The First Time I Watched The Movie “Gettysburg”

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:

Gettysburg movie poster (IMDB)

Pat Kelly-Fischer

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.

It was never a perfect movie, and it was based off of an imperfect book, but I think it’s stuck with me all these years because Shaara and Maxwell took the immense chaos and confusion of a 3-day battle with 150,000 participants, and boiled it down into a narrative that’s not TOO far off the mark, and that a layperson can understand. To me, it’s still a masterclass in how to convey a story about history (that hopefully inspires the reader or viewer to dig into the nuance and details that get skimmed over).

Sheritta Bitikofer

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.

Jeff Daniels as Chamberlain in Gettysburg (IMDB)

Chris Mackowski

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.

Longstreet (Tom Berenger) and Lee (Martin Sheen) – Film image (IMDB)

Neil Chatelain

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!

19 Responses to The First Time I Watched The Movie “Gettysburg”

  1. Especially liked Sarah’s point that “it’s a movie, not a documentary. It’s storytelling, not a citable source”. Most modern attacks on it seem to be ideologically driven, which is tragic, because aside from the beards, and the unfortunate reduction of George Meade to a cypher, it’s grand entertainment. I can still hear the thunder in the distance as Buford, Devin and Gamble ride forward through the orchard, to first see the Town in the distance!

  2. I saw Gettysburg on the large screen in Chagrin Falls, Ohio with my wife and good friends. Some re-enactors even showed up for the screening in full regalia. I have since seen it three other times and own the DVD set. I really loved the score from the film and have the CD as well. I can remember staying overnight at the Cashtown Inn outside Gettysburg and staying up in the wee hours playing bridge in the Inn’s Pub. The owner had the CD playing on a continuous loop as we played cards and drank alone with the music as the background. I’m surprised I didn’t get sick of hearing it.

  3. I was in the US Marine Corps at the time, and our entire unit was required by our young commander to watch it– we all arrived at the theater on base at the same time and watched it. Was not a civil war buff at the time but I remember that it was very well received, with the Pickett’s Charge scene being very stirring. Lots of hooting and hollering from us at many scenes– there was nothing controversial about flags or depictions of sides etc– this was a different time. One comment I do remember another Marine making, as we got up to take a break during the intermission– “Longer than the battle itself!” So the length was a point of contention. “I can’t see mah boys!” became a sort of oft-quoted verbal meme in the unit for weeks. Honestly I don’t remember anyone laughing at the beards in the theater– we were perhaps too young to know what bad beards, or beards at all, looked like. If I remember correctly this came out at around the same time as Forest Gump, which was also well-loved.

  4. The first time I watched it was on a cable movie channel like HBO or Showtime. I own a DVD of it now. I liked it then and I like it now. I’m not crazy about the music in it, but overall, I think it’s pretty good.

  5. I saw it in Boston when it first came out. I was definitely jonesing for it, especially since as a Maine native I had been raised on Chamberlain’s heroics on LRT.

    I liked Daniel’s portrayal of JLC very much and its still holds up. I was disappointed in Sheen’s Lee, because my expectations for a charismatic and commanding figure, not a short dumpy guy in a little hat, although I later figured out what Sheen was doing: Lee as a Greek tragedy, brought down by his own gifts. Berenger was very good and Pickett was outstanding, eager for glory, walking back from the disaster, baffled, his idols fallen.

    The old and fat reenactors were a definitely minus, and the acting level was very uneven. Buster was overplayed, colonel darlin’ The battle scenes were cutting edge for 1962, but amateur hour for the 21st century. More people with half their faces shot out, and less stuntmen flying comically through the air.

    The fact that the only black guy has zero lines tracks.

    In short, I loved it and have seen it several times.

  6. I was in San Francisco on business when it came out and bring a civil war and Gettysburg fanatic I rushed to see it. I thought it was stupendous . Jeff Daniels was brilliant as chamberlain. “Charge!”. Sheen was very good as Lee. Steven Lange as Pickett also very good. Sam Elliott as Buford is still my all time favorite. “Keep a clear eye, they’ll come booming.” “Can you hold, John?” “I reckon I can.” The music was excellent. I bought the sound track album. A song called Fife and Drum is so stirring. It is played in the movie during the fight at Herbst Wood and the moment of Reynolds death.

  7. It’s a shame “Last full Measure” was not made into a movie to complete the trilogy . I can understand why. Gods and Generals was a bust. It was a fawning tribute to Stonewall Jackson with Steven Lange playing Jackson . He played Pickett in Gettysburg and I could not get used to him as Jackson. The battle of Fredrickson was well done. It conveyed the horror of the charge up Marye’s Heights. Daniels as chamberlain again was the high point. Was Burnside in the movie? I don’t remember.

