Gettysburg: The Great Battle That the Movies Ignored

On its 150th anniversary, we look at a decisive conflict that rarely seized Hollywood’s imagination

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[This story appeared in slightly different form in the Time Home Entertainment book Gettysburg.]

History, the saying goes, is written by the victors. Yet in most of the most popular movies about the Civil War, the Confederacy held the rooting interest.

D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, by far the biggest hit of the silent-film period, saw the Union Army as transgressors on a hallowed land, the Reconstruction Era as an act of obscene punishment, blacks as barbarians turned useful fools by Northern politicians, and the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic vigilante force — knights in white bed sheets. Buster Keaton’s The General, surely the funniest and perhaps the most specifically accurate of classic Civil War movies, is also solidly on the Rebel side. Gone With the Wind, which remains the all-time top movie in terms of tickets sold (Star Wars is second), may paint a knowing panorama of the antebellum and postwar South, but it skirts the sad fact that the source of the region’s wealth was its cheap slave labor, a 200-year traffic in souls.

Part of the bias in these films may be attributed to the antique time in which they were made. The Birth of a Nation premiered in 1915, the 50th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, when the Civil War still stirred and roiled the memories of many its survivors, as the Vietnam conflict does today. The General came out in 1926; and Gone With the Wind opened in 1939, exactly as distant from today (74 years) as it was from 1865. When those films first played in theaters, racial attitudes had only incrementally evolved from Civil War days; African-Americans were counted as citizens but not always as equals. Further, the Old South, as dewily portrayed in these movies and many others, radiated the romance of some mythical kingdom, where drawling gents sipped mint juleps and kissed the hands of belles in crinoline. This courtly society was seen as more precious because it had vanished. Thus did the lingering fantasy of a cotton Camelot allow history to be written by the losers.


In this rosy miasma, any serious depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg, which lasted from July 1st to 3rd, 1863 — 150 years ago this week — would carry the rude shock of a face slap into reality. Some of the military strategies utilized on that Pennsylvania field were bold and successful, others rash and nearly suicidal. But in essence it was mutually assured destruction, a three-day skirmish with a terrible price: of the 50,000 casualties from both sides (including the wounded, captured and missing in action), nearly 10,000 soldiers perished on the fields of battle.* What warming lessons could be taken from America’s largest single bloodbath? Only those enunciated in Nov. 1863 by Abraham Lincoln — which is why the Gettysburg Address is cherished in popular culture, and the Battle of Gettysburg all but ignored. Eloquence trumps atrocity.

The 16th President has been the subject of more than 300 movies since the beginning of cinema, from Ralph Ince in the 1911 Battle Hymn of the Republic to this year’s Oscar winner for Best Actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Walter Huston played him in Griffith’s first talking picture, Abraham Lincoln, which the director may have intended as an atonement of sorts for The Birth of a Nation. Lincoln, of course, was Commander in Chief, not a General, and the films that put him at their center rarely stray for long onto the Civil War battlefield.

(SEE: Richard Stengel’s interview with Lincoln director Steven Spielberg)

In 1913, a few one- or two-reel shorts marked Gettysburg’s golden anniversary by dramatizing it in brief. And last year three disparate works of pop culture alluded to that signal conflict. On an episode of Homeland, the double-spy Brody took his family to the site and made a side trip to a tailor’s shop for an explosive suicide vest. In the video for their top-of-the-pops single “Some Nights,” the band fun. donned blue or gray uniforms and mimed Civil War combat to a march tempo (“This is it, boys, this is war. / What are we waiting for?”). And in the historico-horror action film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the fate of the Union rests on the President’s mission to get a train through to Gettysburg while fighting off hundreds of the Confederate undead.

The battle also gets a shout-out this week in the revisionist action film The Lone Ranger, when a rapacious railroad baron (Tom Wilkinson) says, “I was at Gettysburg — 12 thousand cadavers before lunch. You know what I learned? No victory without sacrifice.”

For a century, though, the movies have mostly been mute on the battle itself. One could almost say that Hollywood has dedicated not a single feature film to it.


