Jeff Daniels as Col Joshua L. Chamberlain in ‘Gettysburg’

A Film by Ronald F. Maxwell

Jeff Daniels, right of centre. Source: Pinterest

Acclaimed screenwriter and director Ronald F Maxwell’s 1993 epic film Gettysburg is a labour of love that reveals itself in every frame of its 4 hour span. Not a second is wasted in falsification of fact, or in the temptation to impose 21st century sensibilities upon the actions, reactions and thoughts of people enfolded within a battle within a war that changed them all forever, and those who came after them.

It is not my intention here to review the film in length, or the work of many of the leading actors — that’s for another time — but to highlight a section that is at the heart of the film and the original action at the heart of the battle.

To watch Maxwell’s film is to share an emotional experience that stays with the viewer, at least this viewer, for days afterwards, and that is the recreation of Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain by Jeff Daniels, who shares triple top billing.

Chamberlain was a Bowden College professor and Bangor Theological seminarian, who, a little while after the declaration of war volunteered for service, ending up as a Colonel in the 20th Maine Infantry.

In the film we first come across him being woken by Sergeant Kilrain (Kevin Conway) to confront a problem that others have quite literally passed down the line, as Chamberlain biographer, William M. Wallace explains in Soul of The Lion:

“ Chamberlain faced a serious morale problem. The 2nd Maine had been in the war since before First Bull Run and had a gallant record. Unfortunately a mix-up had occurred in signing the enlistment papers so that some of the regiment were in service for three years and others for two years. When the two-year men went home in May, the three-year men could not see why they should not be going home with most of their regiment and were in a mutinous condition. They refused to obey orders, and for three days no one assumed the responsibility for feeding them. A detachment of the 118th Pennsylvania with fixed bayonets brought them over to Chamberlain. Whose orders from the corps commander, General Meade, were to ‘make them do duty, or shoot them down the moment they refused.’”

In the film this is handled superbly well, with Daniels’ Chamberlain taking the spokesman for the 2nd Maine to one side, explaining the situation, and that he has orders to shoot them if they do not comply with his orders. He explains that he is in a pretty tight situation with a probable battle coming up and that he can’t leave the men of the 2nd behind, and that, well it might be a good idea if the men from the 2nd had something to eat. The spokesman says he’s not hungry and that the other men of the 2nd have no intention of going to anymore battles. Haven’t they done enough already? Chamberlain agrees, but reckons it’s a good idea for the other men to get something to eat. He then goes over to the men of the 2nd, tells them he has orders to shoot them if they disobey orders. “ I won’t, of course,” he tells them. He then, in a gentle fashion, explains to them the state of the war and reminds them why it’s being fought — not least for the abolition of slavery — and that lots of men feel like going home, but can’t because the war is now bigger than the individual: it is about the future, and the survival of the United States. “ So, there you have it. I suggest you get yourselves some food, can’t guarantee it’ll be hot mind. And then you’re coming with us whether you want to or not.” It’s worth pointing out that Kevin Conway’s Sgt. Kilrain does make it plain to Chamberlain that if he did shoot the men of the 2nd he could never go back to Maine.

It’s an extraordinary sequence, with a speech that is as good as anything Shakespeare ever penned, and extremely emotional, an emotion that Daniels maintains and builds upon. There is now the start of something of a transformation in the men of the 2nd: an officer from the same State has shown the men of the 2nd some kindness and understanding, and, more importantly, fed them.

We know from that scene that Daniels’ Chamberlain is an honest and decent officer, and a good manager of men. We, the viewer — as those men from the 2nd Maine must have felt — know we are in good, and trustworthy hands: that things will get tough, very tough, but here is a man to watch, a man who will lead us (and them), and, as in The Alamo and A Night to Remember, will give us the strength to face political and personal challenges — to stand firm against injustice and discrimination, and how the individual as a collective (horrible word) can make a difference when it really matters.

As this incredible film moves forward, and the men of the 20th Maine, with the contingent from the 2nd Maine, move toward an encounter that will change the very momentum of the war, and a bloody encounter Col. Chamberiain could never have imagined.

Within a couple of hours of reaching Gettysburg Chamberlain is ordered to defend a hillside to ensure the Confederate forces do not break through and capture Union supply wagons on the other side. Willard M. Wallace, in his 1960 biography, explains how Chamberlain:

“ …literally had his back to the wall, at least to the rocky hillside of Little Round Top. Before him, pushing in grim silence up the hill in what was certain to be the final charge that would crash through the thin blue ranks of the 20th and take the hard-pressed defenders of the west side of the hill in the rear. Chamberlain’s own regiment was riddled with casualties, outnumbered nearly three to one, and over-extended to the left to keep from being flanked. Worse still, it had run out of ammunition. To try to stave off the onrushing Southerners with musket butts and stones would be hopeless and tragic. At the moment of decision a young officer asked Chamberlain if he might go forward and bring off one or two wounded men before the enemy closed in.

“ ‘Yes, sir, in a moment!’ the Colonel replied. He stepped to the colors, and the men looked toward him.

“ ‘Bayonet!’

“The men set up a shout. Instantly there came the snicker of two hundred bayonets drawn from leather sheaths and the grating clash of steel as their loops slid over the rifle barrels. Whipping out his sabre, Chamberlain strode forward, and the entire regiment plunged down the hill in a great wheeling movement to the right.”

As the film shows, this movement took the enemy by complete surprise. There was a momentary and useless resistance, which soon turned to surrender and magnanimity.

It is a scene that engenders all of that pent-up emotion of the earlier scene with the 2nd Maine, resulting in two members of the 2nd saving Chamberlain’s life at the height of the battle, symbolising, if nothing else, the sentiments of Chamberlain’s earlier speech.

The intensity of the scene is, for me, almost impossible to handle.

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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