whole film in at least ten years, I suspect. My critical abilities are a lot sharper than they were a decade ago. When we’re children, we accept wholly the things that are important to us. The nuance of more sophisticated criticism (“I enjoyed this actor’s performance, while the other one seems stilted.” “I thought perhaps the musical score was overbearing,” etc) isn’t developed. And I suspect kids are better than adults at repeatedly viewing or reading the things they love. At least, I know I am. When I reread a book or rewatch a film now, it’s a pretty significant event. When I was twelve, watching Gettysburg or The Neverending Story or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade again for the umpteenth time was hardly noteworthy. So I put the DVD in, huddled under my blanket with my tea and my animals, and watched.
The verdict: while my grown up critic saw things that the twelve year old didn’t, I was nevertheless swept up in the epic that captivated me as a young man. Sure, the acting ranges from competent (C. Thomas Howell) to stunning (Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels, and especially Richard Jordan, in his final performance). And there are Law and Order moments, where characters explain things that they’d never realistically explain to one another. There’s the question of PG violence– the movie was made for TV, and as a result, there is very little blood, masking viewers from the real horrors of war.
But the sweeping depictions of battle and heroism, the moving score, and the attention to minute historical detail made for a powerful viewing experience. And then there are the stories: Chamberlain, the professor colonel who rises to great glory at the Battle of Little Round Top; Robert E. Lee, the infallible general/god whose one moment of overconfidence dooms the Confederate army; Longstreet, the general whose mind is bent towards strategy over heroics, forced to command doomed attacks and take the blame for their failures; Armistead, facing Fate and his best friend on the battlefield; Pickett, young, cocky, eager to fight, and irrevocably scarred by Lee’s misuse of his division. To me, Gettysburg has never been an exercise in dry historical recitation. It isn’t “the turning point of the Civil War,” as every high school textbook will tell you. It is the collision of many men’s fates on a single battlefield.
Gettysburg is by no means worthless dreck; I’m certain other boys my age gorged themselves on far trashier fare as kids. But the film isn’t without flaws. Who cares, though? My realization after watching: when rewatching or rereading the stories that formed us in youth, criticism is meaningless. That film formed some of my fundamental ideas of heroism and warfare and kindled my fascination with the Civil War. And no amount of critical analysis can take that away.