Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Turning Point in American History

History is just full of "what if" scenarios.

For most people, those "what ifs" form the basis for some interesting parlor games — speculation on what might have happened if this, that or the other thing had occurred before — or instead of — something else.

(Fifty years ago, such scenarios formed — from time to time — the foundations for intriguing stories on Rod Serling's original Twilight Zone TV series.)

Today is the anniversary of such an event. On this day, 145 years ago, Union forces withstood Pickett's Charge and won the Battle of Gettysburg. History tells us the Union changed the course of the Civil War with that victory.

And, even though President Lincoln said, at the dedication of Gettysburg's military cemetery later in 1863, that the world would "little note nor long remember" the things that were said on that day, long after the smoke of battle had cleared away and the town of Gettysburg had returned to its normally placid state, I can remember being assigned to memorize the Gettysburg Address in my ninth grade civics class.

I don't know if they do that in the schools of America anymore. But I can assure you that, when I was 15 years old, I had to memorize the Gettysburg Address, go up to the front of the classroom and recite it when it my name was called.

I think there were about 25 people in my civics class, so that meant that, eventually, everyone would recite it for the class — and have to listen to two dozen other people recite the same speech.

Some people delivered their remarks in a flat, dull monotone. Others tried to rush through, tumbling over the words as if in a race to beat Lincoln's time.

And a few (who possessed a flair for the dramatic) tried to give the speech as if they had been transformed into Lincoln himself, making his remarks for the first time and leaving it to history to judge the appropriateness of each word.

They were the ones who — for a few minutes, at least — made the past come alive for us in that dusty old classroom.

We certainly remembered Lincoln's words in that classroom that semester, more than a century after he spoke them. In fact, I can still remember most of that speech — the same one I memorized more than 30 years ago.

It is testimony to the power of the Union's triumph in that battle that it remains the ultimate "what if" scenario from the Civil War.

The 1993 film "Gettysburg" is a faithful re-creation of the story of that battle, of the heroism and valor shown by combatants on both sides.

If you want to see historic events depicted as they really happened, "Gettysburg" is one of those films I recommend — the same as I recommend "Tora! Tora! Tora!" to anyone who wants to see what the attack on Pearl Harbor was really like.

But if you're interested in pure speculation, I suggest watching "Confederate States of America," a mockumentary that didn't fare too well at the box office a few years ago. But the Independent Film Channel bought the rights to the film, and now IFC shows the film from time to time on its cable channel and it owns the distribution rights for home video.

It tells the story of what might have happened if the South had won the war. It's presented with the kind of quality one would expect from a History Channel presentation.

The story of how the South was able to reverse the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg is only the beginning of an entertaining, thought-provoking — and, at times, disturbing — alternate version of American history.

The film is presented as a legitimate documentary that was produced by a BBC-like broadcasting company, but it has been banned from American television for a couple of years and is being aired in this country for the first time — with a disclaimer at the beginning and interruptions from several commercials that are parodies of actual products and their advertisements.

You've got a couple of opportunities to see the movie on IFC this month. You can see it tonight at 10:45 p.m. (Eastern) and again early tomorrow morning at 4 a.m. (Eastern). It will be shown a third time on Saturday, July 26 at 7:25 p.m. (Eastern).

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