The morning of 1st July 1863 saw the first shots fired on what was to swiftly become the bloodiest battle ever fought on US soil. A pivotal moment of the American Civil War, the battle of Gettysburg (so named for the small town around which the fighting occurred) saw the opposing Union and Confederate army, representing respectively the North and South of the country, clash for three days as both tried to finally gain an upper hand in what was beginning to feel like a never-ending campaign. The war had begun two years previously when the newly elected President Abraham Lincoln had announced an end to slavery. For the South, for whom slavery provided a large part of their annual income, this was the last straw from a government they considered had no right to tell them what to do, and consequently announced a Secession from the Union, taking up arms to enforce their position. Two years later and the war was still finely balanced, although if anyone had the advantage it was the Southern Confederates, who had found in General Robert E Lee a master tactician who was very gradually pushing his army further and further north. When it became clear that they were heading for a direct confrontation with the Union Army Lee saw the situation as a perfect opportunity to finally breakthrough and inflict the decisive victory. For once the two armies had a roughly equal number of men (Lee had become famous for winning victories with the smaller army) and the Unionist army had the disadvantage of having just had a new commander appointed, a General George G Meade, the fifth man to assume the post in less than a year. There would never be a better time, Lee considered, neither geographically nor militarily nor strategically, to make a push.
The events of the resulting battle are painstakingly recreated by director Ronald F Maxwell in his four hour plus opus to the battle. Based on the famous novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, it shows the conflict from both Confederate and Union perspectives, concentrating on three of the key engagements, one from each day of the battle. The objectives of both armies are made extremely clear – at key moments we are shown either maps or diagrams of the relevant areas and movements, enabling the viewer to understand completely both the tactics used and also, more importantly, why those particular tactics were employed. Various visual metaphors are utilized to drive home the salient points – “they’re positioned like a fish hook,” for example, or “We’re going to swing round them like a door closing” – as well as occasional judicious use of repetition (“You are the flank. This means there is no one after you. You have to guard the left hand side because you are the flank” and so on) all of which succeed in making the subsequent clashes so much more than just a bunch of men running at each other shooting and waving bayonets. As a lesson in military history it is first rate and even those who have no interest or knowledge of military tactics will be drawn into the outcomes, to see whether those giving the orders knew what they were doing or whether they were just making it up as they went along (or, as is often the case here, a mixture of both).
The film was made at the actual locations where the battle took placein (give or take the odd concession to avoid filming war monuments) which gives a real sense of the space that the men had to fight in. As you would expect with a project like this, the look of the soldiers is perfect down to the most minute detail, complete with uniforms that have seen better days and enormous moustaches and beards. The battles are well choreographed, but occasionally come across as having a slight tinge of re-enactment about them: the first, in particular, seems to consist of the two armies shooting at each other for a bit and then one turning tail and fleeing. This is more than compensated, however, by the production of the central battle of the film, the defence by the Unionists of Little Round Top, a key position that the Unionists had to hold if they were to have any chance in triumphing. Perched on the side of the hill, surrounded by trees, the defence of the position by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine is the highlight of the film, a tense, exciting half hour with men from both sides literally flinging themselves at each other in their attempt to break through.
As the film finds its drama in the battles and the military decisions that led to them, characterisation take a bit of a back seat and is painted with very broad strokes. The fact that the men on both sides of the army are not very different, with only a difference of opinion on how their country should be run, is laid on pretty thick (the film’s tagline is “Same Land, Same God, Different Dreams”) with countless scenes of men ruminating together about what it's all about. This is personified in the case of Brigadier Armistead (Richard Jordan, in his last role before his early death) and Major General Hancock (Brian Mallon), two friends who said goodbye to each other in California before enlisting in opposing armies, knowing that the next time they would see each other would be as enemies on the battlefield. They spend the film looking wistfully towards the enemy camp and wishing they could see their friend for one last time, but as nothing very much comes of it it feels a bit of a wasted opportunity. The most interesting conflict comes between Lee and his second-in-command General Longstreet (Tom Berenger), who makes it quite clear he does not approve of Lee’s all-in approach. They have several discussions about this (once again, discussions that make the relevant tactics perfectly understandable to a layman) but in the end Longstreet has to defer to his commanding officer. Based on Longstreet’s own memoirs, these scenes show him as the practical sensible one and Lee as a bit bullish and pigheaded which does Lee (who, after all, was given the moniker “The Beloved” by his army) a bit of a disservice – as a historian says on the commentary track, there is no consensus of opinion about whether Longstreet’s plan would have been any more successful than Lee’s.
