The Gettysburg Story (2013)
Written and directed by Jake Boritt (available on DVD and for download)
When PBS’s War many reviewers and historians aired in September 2012, Death and the Civil wondered when documentary filmmakers would move beyond using what can be called the “Ken Burns” effects—slow pans across photographs, landscape shots and interviews with talking heads—and present viewers with a new way to envision the past. Jake Boritt’s new film The Gettysburg Story introduces three techniques for depicting the war’s most famous battle and the field upon which it was fought: aerial drone cinematography, time-lapse footage and dynamic digital mapping. Filmed mostly in high definition, The Gettysburg Story presents sharp and vibrant images of the urban and rural landscapes of Gettysburg. The time-lapse makes it possible for suns to rise and set, for storm clouds to gather rapidly and for stars to shoot across the night sky. At several points, maps melt into the landscape and dots move across it to simulate both Union and Confederate charges. The first time you see these effects, they are stunning; the film brings the viewer to the battlefield much more effectively than written or 2D visual sources could. But after a few scenes these techniques lose their novelty, and thus some of their visual power. And unfortunately, there’s not much more to The Gettysburg Story than this.
The tale narrator Stephen Lang relates will not surprise most viewers—it is a textbook account of the war’s origins, the military context that brought Lee and Meade to Gettysburg, and the fighting in 1863. There are references to the eccentricities of certain generals and a few charming anecdotes; Lang also relates the experiences of the brothers Isaac and Henry Taylor of the 1st Minnesota Infantry and General William Barksdale’s Mississippians, to personalize the battle. The “historical” narrative is often melodramatic and repetitive: Gettysburg is “the greatest battle ever fought in the Western hemisphere,” the “greatest battle in American history” and the “greatest man-made disaster in American history.” The film ends, predictably, with Lang reading the Gettysburg Address.
The narrative clearly serves at the pleasure of the film’s visual effects. This emphasis on filmic techniques also functions to fetishize the landscape of Gettysburg itself; it pays tribute to the battlefield and to the National Park Service (which gave Jake Boritt unprecedented access to the battlefield park’s 6,000 acres). It also lavishes attention on the park’s memorials. When Lang reads an excerpt from a soldier’s letter, for example, we see a face carved out of stone; when he tells the story of Mississippi soldiers, the drone camera swoops around that state’s memorial. There are photos as well, portraits of soldiers and a series of Alexander Gardner images. Ultimately, the film is a work of admiration for, and fealty to, a place, rather than a work of history. This makes it difficult for The Gettysburg Story to move beyond visual effects to convey a more meaningful reinterpretation of the battle’s history, and its significance in American culture.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.