The “almost” is Gettysburg, Ronald F. Maxwell’s four-and-a-half-hour war epic that was made for TV but, at the enthusiastic insistence of its sponsor, Ted Turner, released briefly in theaters. Turner backed the project after many executives at the major studios had rejected it — some more than once. The film’s savior asked only that he appear fleetingly on camera. He plays a Confederate officer who shouts, “Let’s go, men!” and is promptly killed. Noting that his scene needed to be shot only twice, Turner told the director, “Just call me Two-Take Ted.”


New Line Cinema via Getty Images

‘Gettysburg’, 1993

Though the source book, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Maxwell infused the story with suitable authenticity. Receiving permission to shoot on part of the battlefield, now a National Military Park, he recruited some 4,000 Civil War reenactors to serve as extras and amateur historians. Perhaps inevitably, this docudrama is stronger on docu than on drama. Some members of the professional cast, led by Tom Berenger as Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and Martin Sheen as Gen. Lee, seem more uncomfortable than the reenactors. The film’s outstanding performance is by Jeff Daniels, as the college professor turned Union officer Joshua Chamberlain, who underlines the band-of-brothers theme by telling his men, “We’re fighting for each other.”

(READ: Richard Schickel’s review of Gettysburg)

The battle scenes necessarily telescope the huge numbers of the warring troops — 170,000, equal to the population of Boston at the time — but adequately approximate the military strategies and, in the climactic and tragic Pickett’s Charge, fitfully display a sad grandeur. A flop in movie theaters, Gettysburg found its true home on DVD and in schoolrooms, where it functions as a useful audio-visual aide to the observation by Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman that “War is Hell.”


Poster For 'Glory'

John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive / Getty Images

‘Glory,’ 1989.

That is the conclusion reached by virtually all Civil War movies, whether or not they focus on the battlefield, and even if military service is the dream of the characters portrayed. The 1989 Glory describes the training of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Corps, the first formal U.S. Army unit entirely composed of black soldiers, under the leadership of Col. Robert Gould Shaw (doe-eyed Matthew Broderick), the scion of wealthy white abolitionists. Written by Kevin Jarre from Shaw’s letters, and directed by Edward Zwick, Glory nicely details the backgrounds of the volunteers: Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), a free black; John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), a gravedigger whom Shaw promotes to Sergeant Major; and Trip, an escaped slave (Denzel Washington in a subtle, powerful performance that earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor).

The 54th distinguished itself in the second assault on Fort Wagner, S.C., two weeks and a day after the Gettysburg battle ended. It is hardy worth a SPOILER ALERT to note that Fort Wagner was never taken, and that Shaw and most of his volunteers — who showed their bravery as much in the grace with which they endured the abuse of white Union soldiers as in their chimerical charge across the beach and toward the Fort — died in the attempt.


Gone With the Wind is remembered as the love story of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) — misremembered, really, since the object of Scarlett’s true and unrequited ardor is the prim aristocrat Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). He is the idealized view of Southern gentility that so beguiles Scarlett, while moviegoers wait impatiently for her to get it on with Rhett. Her first husband, taken out of spite when Ashley rejects her affections, promptly dies in the War. Her second marriage, after the War, is simply a business decision, bringing her enough capital to rebuild her cherished homestead, Tara; her partner-husband also is quickly and conveniently killed. Still in love with Ashley, she marries Rhett — the “gentleman from Charleston, South Carolina” with, in Gable’s performance, a crisp Yankee accent and a sulfurous erotic insolence — not for his sex appeal, which was evident to every female in the movie audience, but for his money, which will restore her social standing and maintain her estate.

Indeed, Scarlett’s abiding beau — her constant lover and the spur to her ambition — is the land, Tara. Producer David O. Selznick’s film, no less than the Margaret Mitchell novel that spawned it, is really about real estate, the eternal obsession of warriors and homemakers alike. As the Confederate Army sacrificed tens of thousands of lives to defend its notion of sacred property, so Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler will do anything, anything, to hold on to Tara. At the end, deserted by Rhett, she is bereft but unbowed, because the land is hers to fight for till death.

