By Peter Hummers on September 9, 2021
In a nutshell: In 1861 a group of southern states sought to secede from the United States and form another federation (the ‘Con‘federacy). The U.S. went to war with the “Confederate States of America” to prevent it. By the time the U.S. had won, in 1865, 828,000(*) Americans had died. The war saw the mixture of modern weaponry (machine guns, mortars and repeating rifles) and traditional fighting techniques of two armies facing each other across a field and blazing away, in a crucible that came to address the American original sin of slavery.
Based on an 1890 short story by Civil War veteran and author Ambrose Bierce (The Devil’s Dictionary), this episode of The Twilight Zone was a rare one—it was produced in France, won the 1962 Cannes Film Festival and other internationial awards, and picked up for American airplay by the anthology series, rather than being written and produced for it.
“Tonight, a presentation so special and unique that for the first time in the five years we’ve been presenting The Twilight Zone, we’re offering a film shot in France by others. Here is a haunting study of the incredible from the past master of the incredible, Ambrose Bierce” (from Rod Serling’s introduction to the episode).
It’s the intimate story of a southern civilian and what he expects is his impending doom at the hands of a Union regiment. It uses the plot device of a long period of subjective time passing in an instant, which was not new in 1890 when Bierce wrote his story, but so speaks to the human psyche that it seems fresh today. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that “I consider anybody a twerp who hasn’t read the greatest American short story, which is ‘[An] Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,’ by Ambrose Bierce. It isn’t remotely political. It is a flawless example of American genius, like ‘Sophisticated Lady’ by Duke Ellington or the Franklin stove.”
And this tributary French adaptation, which condenses some of the story’s exposition to a posted sign, and some to inference, is a beautiful and impressionistic half an hour, with almost no dialogue, and a head-snapping dénouement. 8/10 rating on IMDb.com.
In contrast to the episode of Peyton Farquhar and the Union company that looks to hang him, the Battle of Gettysburg involved 100,000 soldiers and ran over the course of three days. With an ensemble cast including Martin Sheen, Jeff Daniels, Tom Berenger, hundreds of extras, and with a running time of 254 minutes, 1993’s Gettysburg seems almost as epic as its subject.
The film succeeds in charting the scope and course of the 1863 Pennsylvania battle, and also highlighting the individual stories of its key players. There’s General Robert E. Lee (Sheen), the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and ipso facto commander of the combined Confederate Army, whose scout reports increased Union army activity in Pennsylvania, between Lee’s army and Philadelphia, his target. Lee had hoped to take the offense against the north and invade the Union, taking focus from Virginia, which had been ravished by fighting.
On the Union side, Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Daniels), in civilian life a college professor, commanded the 20th Maine volunteer regiment, which occupied a hill on the left of the Union lines, and under intense repeated assaults from the 15th Alabama infantry, turned the tables on the rebels and, out of ammunition, led a downhill bayonet charge that drove the Alabamians away, in the second most famous episode of the battle.
The most famous was the final, futile charge of the companies of Major General George Pickett (Stephen Lang), Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew (George Lazenby), and Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble (M. Morgan Sheppard) against the center of the Union line, resulting in the rout of the Confederate army back to Virginia, for which Lee held himself responsible, and the ascension of the Union to the ultimate victors of the war, two years later.
Gettysburg is an adaptation of Michael Shaara’s 1974 historical novel The Killer Angels, which itself won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is required reading at the top military schools in the country, including West Point and The Citadel. The movie currently has a 77% “fresh” score on RottenTomatoes.com.
(* Source for casualties: Chambers, John W.; Anderson, Fred (1999). The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-507198-6.)
Next time, when the unthinkable happens: The Looming Tower and Chernobyl.
(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)