|Alex Diakun plays the photographer|
I couldn't watch the actual "Outer Limits" TV show because it was on a network other than the (only) one we got. The "Outer Limits" series had an eerie quality. I developed a fascination just from the cards. The Outer Limits became a brand that would be revived in later years.
The "Comet" TV network has presented an episode of special interest to me. It was filmed back in 2000. It was remarkably prescient because it showed a venerated African-American president of the future. He speaks at a ceremony to commemorate the Battle of Gettysburg. Most significantly, he "retires" the Confederate battle flag from any constructive use it might ever have. A man costumed as Abe Lincoln is beside him.
But this is a time travel episode. We go back to the actual days of the Battle of Gettysburg. The battle was so bloody and tragic, young people of today would have a hard time believing it happened. Well, it's hard to relate to the violence and scale of World War II also. Mankind was once willing to sacrifice so many of its own kind. What the heck was the Confederacy anyway, that it would attract loyalty to the extent that so much blood had to be spilled?
The North was never eager to wipe out the South. General McClellan never really wanted to deploy his magnificent army. I suppose the best army is one that is so strong, it intimidates potential adversaries, therefore it needn't get in harm's way. This is the way Donald Trump is talking now. In theory this approach hits all the right notes. In theory the isolationist cause of the 1930s, "America First," hit all the right notes. Who wants to sacrifice the lives of young men?
Lincoln eventually hired U.S. Grant to mount "total war" in order to make no concessions to the South. Non-Civil War scholars might think Grant was present at Gettysburg. But oh, no, he wasn't. General Lee of the South sure was, and his health was problematic there: diarrhea. In the Outer Limits special called "Gettysburg," we see Lee who is hearty enough to ride his horse with elan just before Pickett's charge.
Parallels with an earlier movie
This episode reminds me a lot of the 1990s movie called "Gettysburg." Remember that? Jeff Daniels played the hero character. It was an extra-long movie that did pretty well at theaters before landing on cable TV as a much-ballyhooed show. Roger Ebert liked the movie. As a Civil War buff I was rather mesmerized by it. Civil War re-enactors populated the movie.
In real life I think the soldiers were more young and more thin - make that scrawny - especially the Confederates.
I compliment the makers of the "Outer Limits" version because the Pickett's charge soldiers were scrawny, unkempt and with bleak expressions in their eyes. I'm quite certain that's on the mark for realism. I sensed in short order that the makers of this episode had true affinity with their subject matter. I can see where the budget was a little lower than for the 1990s movie. That doesn't bother me. We see Pickett's charge forming and proceeding in a way that is really quite moving.
First the cannons fire at the Union line. I have read that this barrage could be heard as far away as Philadelphia. The power of the cannons was illusory: the Union position was firm and destined to prevail. The Confederates should have used "triangulation" more, but that's a subject for another blog post.
I was fascinated seeing the time traveling soldier desperately trying to implore the troops about how they were doomed. The troops merely kept their blank looks. A Confederate officer comes along and dispatches the desperate soul from the future.
However, the Confederate officer played by Meat Loaf has been inadvertently transported to the future where he's armed and dangerous. Meat Loaf takes care of the assassination. The time travel has been orchestrated by a mysterious man working as a 19th Century photographer. The actor: Alex Diakun. His motive is to try to prevent the assassination. He transports a pair of Civil War re-enactors, Andy and Vince, into the past because he knows if he doesn't, Andy will carry out the assassination.
Andy is a Southern loyalist. He is profoundly offended by the "retiring" of the flag by none other than an African-American president. The time travel meme in the story is a familiar one: you cannot alter history. Let's call it fate: in this case an assassination.
An online review says of this Outer Limits episode that it is "uneven and strange" and with "lots of weird implications." We'll take that as a compliment, right? Such are the precise qualities we want from our science fiction. They are in fact the trademark of the whole "Outer Limits" concept for storytelling.
Hollywood shying away from Civil War?
We don't see much of the Civil War in movies today. I wonder if it's because the nature of warfare back then strains credulity. Young people cannot believe that virtual waves of men would be sent to their death this way. Perhaps a new movie should begin with the proclamation: "This actually happened."
