This weekend in the town of Gettysburg, the Gettysburg movie fan club assembles to celebrate the film’s 30th anniversary! Free events and ticketed events crowd the calendar for many local museums, and many of the actors will be in town or perhaps even on the battlefield as part of the cast reunion and film festival happenings.
The movie’s anniversary prompted some consideration about the film as a piece of Civil War pop-culture. We asked ECW members, “What’s your memory of seeing Gettysburg for the first time?” And here are the received responses:
I remember it being on in the background, in the way that certain movies back then just always seemed to be on TV. But the first time I really watched it was after reading Killer Angels (3 or 4 times probably), and it became my go-to movie to watch for snow days or on summer break. I still remember the distinctive two-VHS set that the library next door had.
I didn’t watch Gettysburg until much later in my journey into Civil War studies. It wasn’t the “gateway drug” for me as it was for so many others. I can’t recall how I got a copy, but I watched it first on DVD. After watching it for the first time, I bought into the “myth” of Joshua Chamberlin and the dramatic “swing like a do-wa” sequence, and was rather disappointed that the truth behind his memoirs and just how controversial his role was on Little Round Top. The beards were, of course, laughable, and my introduction to Confederate philosophy came from the famous campfire scene. The numerous speeches were moving, and Pickett’s Charge was epic. It gives me goosebumps just to picture it now. No matter how many movies I see Stephen Lang in, he will always be General Pickett to me, and Jeff Davis will always be Chamberlain. It’s also fun to meet reenactors who played extras and listen to their stories of being on the set. Overall, I still thoroughly enjoy the movie, historic flaws and all.
The first time I saw the movie “Gettysburg” was in a theater in Bangor, Maine. The movie was not originally slated for release in Bangor, but that is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain territory. He was born across the river in Brewer, Maine, and a bridge that connects the two cities is named after him. (In fact, my mother once lived on Chamberlain Street in Brewer, just a couple blocks up from Chamberlain’s birthplace.)
Anticipation about the movie was high, and once word got out that it wouldn’t actually be shown in town, residents initiated a petition drive and letter-writing campaign to the local multiplex and newspaper, requesting the movie be shown there. The theater agreed and brought the movie to town, although I can’t remember now whether it came on opening weekend or a little later.
I worked as a news director at a radio station in Bangor at the time and covered “Bring Gettysburg to Bangor” campaign as a story. I had also interviewed a local professor from the University of Maine, Tom Desjardin, about his work as a consultant on the film. Desjardin served as the Chamberlain expert and coached actor Jeff Daniels.
Years earlier, when producers had first announced the news that they were making “Gettysburg,” I had been interning at WHTM-TV in Harrisburg. I accompanied reporter George Richardson down to the battlefield to shadow him as he did a story on the announcement. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was going to be adapted for the big screen, and we got to stand along the stone wall at “the Angle” to break the news.
It took a few years for the movie to get made. When it finally came out—and came to Bangor—I went to see it out of curiosity. I wasn’t a particularly big Civil War buff at the time, but I had been professionally following the story for a while. I remember being amused…
I wasn’t a particularly big Civil War buff at the time, but I went to see the movie out of curiosity. I remember being amused by how bad the beards were, which cheapened the entire production for me. It felt like a made-for-TV movie, despite the incredible cast.
The theater was packed. I know the film didn’t do well commercially, but it sure played well in Bangor, Maine.
I was only six years old when Gettysburg came out. I never saw it in theatres. Instead, my mom knew of my passion for studying the Civil War and we found the film in a DVD bargain bin when I was in high school at a Wal Mart. Rushing home, I immediately played the film on our home computer, knowing nothing about it. Seeing the intricacies of tactical maneuvering, the immersion of language and uniform via actors and reenactors, and the story coming to life was quite the eye-opening experience. My favorite character was Sam Elliot playing John Buford, largely because of his no-nonsense and realistic portrayal.
Sarah Kay Bierle
I was almost fourteen when my parents let me watch Gods & Generals and Gettysburg for the first time. It was like Gettysburg shook something inside me and became my favorite of the two…even though the ending made me cry. The movie version of battle violence, the sweeping soundtrack, the emphasis that history is a story of people making decisions and acting on those choices…it all intrigued and inspired teenage-Sarah.
As I read more about the history of battle, aftermath, and memory at Gettysburg, I kind of stopped watching the movie for a while. I think I didn’t want to dislike the film! I kept listening to the soundtrack (one of my favorites!) and that music has been the background of some long hours of writing or other projects that I just needed to keep going. Earlier this year, I watched the movie—start to finish—and was pleasantly surprised by how much I still appreciated the movie and its storytelling. It’s a movie, not a documentary. It’s storytelling, not a citable source. It’s inspiring still. And I still find the ending sunset/reunion scene quite perfect and even cathartic.
“What’s YOUR memory of seeing Gettysburg for the first time?” Let us know in the comments!