  8. I recall to this day the anticipatory excitement sitting in the theatre waiting for the start of the movie. Emotion built with the start of the beautiful introductory music, which began soft and slow, steadily rose, and finally led to the dramatic crash as the first (black & white) shot of Lee and his staff with the title Gettysburg appeared on the screen. A great start.

    I then reverted to full Civil War nerd status as I tried to guess which actor’s photograph tied to the real Civil War person.

    The movie is not perfect, but it still is one of the best Civil War themed movies around. And Sam Elliot’s Buford stole the show.

    Ted Turner indeed initially planned for this to be a TV multi-night epic, but bless him for brining it to the big screen first.

    On a side note, law business caused me to stay in the Gettysburg Hotel shortly after the movie premiered. Turner and some of the top stars, including Martin Sheen, had stayed in that hotel. One of the staff told me that at dinner one night, Sheen had been offered the last piece of cake, but politely refused. Later that night, they caught him in the act, Sheen having crept down to finish the cake off without an audience.

  9. I first saw the movie in a private showing in Washington DC. I was hired along with 500 other reenactors to do an encampment on the Washington DC mall in front of the Washington monument. We had Sam Elliott with us which was wonderful. The civil war caterers fed us lunch and Turner gave us 50 dollars for dinner. That evening we had a private showing of the movie with a boxed lunch at intermission. What a fantastic memory, thanks Ted Turner.

    1. Wow, that must have been awesome, are there photos of it somewhere? Unimaginable today– can you imagine the panic and ‘outrage’ today, both because of so many armed people (even if only with muskets) and persons in Confederate uniforms and flags?

  10. My recollection is that Ted Turner bankrolled this movie. My brother bought me a box set which contained the VHS of the movie, a “behind the scenes” VHS, various photographs of the actual officers involved in the battle and a souvenir bullet. I still have the set but need to find a working VHS player to watch it again.

  11. Saw it in a small theater in Newton, MA. All four glorious hours. Just a 10-15min break in the middle.

  12. With all the discussion about the movie, I will get my dvd and watch on some gray winter day in the coming months. Love watching the reenactors in the battle scenes.

  13. My husband and I love the movie and I loved the music and still do! When I am working in my studio and need something to get me going, so to speak, I play “Gettysburg.” An aquaintance of ours was in the movie, one of the
    cannoneers for the Confederates during/before Pickett’s Charge. Loved Daniels as Chamberlain! For some reason, hubby loves this scene and it moves him greatly. Wish that Robert Duvall had played Lee. I liked him better as Lee in “Gods and Generals” than I liked Sheen’s portrayal of Lee in Gettysburg. This movie led the both of us to a deeper research of the Civil War.

  14. I was very excited upon learning that Gettysburg was coming out. I had read Killer Angels a few years before and have had an interest in Civil War since the centennial in the 1960s when I was a kid.

    I took the day off from work to see the movie in Boston where I was working and saw it at The Charles Cinema, now closed but which then was a large one-screen movie. I knew the movie would be a spectacle so I really wanted a big screen. I wasn’t disappointed. It was an afternoon showing mid-week; the film was only shown twice a day due to its length.

    Fortunately, I was part of a audience of Civil War fans because we were all loudly enthusiastic about the film (other than the beards of course). It was an overwhelming experience. It remains one of my favorite movie-going experiences. I think it captures the chaos of battle and tells the story of Gettysburg about as well as a dramatic movie could.

    I recently forced my wife to watch it on DVD for her first time (over 2 nights) and she thought it was terrific. While not a Civil War buff she thoroughly enjoyed it.

  15. Saw it in the historical Senator theater in Baltimore with my dad because I wasn’t 13. It was film and there was an intermission. Will
    Never forget it. I own it now 30+ years later and still watch it once a year.

  16. Funny side note: I knew very little about the Civil War until 20 years ago. I came from the background of Virginia Colonial and WWII history (what a combo). Virginia Colonial morphed into Civil War, so I first watched the last part of the movie in 2000, near the end of Pickett’s Charge (which should properly be termed Pickett’s/Trimble’s/Pettigrew’s Charges).
    In my neophyte ignorance of the dramatis personae, coupled with poor hearing, I thought Stephen Lang shouted, “That’s the style Long,” referring to Longstreet, when he saw Armistead advancing to the stone wall, hat atop sword. Only later did I learn “Long” was really “Lo,” Armistead’s nickname (although the primary source evidence of this is scant).
    20 years later I am now a Longstreet fan, member of The Longstreet Society (sorry detractors) and Civil War bibliomaniac. It’s a virus.

  17. When it came out the closest theater showing it was 25 miles away. I gladly drove there to see it. Later, when it played at a theater much closer I went to see it again with a friend of mine. (Yes, I saw it in the theater twice.) I remember thinking “really? Martin Sheen as Lee?” However, I was won over by his performance. My favorite scenes are any containing Sam Elliot, though my favorite character is Longstreet. The only thing I’d change would be to give Meade more screen time, he was Lee’s counterpart after all.

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