Gettysburg, Ronald F. Maxwell's retelling of four hot days during the summer of 1863 (based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara), is a spectacle that gathers power and momentum with every scene. Originally slated as a TNT mini-series, Gettysburg received the go-ahead for a theatrical run when Ted Turner realized the quality of the material he had on his hands. Those who are not daunted by the running time (two-hundred thirty-four minutes, easily the longest general release motion picture in a long while) and decide to see the film on the big-screen will find their choice well rewarded.
The film is divided into two parts, with an intermission in between (the length of the intermission varies from ten minutes to twenty-five minutes, depending on theater management). The first section, which begins on June 30, 1863 (the day before the start of the battle of Gettysburg) and ends during the day of July 2 with Col. Joshua Chamberlain's legendary defense of Little Round Top, is approximately two hours and twenty minutes long. The second part, which takes up the remaining 1:55, concentrates primarily on July 3 and the disastrous charge of Maj. Gen. George Pickett and 15,000 members of the Confederate Army against the entrenched Union position atop Cemetery Ridge.
Over 50,000 were killed or wounded during this pivotal battle of the Civil War, and Gettysburg takes pains to breathe life and logic into the reasons for this. Yet it does far more than that. Rather than functioning as a text book come to life, the film uses its actors to flesh out characters from history, giving not only personalities to those on both sides of the struggle, but believable causes as well. We are presented with the rare opportunity to see not only the clash of arms on the field of battle, but the clash of wills beforehand.
Four and a half hours (including the intermission) is a long time to sit in a movie theater, yet even towards the end, restlessness is unlikely. The films is adept at the tricky art of pacing, and just as the slower, dramatic elements of the story threaten to bog down Gettysburg, the rousing battle scenes start anew.
The film opens with exposition. These scenes are slow, but, coming at the beginning, they're not difficult to get through. Next is the initial confrontation between the troops of Gen. Buford (Sam Elliot) and the advancing edge of the Confederate army. Then, with the onset of night, there's a lull, and an opportunity for more character development and introspection. With the morning of July 2, there's the defense of Little Roundtop under the command of Col. Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), a truly amazing sequence that lasts nearly an hour and keeps the audience involved for the entire time.
Of course, following Little Round Top, there's discussion and planning as Gen. Lee (Martin Sheen) prepares his decisive assault. The disagreements of Lt. Gen Longstreet (Tom Berenger) are presented and ignored, and Pickett (Stephen Lang) is chosen to lead the charge. While this section of the film may be a little too talky, it is positioned immediately after the intermission when the audience is better able to tolerate a slower forty minutes. The climax -- Pickett's charge -- is even more engrossing than the defense of Little Round Top. Those who get a few nape hairs standing on end will not be alone.
Historical accuracy was of great concern to the producers and director. They hired a veritable army of advisors to correct even the most minute mistakes in the script (if a general given a pale horse in the movie was known to have favored a dark horse, the mount was changed), used the actual sites in Pennsylvania as often as possible (where hiding war monuments became an art), and «recruited» more than 5000 unpaid re-enactors to fill up the screen during the battle scenes (thus helping to keep the budget at a reasonable $20 million). The result is a movie that looks and feels real.
The cast gathered for this recreation is impressive. There are no high-orbit names like Tom Cruise or Alec Baldwin to distract the viewer. While Berenger and Sheen are certainly known and recognized, their profiles, like their performances, are low-key. Both do solid jobs, and are especially effective at bringing out the more human sides of the officers. Sheen's Lee is a brilliant leader who carries a weight of weariness and guilt that only the end of the war can lift, and Berenger's Longstreet has tears in his eyes when he orders Pickett's charge, which he knows beforehand will be a failure.
More impressive than Berenger and Sheen are Jeff Daniels and the late Richard Jordan. Daniels gives a remarkable rendering of Col. Chamberlain, investing the legend with all the foibles and failures of humanity, and making us understand exactly why his name has been so lauded. Jordan, who plays Brig. Gen. Lewis Armstead, is the standout on the Confederate side, and his powerful portrayal is given an added dash of poignancy by the realization that the actor is no longer with us.
In epic movies, especially those that feature battles, the musical score takes on added significance. While not a masterpiece of originality or modern composition, Randy Edelman's work is loud, triumphant, and inspirational -- qualities which are perfect for the battle scenes. Additionally, Kees Van Oostrum's camerawork, while lacking the grandeur of the cinematography in Edward Zwick's Glory, offers a number of breathtaking battle shots.
Epic motion pictures are a rarity these days -- even more rare than films about the Civil War. Gettysburg should satisfy both cravings. This film is perfectly placed in the wake of Ken Burns' PBS series (Burns, incidentally, has a small role here as the aide to Union Gen. Hancock) for any who have a re-kindled interest in this segment of American history. For those with little more than a passing interest, Gettysburg is still gripping enough to captivate in its own right. Ambitious and successful, it is easily one of the most glorious U. S. productions of the year.