Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Gettysburg, on the History Channel

       through the eyes of

The History Channel's visioning of Gettysburg was pretty ridiculous as both history and narrative. Riddled with inaccuracies and oversimplifications, it is poorly edited to the point that I was two minutes into the show that followed it before I realized that it had ended.

Beyond the issues of "button counting" the authenticity of weapons and uniforms (which I find secondary to the narrative) there was an odd aspect of disassociation to it, as if it had been filmed in another country (apparently it was) much like a spaghetti western, with the actors merely aping what they imagined the American Civil War to be - Vaqueros del yanqui en una guerra con los payasos rebeldes.

In this telling of the battle, seems Rufus Dawes did all of the heavy lifting, just as J.L. Chamberlain was portrayed doing in the Ron Maxwell visioning of Gettysburg in his film of the same name.  Poor George Sears Greene gets slighted again by less-than-rigorous scriptwrtiers.

Oddly enough, there were some very fine historians attached to the program, though in a manner that seemed quite detached , almost as if the producers felt the need to intersperse the narrative with built-in snack and beer breaks for the action-oriented set. ( I really like Peter Carmichael, by the way, I met him at the park once and he seems like a really nice guy).  I'd rather have listened to a panel discussion of those learned individuals on the subject without the cgi bells and whistles that did so little, otherwise, to advance the show.

All that being said, the over-the-top art direction really is fun to watch. It's garish and surreal, circus-like almost. Reminding me frequently of the work of one of my very favorite directors, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the mind behind such treasures as A Very Long Engagement and Delicatessin.   There, however the enjoyment stops.  The effort was very, very bad as History but  good as an exploding pinata filled with gumballs, confetti, and tiny monkeys in bellhop uniforms, and that clearly ain't history.

I did approach the program with some skepticism, not particularly optimistic regarding the abilities of the History Channel to actually convey history to a popular audience, in prime-time at least, if Pawn Stars, American Pickers, and other such programs are any indication of the credibility of the producers at the History Channel.  As fun to watch as those programs are, they do precious little to advance the historic narrative, beyond Chumley's obvious paucity of information regarding just about every object that walks through the doors of the pawnshop.  Similarly, if Larry the Cableguy, is viewed as the arbiter of American History, then I think, alas, that it's time to sell your savings bonds and learn Chinese.

The one hope I did advance to others regarding "Gettysburg" was that perhaps it would serve as a catalyst of enquiry for younger viewers, sparking their interest and guiding them toward lifetime learning.  Sadly, the late time slot (on a school night) and the graphic depiction of violence  (there are still many parents to whom that is objectionable) may have precluded any substantial audience of young people.
Seems that precious little history found it's way to the "History" Channel last night.

Regrettably, it seems  a lost opportunity for an important public outlet- the History Channel - to really advance the exploration and discussion of the American Civil War, in a meaningful manner,  in this sesquicentennial era.


Anonymous said...

Tim Smith told me the combat scenes were filmed in South Africa before there was even a script and everything was assembled (apparently without instructions) afterwards. All in all, a waste of two hours, but at least Rufus Dawes, (who appeared to be very angry), and Culp's Hill got some credit, (even if George Greene didn't).

John C. Nicholas

John Banks said...

mannie: agree with almost everything you wrote here. What turned me off most was the awful Geico Civil War-themed commercial. Man, was that ever awful.

Anonymous said...

Mannie, I had to turn the program after the first hour! After reading Tim's comment, I have to suspect they had filmed various chacters, then much later decided who each would represent. It appears only a blind draw could have possibly come up with the Barksdale character.
Ron Dickey

Jeff said...


The History Channel actually had some very fine programming when it first appeared. The "History vs. Hollywood" portion - where historians would comment on films, was actually quite good at times. Then they were accused of being the "Hitler Channel" due to the large amount of WWII programs, and things began to slide.

I agree that "Pawn Stars" and "American Pickers" are entertaining, but of very little actual value. However, they at least have a slim connection to history through the relics that they discuss. Shows like "UFO Hunters" and Monster Quest" were truly the lowest point the History Channel ever sunk to.

They have stopped being a niche network for history nuts and have tried to become all things to all people.

Chris Evans said...

Good review.

I really miss the excellent 'Civil War Combat' shows that the History channel use to do.


Dan said...

You get what you pay for. I totaly believe in free TV, still. PBS rules

John said...

Agree across the board on everything all have already stated. Old A&E used to do some fine history shows.

I can not even watch the current version of History. I dio like their subchannel, The Military Channel which shows some pretty good shows recently on armored warfare and ground combat with very effective CGI reenactments.