(FIND: Gone With the Wind on the all-TIME 100 Movies list)

Less a war movie than a woman’s picture, GWTW takes the traditional female view of military conflict; it is concerned not with battlefield heroism but with the loss of all those precious young lives. The movie’s two largest scenes are of war’s destruction (the burning of Atlanta) and its aftermath (the sight of hundreds of wounded warriors). Men will fight, and women will weep. Ashley spends the whole war leading his regiment, or as the prisoner of the Yankees. Even the cynical Rhett joins the Rebel army, though not until the late summer of 1864, because, he says, he believes in lost causes only “when they are truly lost.” But the film stints on the men’s exploits and sticks with the women: Scarlett, Ashley’s demure bride Melanie (Olivia De Havilland) and the Tara house servants Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) and Prissy (Butterfly McQueen).

While she fights to survive, Scarlett mourns her fallen friends and relatives, the tragic deaths of her own two children and, finally, the end of her cherished way of life — the Confederacy. In portraying one of the strongest women in film history, this ultimate Hollywood movie also plays a requiem for a rich and tainted civilization that is, in the poet Ernest Dowson’s words, “gone with the wind.”


“I think it’s the Civil War movie,” Orson Welles said of The General in 1971. “Nothing ever came near it, not only for beauty but for a curious feeling of authenticity… Nobody except Keaton has brought us that close to the feel of the Civil War… It’s a hundred times more stunning visually than Gone With the Wind.”

The General

United Artists / Getty Images

‘The General,’ 1926.

Unlike Selznick’s epic, and Griffith’s, The General was based on an actual war incident: the “great locomotive chase.” On April 12, 1862, James J. Andrews, a civilian spy for the Union, and seven of his allies hijacked a Western & Atlantic railroad train, the General, in Big Shanty, Ga.; they jettisoned most of the passenger cars and drove the locomotive north toward Chattanooga, Tenn., disrupting important Confederate supply lines. The train’s conductor, William A. Fuller, pursued the General first on a handcar and then by commandeering another locomotive. When the General ran out of fuel, Andrews abandoned it 18 miles from his destination. All the raiders were captured, and Andrews was hanged that June. Most of his abettors escaped, and were the first men ever to be awarded the Medal of Honor; Secretary of War Edwin Stanton did the honors. (In Spielberg’s Lincoln, Stanton, played by Bruce McGill, is the one who complains to the chatty President that “I can’t stand to hear another one of your stories!”)

(READ: Keaton the Magnificent)

This true caper served as inspiration for a 1911 one-reel film, Sidney Olcott’s Railroad Raiders of ’62, and for the 1956 Disney feature The Great Locomotive Chase, starring Fess Parker (TV’s Davy Crockett) as Andrews and Jeffrey Hunter as Fuller. The Disney version is told from the North’s point of view, trumpeting the scheme’s brazen ingenuity, as if it were a 19th-century Argo. The General, which Keaton co-wrote and co-directed with Clyde Bruckman, puts its sympathies on the South’s side. Its “Captain Anderson” (Glen Cavender) is the thief; the Fuller character — Keaton’s Johnny Gray, here not the conductor but the engineer — pursues the kidnappers to reclaim the train he loves. Oh, he has a girl, with the Edgar Allan Poetic name of Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), who is also in the Yankees’ clutches. Yet when he rescues her, she nearly loses the Civil War three years early. Exasperated by her “helpfulness” trying to stoke the locomotive engine, Johnny impulsively throttles her, then kisses her, then returns to the job at hand.

Beginning with Johnny’s rebuff at enlisting in the Confederate Army (he’s told his skills are needed instead as engineer) and climaxing with a battle in which he almost inadvertently conquers the Northern foe, The General devotes nearly an hour of its 79-min. running time to the chase — a marvel of story construction and sight gags from the most inventive comedian in movie history. Watch Keaton’s beautiful, compact body as it pirouettes or pretzels in tortured permutations or, even more elegantly, stands in repose as everything goes crazy around it. Watch his mind as it contemplates a hostile universe whose violent whims Buster understands, withstands and, miraculously, tames. And please, amateur historians as well as movie lovers, make a date to watch The General. It’s the one long-ago Civil War film that can be enjoyed with no apologies or footnotes, its thrills forever fresh, its moviemaking joy intact.