As the most prominent commanders on show, a lot of the film’s success rests on the actors playing Lee and Longstreet, Martin Sheen and Tom Berenger respectively. Berenger is fine but slightly understated, although this is largely because he isn’t given the material to really sink his teeth into (his debates with Lee always ending up with him looking a bit miffed but resigned to their fate). Sheen, on the other hand, is a bit of a disappointment, the actor giving Lee a drawly, softly spoken accent that, while perhaps historically accurate, does not mark him out as a great leader of men. Strangely, considering his subsequent brilliance in The West Wing, he does not imbue Lee with the charisma that the man must have had to achieve the place he had in his army’s affections. The star turn is, instead, by Jeff Daniels as the Union Army’s Colonel Chamberlain, a man who almost accidentally finds himself involved in two of the heaviest areas of fighting during the three days. Despite having the hindrance of being given a moustache that makes him look like a walrus, Daniels brings a real steadfast humanity to his role of the former college lecturer, doing what he has to do to get through the carnage while all the time caring for his men and, at Little Round Top, improvising the movement that led to the successful defence of that peak. As opposed to Lee, here is a man you really would want to follow into battle, and he brings some much-needed heart into the picture whenever he is on the screen. The other major figures make somewhat less of an impact, and, if your Civil War history is shaky, it is easy to get them mixed up, with only Sam Elliot’s bullish General Buford leaving a lasting impression.
Maxwell’s direction, while never remarkable, is certainly up to the task of bringing the events to life. Although he gives the film a steady rather than speedy pace, it never drags, despite the fact that clocking in at over four hours it might seem a bit overbearing to take in all at once. Originally planned as a six hour mini-series, it does work better all in one go, and there is little sign of any important material missing. The battles, as said, do sometimes feel a bit too clinical to be truly realistic, but Maxwell gets his camera down in the thick of the action as well as taking advantage of the attractive topography the conflict took place in. The one unfortunate element is that the odd air shot used to pan across the army as it prepares for its final charge wobbles slightly and appears to be filmed with different stock to the rest, proving a little distracting at a moment when we should be busily in awe of the number of men about to go to their deaths. This is, however, trivial, and the care and attention to detail that Maxwell imbues in every scene and set up shows how much this project meant to him. The shots are helped by the grand score that composer Randy Edelman brings to it, which is suitably militaristic and grand, reflecting both the heroism and tragedy unfolding. (Interestingly, originally Edelman turned down the offer to compose for the film, but said that the initial footage he saw of the soldiers changed his mind).
Ultimately how Gettysburg is assessed is down to what the viewer wants to take out of it. As a standard cinematic film, it is not entirely satisfying as the human element, so necessary in any war picture, is lacking. There are some rudimentary attempts to bring out the people involved but as they only skim the surface of potentially fascinating characters it tends to be insufficent. On the other hand, as a straightforward history lesson it is first rate, bringing the battle to vivid life and making clear the issues the two sides faced and the reasons behind their chosen actions. Don’t be put off by the lengthy running time – if you have the slightest interest in this period of American history, it is well worth checking out. Just don’t expect to come away with any great insight into the characters of the men behind the muskets.
A dual-layered flipper disk, the film is split between the two sides and is presented in an anamorphic 1.85 print, while the extras are a mixture of wide and full screen. There are subtitles for both the main feature and all the extras aside from the trailers. The static menus are identical on both sides and you are required to click Play Movie again on flipping over to the second side. Most of the extras are to be found on side two – only the 1955 documentary is on the first (as well as the commentary, obviously).
A fine layer of grain does not really mar a generally fine, albeit occasionally soft, transfer. There are some instances of edge enhancements and the odd digital artefact, but nothing that prevents this from being a perfectly acceptable print. The extras, on the other hand, are not so good, with plenty of evidence of compression and digital and print artefacts.
The stirring score is done full justice, while the dialogue comes across well, even during the loudest battle scenes. The cries of the soldiers resonate from the speakers well, plunging you into the middle of the conflict. A good mix.
Superb commentary track, with a perfectly judged mixture of details about the filming and historical comment. The four contributors, director Maxwell, cinematographer Kees Van Osstrumcinematographer Kees Van Osstrum, author James M McPherson and especially military historian Craig Symmonds, are all on good form and have interesting things to say, the only pity being that the track is over an edited version of the film which runs a little over two hours.
The Battle of Gettysburg
A documentary from 1955, narrated by Leslie Nielson of all people, this covers much the same ground as the movie. Very old fashioned, it uses a mixture of shots of the statues commemorating the famous figures and soundclips of fighting to give an impression of the battle. It’s a little dry but informative enough, and benefits from including the complete text of Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address.
Five minutes of behind the scenes footage. The individual scenes are a bit short but nevertheless give an impression on how the film was put together.
Ten incredibly short interviews with the main actors and people associated with the production such as Ted Turner (who was the man responsible for finally greenlighting the film). These are literally ten second-long sound bites that were evidently made for a longer, talking heads documentary and, while nice to have, are not terribly useful in isolation.
Trailers and TV Spots
The main theatrical trailer and four TV spots for the film, all of which do it full justice. Also included is a trailer for Gods and Generals, the follow up made by the same production team ten years later.
Maps of the Battlefield
A more detailed seven minute lesson in the military tactics used with Craig Symmonds, illustrated with annotated maps of the battlefield. Interesting.
The Making of Gettysburg
Excellent fifty minute documentary that combines footage from the film, interviews with the actors and photographs and other historical sources from the actual period to tell the story of the battle and the movie. Narrated by Martin Sheen.
An excellent recreation of a battle that is at the heart of American consciousness, the film is complimented by a fine selection of extras – it’s difficult to think of anything more that could have been included, although admittedly a lot of material is repeated over and over again. This is a must for those interested in the American Civil War and for those that aren’t, this may just change their mind.
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