Produced by Tony and Ridley Scott for the History Channel in 2011, Gettysburg takes us on a tour of the events that took place in the small Pennsylvania town of the same name on the first three days of July in 1863. As most of us already know, it was here that Confederate troops essentially surrounded the town in hopes of eliminating what was left of the Union soldiers who were in the area and to subsequently win the war for the South. The resulting battle would result in a loss of life never seen before or after in the entire western hemisphere and change the shape of not only the Civil War but of America as a whole. In short, this was a big time game changer and the country would never be the same.
The documentary starts at the beginning, explaining how and why both Confederate and Union forces wound up in Gettysburg in the numbers that they did and why they wound up in the parts of town that they did but the focus here is more on the stories of eight specific soldiers. This is where the documentary succeeds, by shedding some light on the 'smaller' stories of the war and it's this tactic that is the saving grace of this documentary. There are a lot of omissions here in terms of tactics, skirmish and political influence that wound up playing a big part in how the battle was won and these omissions can't really be overlooked.
As far as the style of the documentary goes, it's maybe not all that surprising that it kind of looks like a Ridley Scott film. Remember how Black Hawk Down had a lot of shaky cam footage to put us in the moment and make us feel like we were right there alongside the soldiers in that movie? Well almost all of the battlefield reenactments featured in this documentary are shot the very same way. If you're not a fan of this style of filmmaking, then you'll definitely take issue with the entire look of the movie as outside of a few talking head interviews scattered throughout the piece, the whole of the feature has this look. This also takes away from the more educational side of the production, making it play out more like an action movie of the week than the semi-scholarly documentary it's claiming to be, and it definitely takes this out of straight documentary territory and puts it in the edutainment slot.
There are things that this movie does well aside from just telling the stories of a few soldiers involved in the conflict. The coverage of how Union troops dug in to Culp's Hill and Cemetery Ridge to use the terrain to their strategic advantage against the flanking Confederate troops who vastly outnumbered them is interesting. The visuals are done well here to really give us a good feel as to how and why the Union men did what they did and to let us better understand the strategy behind their decisions. They don't really discuss the similar efforts on Little Round Top, however, which seems to be an odd choice and is one of the many aforementioned omissions in this feature. The film also does a pretty good job of explaining the importance of the slave trade to the American economy of the time and solidifying how and why the sides for and against this would take up arms over it. There certainly are moments in between the shaky cam battle clips where some very intelligent and well educated commentators chime in and provide some welcome insight into these events.
There are also a few times in the documentary where the filmmakers take the time to elaborate on what may initially seem to be a small and inconsequential detail but which, upon further examination, proves to have been very important indeed. A perfect example of this is when they discuss the types of bullets used in the war, and how the grooves in the rifles gave the solider better accuracy. This is important in and of itself but when you consider that the lead bullet would widen at the tip upon impact and subsequently shatter bone and leave a large hole in the body when exiting, you can see how the results would be bloodier and nastier. On top of that, small grooves in the bullets themselves allowed them to carry bacteria which lead to very fast infection to which the only cure was amputation. Right there we learn how a small detail becomes a big issue, a key factor in just why they body count was so amazingly high at Gettysburg.
At two hours in length there's really just no way to properly cover the lead up to and fallout from three days of constant conflict. It's not a surprise that this History Channel production falls short of standing as anything even close to the definitive statement on the battle of Gettysburg and you don't necessarily get the impression that the filmmakers were trying to do that in the first place. This is not a piece for the academic viewer, but for those not already experts in the history of the Civil War, it will definitely be of some interest and is a good 'gateway drug' that could lead to those who develop an interest in the subject matter seeking out more scholarly works on it.
Gettysburg debuts on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1.781 widescreen 1080p high definition transfer that generally looks very good. Much of the reenactment footage is shot shaky cam style so you don't get a lot of the detail you might get out of something shot with a little more restraint but you can't fault the picture quality here. Shot on digital video and transferred to Blu-ray, there are obviously no problems with any print damage or debris. Color reproduction looks very good and skin tones look nice. There aren't any problems with compression artifacts to note and only some slight ringing in a few spots to note. The image is clean, stable and strong throughout playback.
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix on this disc is very good. Optional subtitles are provided in English only. The narration comes at your out of the front channels, just as you'd expect it to, while the rears are used to bring life to the battle scenes. Bullets will zip past you from time to time throughout the movie and explosions give your subwoofer a good rattling too. This isn't a mix that's on par with what the best of the format has to offer but it is quite good, offering strong directional effects and bass response without burying the narration or interview clips in the sound effects or the score.
There are no extras on this release save for a menu and chapter selection. This is a combo pack release, however, so a DVD version of the movie is also included - but it doesn't have any extra features on it either.
Gettysburg is not the in-depth look at the battle that hardcore Civil War and history buffs probably wanted it to be and there are some legitimate gripes that this production wallows in style over substance. With that said, it's not a complete wash - the stories of the soldiers involved in the battle are quite interesting and as a surface level examination of the events that took place there, it's decent enough. The Blu-ray looks and sounds quite good but is this something that has a lot of replay value? Not specifically, no - a solid rental, however.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.