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Gettysburg and Stories of Valor, a three-hour documentary on two DVDs, takes a scattershot approach to the Civil War. One moment, narrator Keith Carradine talks about the monuments on the Gettysburg battlefield, a few minutes later we’re hearing about a young drummer on the Union side, then it’s on to a segment about a photograph of some dead soldiers.

This approach was intentional; the filmmakers wanted to tell the stories of individuals and of objects. Anyone wanting a big-picture approach to the Civil War would do better to check out Ken Burns’ The Civil War, or the many books on the subject. Civil War buffs, however, may find this DVD set fascinating. The interesting commentary track fills in even more information.

Blue and Gray

DVD documentary focuses on the small details, not the big picture
DVD documentary focuses on the small details, not the big picture

The three hours of stories are broken up into 30 episodes approximately 5-10 minutes long, with alternating shots of modern-day battlefields, old photos and illustrations, and occasional reenactments.

Disc one focuses on the Battle of Gettysburg: one episode follows the career of Union General Winfield Scott Hancock from the battle to his unsuccessful run for the presidency in the 1880s. Another episode lingers on the physical effects of a soldier. Disc two ventures away from Gettysburg, with segments about the Andersonville prison, the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and amputations, among other topics.

The documentary succeeds in keeping these details interesting and never tedious. It may seem trivial to focus on a man’s wallet and shoulder patches, or a fine Confederate frock coat with a bullet hole. But these items serve as a physical link to the past, a reminder that they once belonged to real people who probably never imagined that their possessions would end up in a museum.

DVD Extras

Both discs have audio tracks with commentary by producer/director Mark Bussler and writers Michael Kraus and David Neville. They are all very knowlegeable on the Civil War and fill in even more details that were left out of the documentary. At times, their commentary is as interesting as the material presented in the documentary.

The Cultural Significance of Gettysburg, is 27-minute featurette with outtakes from the documentary. On the soundtrack, Kraus and Neville give some background on the battle and on the battlefield’s popularity as a tourist attraction.

Picture and Sound

The picture is good. As it was shot on video, it looks fine on a television. The sound is good as well and the film occasionally makes good use of surround for sound effects.