Nearly a century after it was made, The Birth of a Nation stands as a monument to cinema’s power both to use the medium to tell a complex story, in grand images the world could understand, and to shape and distort public opinion. The son of a Colonel in the Army of the Confederacy, Griffith based his epic on Thomas Dixon’s popular novel and play The Clansman. That was the film’s title at its world premiere in Los Angeles, before the opening a month later in New York City (at a top price of $2, when tickets to most movies cost a dime). Produced for $100,000, Birth was estimated to have earned $18 million in its first few years — the astounding equivalent of $1.8 billion today. In current dollars, only Avatar and Titanic have earned more worldwide.

'The Birth Of A Nation'

Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

‘The Birth Of A Nation,’ 1914.

Griffith took this monumental risk without a real script, and using just one camera manned by his invaluable cinematographer, G.W. “Billy” Bitzer. At heart a Romeo-and-Juliet story extended to gargantuan proportions, the movie focuses on two families, the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons, whose eldest sons fall in love with girls from the other clan. Though the Civil War places the young men on opposing sides, they retain respect for their old friends — Ben Stoneman (Henry B. Walthall) stops mid-battle to comfort a wounded Cameron — and love for their ladies. It is romantic chivalry, Griffith insists, that led to Southerners’ night rides against Negroes. A rapacious black man stalks a young white woman until, to protect her virginity, she leaps off a cliff to her death. To avenge such indignities and defend the honor of white womanhood, Ben and his noble fellows give birth to the Ku Klux Klan. That, not the restored United States, is the Nation of the film’s title: the land of lynchings, voter suppression and second-class citizenship for Southern blacks.

(READ: TIME’s 1948 obit on D.W. Griffith by subscribing to TIME)

Basing August Stoneman on Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones in the Spielberg film), Griffith turned the character, as played by Ralph Lewis, into a zealot who is dominated by his shifty mulatto housekeeper-mistress, and who imposes humiliation on the white South in the name of Reconstruction. Negroes in the movie (usually white actors in corkface) are subhuman oafs or savages. So vile was the caricature of blacks, so rousing the Klan’s midnight ride to the Old South’s idea of justice and so persuasive Griffith’s storytelling through pictures that the NAACP demanded suppression of the film — and the modern Klan was born.

Yet The Birth of a Nation is nearly as antiwar as it is antiblack. The Civil War scenes, which consume only 30 minutes of the 3hr.13min. extravaganza, emphasize not the national glory but the human cost of combat. “On the battlefield,” announces one of the film’s intertitles, “War claims its bitter, useless sacrifice.” For all the spectacular panoramas of the battle footage, its explosions and ragged processions of soldiers, the most impressive and startling moments are the more intimate views of the battle’s end. “War’s peace,” reads another intertitle, and we are shown a tableau of a half-dozen dead soldiers, as if taking a restorative rest after their fatal labor. These images have the impact of defiant art: Goya’s Disasters of War or Picasso’s Guernica. Griffith may have been a racist politically, but his refusal to find uplift in the South’s war against the Union — and, implicitly, any war at all — reveals him as a cinematic humanist.


War’s price was evident to the Generals on the hill, every bit as much as to their cannon fodder below. In the 1993 Gettysburg film, Robert E. Lee muses that “this war goes on and on, and the men die, and the price gets even higher. We are prepared to lose some of us, but we are never prepared to lose all of us. We are adrift here in a sea of blood and I want it to end. I want this to be the final battle.”

Gettysburg was the bloodiest but not the final battle of the Civil War; hostilities would drag on, and casualties multiply, for another 21 months. No Audie Murphy emerged from it with hundreds of clean kills and a hero’s luster. It was an exercise in organized slaughter. And that may explain why this crucial event has inspired so few movies.

(*CORRECTIONS: The original text stated that 50,000 soldiers were killed in the battle; we also mistakenly identified James Longstreet as a Union general)

To mark the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, TIME has published a richly illustrated 192-page book, Gettysburg: Turning Point of the Civil War. To buy a copy, go to

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