Once again, the History Channel has produced a documentary that is par for the course with their productions over the past several years--style and special effects over substance. Like the disappointing production of last year, America: the Story of Us, this documentary on the Battle of Gettysburg is one that oversimplifies the subject, relies on generalities without substantive discussion, and favors computer graphics and big explosions over educational value.
The narration repeats the same general exclamatory statements over and over again. How many times do we have to hear, "this could determine the outcome of the Civil War," or "this would be one of the iconic moments of the War," in the narrator's deep, dramatic tone? It reminded me of the aforementioned America: the Story of Us, when they had to have a commentator say every five minutes or so, "we are a nation of innovators," or "ours is a history of struggle." Such repeated statements are meant to add weight and power to the piece, but instead just make it into overly exaggerated melodrama.
You can see the mark of the modern war film making style in the piece, especially given that Tony and Ridley Scott are the producers behind it. The documentary is obviously trying to give it a Saving Private Ryan feel, with plenty of bullet impact noises, blood and grit, and even the noisy-silence sound of someone suffering shock (reminiscent of several moments with Tom Hanks character in Private Ryan). But alas, this stylistic war film feel is not supported by an informative narrative. This is a documentary, and thus the informative value should be at least as important as the entertainment value.
As someone who has studied the Battle of Gettysburg, and has taught college classes on the Civil War, I was also appalled by the glaring omissions of important players and events from the story. They fail to discuss in any detail at all how the battle started. Thus, they do not discuss General John Buford's cavalry and their role in holding the high ground for the Union Army when the Confederates arrived. On the second day's engagement, they focus on the assaults on Cemetery Ridge and Culp's Hill, but do not mention the assault on Little Round Top. An all important player like Gouverneur K. Warren, who recognized the significance of (and lack of defenses on) Little Round Top, and called for reinforcements to hold the hill, is omitted. If anyone turned the tide of the battle, it was Warren. This, of course, also leads to the role played by Colonel Strong Vincent's brigade, and the included 20th Maine Regiment of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. The latter is one of the most fascinating characters in the Union Army at Gettysburg, but he also is omitted from the story. On the Confederate side of this engagement, they focus all of their attention on Barksdale's Brigade, but do not mention the roll of John Bell Hood or Colonel William Oates. No play for the Texans or the Alabamians--Mississippi's sons get all the focus of discussion. And for the final day, with Pickett's Charge, they do not even discuss George Pickett himself in any detail. Nor do they mention the roles played by Lewis Armistead, or any of Pickett's brigade commanders. On the Union side, General Winfield Scott Hancock's role in holding the Union center is also overlooked. Given the personal connection between Scott and Armistead (friends before the war), this could have been a wonderful way to put an exclamation point on the brother-against-brother nature of the American Civil War. This may seem like nitpicking, but these people and events are so essential to the story that they should not be overlooked in any complete discussion of the Battle of Gettysburg. At least some of them should have made it into this documentary.
There are some positive points to the documentary, and any fair assessment of the piece requires that these be mentioned. First, the personal stories of some of the common soldiers are compelling, and do convey the emotion that those soldiers must have felt. I felt this was especially true of the story of Amos Humiston, which is one of my favorite stories from the Battle of Gettysburg, and one I have highlighted myself in classes I have taught on the battle. I am glad that he was one character they included in the story. Other positive aspects of the piece are details about certain elements of the battle (weaponry, field medicine, communications). Such details are brought home with good use of expert commentary, and effective use of the aforementioned graphics and imagery. In this case, the stylistic filmmaking is used to great effect.
But what ultimately makes Gettysburg, overall, a failed piece, is that it fails to convey the scope of the battle, an overall narrative of the story of the battle, and favors style over important detail. Thus, its value as an educational piece is limited. Now, I do know the common argument in reply to this--this kind documentary could get young people interested in the topic. My reply to that is that we do not need to reduce a documentary's informative aspects, i.e. "dumb down," the piece just to have more slick production values to get the young people who watch Iron Man interested in history. When we teach history, we should try to make it accessible to the common man, but not by appealing to the lowest common denominator. Rather, we should aspire to the highest quality of substance and story. Gettysburg fails to do so.