Oh Gettysburg. The film that kindled the fire of love for history within me when I was a mere sprig of a 10-year-old. It is still one of my favorite movies. Sadly, it is also rife with inaccuracy. Let’s get to it.Gettysburg is adapted (with near-perfect precision) from the Pulitzer-prizewinning historical fiction novel by Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels. It tells the story of the three-day bloody battle of the Civil War, through the eyes of some of its famous names and faces.
What they got right: Surprisingly, a lot! Shaara did a lot of research in his writing, lifting some of his book directly from letters and diaries. The names, places, characters, etc. are all pretty spot-on.
With a couple of Hollywood liberties, of course.
What they got wrong: Not too too much.
Your favorite character (besides Col. Chamberlain, of course) didn’t exist. Private Buster Kilrain, the grumpy private recently demoted for “that episode with the bottle” and Chamberlain’s adopted father, the token Irishman of the group, delivers one of the most poignant speeches of the film not given by Chamberlain himself. And he was totally a work of fiction.
The old timey photograph they used to represent Kilrain during the opening credits was nothing more than that of an unknown Union soldier. Kilrain is completely made-up, which continues to annoy the piss out of Gettysburg tour guides who have to answer the cacophony of gullible individuals demanding to know why his name isn’t on the 20th Maine monument on Little Round Top.
The British dude wasn’t a foppish moron. Col. Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, of her Majesty’s Coldstream Guards, is the token English fop in this film. “An observer” from England who self-funded his trip to the Confederacy to shadow the army and see the war for himself, Fremantle traveled the length and breadth of the Confederacy during April – July, 1863, and by some trick of fate ended up witnessing the Battle of Gettysburg.
Fremantle’s journal, published as Three Months in the Southern States, paints him as quite a down-to-earth character, and contains frequent references to his lack of dress clothes, his gray pants (which brings a local to mistake him for a Confederate soldier) and his dusty attire. Why the directors chose to clothe him in the bright red uniform is beyond me.
Perhaps even more infuriatingly, he is show sipping tea out of a china cup on the field. Really? Really? I know the guy is British, and we ‘Murricans know they stumble around overdressing and drinking tea in inappropriate places, but really?
Tom Chamberlain was not the Everyman he was depicted as. You see Tom Chamberlain, brother of Joshua Chamberlain, flitting throughout the camps and among Confederates, making friends with every rebel he encounters. There is no record of this happening. I think it was more the director’s choice that they had to have someone, instead of just random people, interviewing rebels, taking rebels captive, and delivering Armistead’s dying message. But in the end, it’s laughable. Tom is just everywhere.
Honestly, I can’t think of any other glaring inaccuracies. Which would, I think, say Gettysburg is about as good as a historical-fiction film can be. If characterization is your worst inaccuracy, you’re in pretty good shape.