Of all recent “Civil War” movies, only “Gettysburg” captured national attention. Its historical predecessor and cinematic prequel, “Gods and Generals,” bombed at the theater, probably because the film crews spent too much time “shooting” in Southern parlors and not in the military camps.
Other Civil War-themed films, especially those wretchedly scripted for TV, also bombed.
Why did “Gettysburg” — and to a lesser extent John Wayne’s 1959 “The Horse Soldiers” and Edward Zwick’s 1989 “Glory” — garner wide acceptance at the box office and some critical claim among the literati? Why do these three films still play on TCM today when other Civil War movies do not?
I credit these factors:
• Soldier-centric plots;
• Excellent (or at least adequate) action sequences;
• Attention to the gritty details. As Confederate infantry march past the Traveler-mounted Robert E. Lee in “Gettysburg,” watch for that split second view of marching feet. My great-grandfather similarly marched barefoot or in busted shoes.
And in “Glory,” do the soldiers’ pent-up anger and fear not literally burst from the screen as Col. Robert Gould Shaw dies on the Fort Wagner ramparts? The only time that I’ve ever muttered, “Get ’em!” during a Civil War film occurred during those next minutes as the 54th Massachusetts lads scaled the walls and hunted Confederates at bayonet point.
Of the three movies, only one involves Maine soldiers. “Gettysburg” treated Maine well by making Joshua Chamberlain a national hero and elevating the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment to legend — and achieved both results while scrupulously avoiding the sugary patriotic talk and wooden action all too common to Civil War films.
When my family first visited Gettysburg National Military Park in June 1989, we parked near the Little Round summit and searched high and low for the inconspicuous 20th Maine Infantry monument. A small sign directed us to a narrow path vanishing into the hardwoods.
We found the monument, modest about Gettysburg’s ornate statuary.
Then “Gettysburg” packed the theaters. When we returned to the battlefield in the mid-1990s, a wide, gravel-packed, and well-marked path led to the monument. Today the battlefield tour buses include the 20th Maine monument among their scheduled stops, and tourists leave mementos around the monument’s base.
That’s what movie fame will get ya: plastic flowers and flags and many Chamberlain prints at Gettysburg’s souvenir shops.
While standing where Company F and the color guard did late day on July 2, 1863, most tourists do not realize that another 20th Maine Infantry monument rises on adjacent Big Round Top. Tourists who ascend the wooded slopes can visually overlook this unobtrusive monument shaded by thick growth.
Without telling viewers so, “Gettysburg” accurately portrays combat as experienced by the 4th Maine Infantry Regiment earlier on July 2. Before the Alabama regiments and a few Texans reach the 20th Maine boys in the movie, Confederate infantry roll back Union soldiers battling among the jumbled boulders representing the Devil’s Den.
In this sequence’s last scene, a bullet strikes and drops a retreating Yankee off the boulder upon which he stands.
He could be a 4th Maine lad. That regiment, already damaged at Fredericksburg the previous December, suffered and dealt serious casualties during a swirling gun battle fought with advancing Confederate infantry around the Devil’s Den. The 4th Maine’s distinctive monument, a granite shaft affixed to a boulder, still stands there.
You’ve heard of Joshua Chamberlain and his role at Gettysburg. Check out Elijah Walker and the role his 4th Maine lads played some time before the 20th Maine swung its left flank downhill and charged into history.
You might like what you learn about Walker. Like Chamberlain, he was a natural military leader and a Maine hero. Unlike Chamberlain, Walker never gained national fame.
He should have.