Fourscore and seven years ago, Judge Clark Douglas wasn't even born.
Our review of Gettysburg (Blu-ray) Digibook, published October 21st, 2011, is also available.
An imagined conversation between two History Channel executives:
Exec #1: "Y'know, we're the History Channel and all, but we really don't run nearly as much of that historical stuff as we used to."
Exec #2: "I'm sorry, what? I'm a little distracted; I'm on my way to a Swamp People marketing meeting. Also, drop the 'Channel.' We're only called History now."
Exec #1: "Son, I've been here since this network began. I've gone along with all of these changes—shows about swamp people, pawn shops, ice road truckers, alien abductions, UFO hunters and that show about the Brawny paper towel guys…"
Exec #2: "Ax Men."
Exec #1: "Whatever. My point is, we need to do something to reassert our identity. Something to remind people of who really are."
Exec #2: "Stan, I already told you, we're not using The History of Hitler's Mustache Month idea."
Exec #1: "I know, I know. I realize that's a lot to ask. But what if we did something simple? Maybe a two-hour special about a really important battle or something. I was thinking we could do a new documentary about Gettysburg."
Exec #2: "Uh-huh. Stan, you're a nice guy and I hear you're retiring soon. I think I can make this happen. However, you're going to need to be willing to make some compromises on this."
Exec #1: "I can do compromises. What do you have in mind?"
Exec #2: "We can't do any of that frilly Ken Burns garbage. I don't want any fiddle music or touching letters from the wives at home. I don't want any political context on the war that doesn't build up to the phrase, 'and then the two armies kicked the crap out of each other.' I don't want talking heads to get more than ten minutes of total screen time."
Exec #1: "Um…so what do you want, exactly."
Exec #2: "Explosions. Lots of explosions. Oh, and plenty of blood. In fact, I think we can get Tony and Ridley Scott to produce this thing. We've been wanting to do something with those guys for a while. What this special needs is some of that Scott pizzazz—some True Romance slow-motion violence and some Black Hawk Down shaky-cam violence. Just be sure there's always some violence."
Exec #1: "Can't we pause for some campfire scenes or moments of reflection?"
Exec #2: "No campfire scenes! Better idea: You can break up the battle by cutting to scenes of really violent, primitive surgeries. That way everyone gets a break from the fighting without having to deal with bloodless boredom."
Exec #1: "I mean…can't we have anything a little more, y'know, scholarly or philosophical? I just think this is an important moment in history and we don't want our special to seem like nothing more than a shallow gore-fest."
Exec #2: "Yeah, I feel you, I feel you. Hey! It just hit me. We can pause for some little hardcore educational segments on some important aspects of life during the Civil War."
Exec #1: "Perfect! We can talk about the food the men were eating, about the education the average soldier received…"
Exec #2: "Dude, do you want to put people to sleep? I'm talking about, y'know, weapons and stuff."
Exec #1: "Oh."
Exec #2: "We can use computer graphics to show how a bullet fires out of the barrel of a gun, flies through the air, rips into someone's flesh, shatters their bone and then infects them with that freaky old-timey disease!"
Exec #1: "Gangrene?"
Exec #2: "Hardcore!"
Exec #1: "Obviously we can't cover every major participant in a two-hour special, so I was thinking of profiling a handful of key players. General Ewell, for instance."
Exec #2: "The dude with the wooden leg?"
Exec #1: "Yeah."
Exec #2: "I can see it now…General Ewell, riding up to the battle of Gettysburg on horseback, hungry to get revenge for the wooden leg that was taken from him. He is Captain Ahab, and the northern Army is Moby Dick."
Exec #1: "I'm pretty sure that's not how…"
Exec #2: "Shhhh! I'm on a roll. Oh, and the music! I want something that sizzles; some atmospheric techno-style stuff."
Exec #1: "For a Gettysburg documentary?!?"
Exec #2: "It'll sizzle with intensity."
Exec #1: "You know what? Let's just forget the whole thing. Forget I even brought it up."
Exec #2: "What, are you kidding? This is great, bro! It'll be awesome!"
Sadly, Gettysburg turns out to be more eyeroll-inducing than awesome, as its desaturated, slo-mo, gleefully violent onslaught of battle scenes add up to a viewing experience that is both thin and exhausting. Despite the fact that this is the new, improved, super-intense brand of History, the doc still falls into the same old trap of repeating nearly every memorable shot it delivers at least once or twice over the course of the program. How many times do I need to see that same bullet flying in slow-motion at that poor soldier? How many times do I need to see that guy's head smashed in with a rifle? Additionally, the film's overheated handling of its life-and-death subject matter translates into very little emotional weight, turning the film's potentially stirring closing moments (President Lincoln's Gettysburg address, natch) into a ho-hum coda.
At least Gettysburg looks great in hi-def, even though the format occasionally highlights the limited nature of the CGI employed in the doc. The image is quite desaturated and everything has an almost sepia-toned look; creating a special that feels curiously wrapped in nostalgia and bloodshed. Detail is exceptional throughout; you can see every stray facial hair and drop of tobacco juice. Audio is excellent as well, despite the exceedingly underwhelming score. The battle re-enactments stir up quite a fuss and will give your speakers a solid workout. There are a few talking heads from assorted Civil War museums, but their thoughts are brief and largely insubstantial ("This was a really important battle," etc.). Though this release is labeled a "Special Edition," the only extra included is a DVD copy. Another amusing note: the case lists the special as "Approx. 94 minutes total" when the running time is actually 85 minutes.
This particular examination of Gettysburg might prove an engaging diversion for those more interested in action-packed historical re-enactments than in, um, learning. However, most viewers will want to stick with Ken Burns' informative series The Civil War and Ronald F. Maxwell's emotionally involving feature film Gettysburg.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• DVD Copy
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