I confess that I finished reading The Killer Angels a month or so ago. I kept wanting to write about it, but decided what I really wanted to do was watch Gettysburg, the 1993 film based on the book, to tell you about yet another fantastic book-to-movie adaptation.

But, alas.

The Killer Angels book-to-movie adaptation is a snoozer, which is somewhat surprising. The movie mirrored the book beat-for-beat, but while The Killer Angels novel is visceral and moving, Gettysburg falls flat with overblown monologues and ambling extras, not to mention off-the-mark casting choices.

The Killer Angels

The Killer Angels covers the four days known as the Battle of Gettysburg. This subject matter is, of course, of great interest to history buffs, and the author Michael Shaara does not disappoint. He steers clear of what might have been a stale historical account that keeps the main characters, places, and key moments at an arm’s length. Instead, he brings the story up close and vivid in the mind’s eye.

I knew a little about Robert E. Lee before, and almost nothing about James Longstreet, and Joshua Chamberlain. By the time I finished reading I wanted to meet them in person, to be in the same room with them and get a sense of what iron-clad resolve these men ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They were not the sort of people to say something like, ‘know your truth,’ or care for an idea like teamwork. In Lee, Longstreet, and Chamberlain, Michael Shaara encapsulates a different time that called for a different type of leader. They’re not warm or friendly; the case could be made that Lee was reckless and wrong for ignoring Longstreet’s advice, yet after getting to know them I can’t help but wish we’d preserved a little bit more of their cool, dispassionate way, especially in this era of naval gazing public figures.

What’s so boring about Gettysburg

Many people liked Gettysburg, so I feel bad saying it’s boring, but I found at least one critic who agrees with me (Robert Ebert) who said, “This is a film that Civil War buffs will find indispensable, even if others might find it interminable.” The film project began as a TV miniseries but they ultimately released it as a feature film. Of note, it marks the first time the National Park Service allowed a film crew to shoot on the Gettysburg battle site, and the first time Civil War reenactors volunteered to play extras in the film’s massive battle scenes.

These details are cool, but the movie moves in a long, slow, churn. Scenes blend together, speeches drone on. The film never looses this sense of never-endingness, much like the thousands of extras hanging around the union and confederate campsites, the sets themselves seem to go on forever. And whoever thought Martin Sheen would make a good Robert E. Lee had it wrong. I like Martin Sheen as much as the next person. In Apocalypse Now, and The Departed, he nails it. But give me Charlton Heston but someone not as good looking, or Russel Crowe from Gladiator. Don’t give me stodgy, round-faced Martin Sheen for Robert E. Lee. It just doesn’t work.

The Killer Angels. Read the book, skip the movie.

Categories: Book Picks

Diana

Hi there. I'm a writer and reserve military officer with a day job. I write fiction, professional essays on military topics, and wax philosophical about books and movies. I live in Florida with my husband, two kids, and two cats.

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