August 3, 2004 -- A new civil war documentary will be released on DVD on August 31, 2004, called “Gettysburg and Stories of Valor.” This is a reveiw of an advance copy of the two-DVD set. This is mainly for people who are seriously interested in the history of the civil war, particularly the battle of Gettysburg. Any Civil War documentary, of course, begs comparison with the greatest documentary of them all, Ken Burns' nine-part documentary on the Civil War, originally broadcast on PBS. This latest documentary falls far short of Burns' epic, but it does cover a lot of information not covered in the Burns documentary. It also covers a lot of material not covered in major motion pictures about the war, such as “Glory,” “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals.” While the documentary is informative, it is not nearly as entertaining or as compelling as the Burns civil war documentary for several reasons.
The documentary, part of “The Minutes of History” (TM) series, by Inecom Entertainment Company, is narrated by well-known actor Keith Carradine (“Nashville”). While Carradine's unctuous voice is not exactly a monotone, his delivery is flat enough to put you to sleep, and the text of the narration is stiff and formal. The first disk of the two-disk set is mainly about Gettysburg, while the second disk skips around to different battles during the war, and certain events after the war. Such diverse topics as medical care, clothing, battlefield photography, and Civil War veteran's organizations like the Grand Army of the Republic (north) and the United Confederate Veterans are discussed. Each chapter on the DVD is on a different topic, and the events depicted are not presented in chronological order. The topics are not unrelated, but there is little thematic continuity from one chapter to the next.
One of the more interesting facts I learned from this documentary was the Civil War's significant positive impact on medical science. According to the video, only about 600 doctors in the United States had ever performed surgery on people prior to the Civil War. By the time the war was over, nearly 15,000 doctors had performed surgery on wounded soldiers. The Union Army, in particular, kept a large number of records of these operations (mostly amputations), as well as photos and physical specimens, all used to create a massive six-volume medical and surgical history of the war. This document helped to train new doctors for years after the war. Medical care is discussed in several chapters, some of the photos and drawings are gruesome. This material is not for the squeamish. War is shown to be the hell it really is, not some glamorous adventure.
One of the more famous people mentioned in “Gettysburg and Stories of Valor” is Winfield Scott Hancock, a popular Union officer who ran for the U.S. Presidency in 1880. He was narrowly defeated by James Garfield. Another story is about John L. Burns, perhaps the oldest infantryman in the war. Burns, 69, volunteered to fight for the Union at Gettysburg. He fought in the battle and was thrice wounded, but survived the war to become a major celebrity. He was the only resident of Gettysburg to fight in the battle named for that town. Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Addison Armistead is also the subject of one of the video's segments. Armistead is one of a large number of high ranking officers who died during the war. Generals in those days led from the front, rather than plot strategy behind the battle lines as they do now. Armistead, a Mason, was also the recipient of charity from some Masonic Union officers after being mortally wounded at Gettysburg, and having identified himself to them as a Mason. Among those who died leading his troops into battle, and the subject of another chapter in the documentary, was Brigadier General Alexander Hays of the Union army.
There is also a chapter on Andersonville Prison, and famed nurse Clara Barton's efforts to mark the thousands of graves there so that relatives could find their loved ones. Another segment follows some prisoners of the Union army. Another episode talks about the many amputees who survived the war, and the development of prosthetic devices to help them. There is an episode about Confederate President Jefferson Davis' ignoble capture by Union troops. There is also a segment about the fighting at Culp's Hill at Gettysburg. Another segment details the disastrous explosion at Allegheny Arsenal on September 17, 1862 which killed 78 arsenal workers, many of them women. A lot of emphasis in some chapters is placed on the museum collections at Gettysburg, and at the Mansfield, Ohio Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall.
In all, there are 30 chapters on the two disks, covering a wide range of topics, from individuals who fought in the Civil War to broader strokes of history. There is a lot of factual material of interest to civil war buffs. While the narration on the disk is bland, the feature-length commentary track featuring director/producer Mark Bussler, along with writers Michael Kraus and David M. Neville, is more interesting. They not only talk about where and how some scenes were shot, but how they found the historical material, and they discuss their own views of Civil War history at length. A lot of footage in the video is shot in the present at Gettysburg and elsewhere, depicting numerous battle monuments and memorials. A few scenes are recreated by actors. Many scenes depicting the Civil War are comprised of images of photographs, paintings or drawings.
The approach in this documentary is similar to that pioneered in the Burns Civil War documentary. The difference is that Burns effectively used a variety of narrators, not just one, and the narrative text was a lot more interesting and thought-provoking. Extensive use of letters, diaries and other written material, delivered with feeling by actors, humanized historical figures. In addition, Burns lined up some eloquent and provocative Civil War experts for commentary and analysis. Burns made better use of maps to show the location of the places being discussed and he skillfully tied the segments together into a cohesive, chronological whole. If you already have the Burns documentary and if you want additional Civil War historical stories and details, this DVD set might be just what you are looking for. This DVD two-disk set rates a C.
The DVDs in the two-disk set I reviewed here had a combined running time of 180 minutes. Soundtracks include Dolby Digital (TM) 2 or 5.1 surround and filmmaker commentary. The reviewed set was in the widescreen format, enhanced for 16x9 format TVs. The DVDs are also closed-captioned and have English subtitles as well. Extra features include trailers for other documentaries, an interview with writers Michael Kraus and David M. Neville, and deleted scenes. The sound and video quality was good in both.
If you are looking for even more Civil War stories, Inecom Entertainment Company has several others, including “Civil War Minutes -- Union,” “Civil War Minutes -- Confederate,” “Civil War Life -- Shot to Pieces” and “Civil War Life -- Left for Dead” (two incredible tales of Civil War survival, which can also be bought as a two-DVD package). See the links below for more on these titles.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this video, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the video, the actors, and links to much more information. For more information on this video, including, synopsis, production notes, features, trailer and biographies, click on this link to the official home page of Gettysburg and Stories of Valor. Click here for the Inecom Entertainment Company home page.