Tony Horwitz has written that the Civil War was "the last war fought by human beings." Thus a level of romance has grown about it all. We just try to keep it in a vicarious world. We have achieved emotional distance from the casualties of the Civil War. Horwitz observed that the feelings associated with that war are alive in the South, pretty much exclusively.
Could it be that Hollywood shies away from Civil War movies out of fear of offending the South? The movie "Gettysburg" was pretty straightforward in how it presented the Union as the "winner." Hollywood for years had a meme suggesting that although the South lost, the southern soldier should still be presented with an air of gallantry. These young men were simply products of the antebellum South culture. Destiny was working against them, despite their obvious heroism.
The photographer character in the Outer Limits episode had a secondary motive, of showing Andy that "there is no glory in this or any other war." Maybe Andy would back off from his parochial, bigoted sentiment.
If I could turn back time. . .
Michael Crichton said of time travel that it really wasn't practical to try to go back in time and change the course of major events. The reason is that the power behind these events is too great for a single individual to alter. The Outer Limits theory is that fate is simply immutable.
Either way I like time travel movies. I was mesmerized by the original "Time Machine" movie from around 1960. I also had to have the light on in my bedroom for a few nights afterward, such was the menacing look of those "Morlocks." How can we forget Yvette Mimieux?
We all like to speculate on what we might do, if transported to a different year. The movie "Gettysburg" showed us a pep rally type of atmosphere just before Picket's charge. It seemed outright choreographed. It seems to me the chants would have had to be rehearsed. I'm not saying this didn't happen, but I've always been skeptical about the elaborateness of it. The pre-charge scene in the 2000 "Outer Limits" struck me as more believable. The chants seemed more spontaneous and reasonable. And then, with the smoke of the cannon barrage evaporating away, the beleaguered-looking men trudge forward. There was a Confederate charge at Franklin TN that was identical. But the Gettysburg battle ended up capturing our imagination. That's where so many units of the North and South put up their monuments, including our First Minnesota with its "running rifleman" pose. (Maybe there's an "Eastern bias" at work too!)
General Longstreet is a principal
The movie "Gettysburg" focused not so much on General Lee as on General Longstreet. The movie was based on the book "The Killer Angels" which also had a fascination with Longstreet, a totally professional military man whose mind seems to have been more intact than Lee's in July of 1863.
Longstreet was not wholly enthusiastic about the move into Pennsylvania in the first place. He instead wanted concentration to the West. Once the plunge north was made, General Longstreet firmly believed a defensive campaign was to be waged. The Civil War was a time of much-advanced weaponry. A fact of war is that technological advances give the advantage, at least temporarily, to the "tactical defensive." Also, the advanced weapons made it hard for either side to "win" a large-scale engagement. Stonewall Jackson could be as confused as anyone when it came to the typical Civil War mass battle. Jackson's stock got elevated post-war because of the Myth of the Lost Cause.
General Lee insisted on attacking the numerically superior Army of the Potomac. Longstreet had wanted to flank the Federal army. In the movie "Gettysburg" we see Longstreet in a resigned sort of way, sullen, saying Lee's orders had to be followed in the strictest sense. It was akin to pouting.
Finally we arrive at Day 3, the climactic day, the day that broke the Confederates' back. Lee comes across as rather eccentric in the 1990s movie, behaving as if he knows victory won't come, but he orders the charge anyway. "We do our duty," Martin Sheen said to Tom Berenger, the latter playing Longstreet. In other words, "we have to do what we have to do."
Southerners didn't like Sheen's portrayal, and they much preferred Robert Duvall as Lee in the sequel (or prequel) movie: "Gods and Generals." That movie was so bad, plans for a third movie in this "trilogy" had to be scrapped.
I was fascinated by "Gods and Generals" (though I didn't like it) in that Hollywood departed from its traditional framework with Civil War movies. As I said, Hollywood historically has shown the South as the clear "loser" with defeat always in the cards for them, even as it had adherents who were admirable as individuals. "Gods and Generals" tried making the Southern cause the moral equal of the North's cause. That just doesn't work. We all know morality was in the North's favor.
Going back in time to try to stop the bloodshed was admirable. There is no glory in any war, as the photographer (named "Nicholas Prentice") tried to impress on everyone. But the Civil War with its limitless gore did indeed happen.
I compliment the makers of the "Outer Limits" episode for making us think so deeply about it all. I'd love to see it again.