It is one of the most pivotal military battles in American history, as well as being one of the most gruesome. From July 1st to the 3rd, 1863, the Union and Confederate forces met at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Cited as the defining battle in the Civil War, the Union triumphed and went on to eventually win the war. So The History Channel decided to do what it does best, and enlisted Tony Scott and Ridley Scott as executive producers, in what could be considered a big budget project.

Gettysburg has been the subject of many documentaries, so what sets Gettysburg apart from the others? The extensive use of historical reenactments is nothing new, but what makers of the project did was make it that much more realistic. It has a Hollywood feel to it, but not at the expense of diluting the significance and impact of the battle. The film focuses on a number of particular individuals, such as Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Dawes of the Union and Private Ridgeley Howard of the Confederacy. There is some great acting done, as they all convey the appropriate level of emotion. Delving into their backstories makes you care that much more about them and understand why they fight. The other important use of reenactments is to give viewers a conceptual idea of what happened. Seeing what happened makes it easier to grasp then reading about it in a book.

The film also utilizes a number of CGI sequences and these almost exclusively focus on showing the topographical layout of the battlefield. The names of Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill have great meaning to the importance of Gettysburg. However, it is through the CGI that the viewers is given that layout, including the usual ‘blocks’ indicating army units. Seeing how the Union led the hills using the fishhook formation really drives home the realism. The viewer now has a much better idea of what went on and can understand it better.

The reenactments and CGI are interspersed to such a degree that the 90-100 minutes of the film (minus commercials) don’t seem to drag, the action and explanations are paced with care, giving it that feature film feel. A number of historical documentaries tend to get bogged down explaining details and don’t explain the big picture.

Being a history major in college, the thing I was most interested to see was the historical accuracy. 300 was a good film, but the actual history was butchered. Gettysburg manages to micromanage the historical details without getting too out of hand. Attention is given to everything from the women who tended to soldiers during and after the battle to technology of the weaponry used. The latter is where CGI helps out. Understanding what is actually in those cannonballs or how the rifle bullets impact on a body again brings that accuracy to light. It can be seen that extensive research and thought went into the project. This is another point where the acting shines. You can really see and feel the tension, such as when a Confederate unit attacks up a hill to try to overtake a Union position. In this instance both units are made up of soldiers from Maryland, highlighting the loyalty issue that dogged some soldiers.

Overall, I would highly recommend this documentary to anyone. What I’ve written here does not capture the whole picture of Gettysburg, so I urge you all to watch it as it’s just one of those things all Americans should know about.

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