BACK-STORY: “Gettysburg” is a war movie that began as a TV miniseries produced by Ted Turner. The finished product pleased the millionaire so much that he decided to release it to movie theaters. It may be the longest American movie (254 minutes) ever to appear in theaters. It appeared in a limited number of cinemas and did not recoup its cost, but the publicity was golden and when it was first shown on Turner Broadcasting Network, it was the most viewed basic cable program up to that time. The movie is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. The title was changed to the battle name after it was discovered that potential viewers thought the original title indicated a motorcycle gang movie. The National Park Service allowed filming on site, although much of the action was lensed at a nearby farm. The film made use of over 5,000 reenactors. There are also cameos by Ted Turner and Ken Burns. Turner is killed during Pickett’s Charge (rumor has it by Jane Fonda masquerading as a Union soldier). Burns plays an aide to Hancock.
OPENING: The movie opens with a map tracing the paths of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac as a voice-over explains the strategic situation in June, 1863. The assumption that most of the viewers would be ignorant of their Civil War history is appropriate. The movie will take great pains to inform the historically-challenged.
A lone horseman spies the Union army on the march northward. He turns out to be an actor/spy named Harrison who works for Confederate General Longstreet (Tom Berenger). He reports the surprising news that the Union army is much closer than was believed. Longstreet passes the information on to a skeptical Lee (who has been blinded by the loss of contact with Stuart’s cavalry) and Lee decides to concentrate the army at a sleepy little crossroads named Gettysburg.
SUMMARY: (Note: since the movie is over four hours long, I’ll mercifully hit only the highlights) Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) is handed a hot potato in the form of some mutineers from another Maine regiment. As commander of the 20th Maine he is tasked with taking the mutineers along and shooting them if necessary. He gives an inspired speech about the importance of the upcoming battle (“we are here to set men free”) and his empathetic approach convinces most of the unhappy crew to pitch in.
Outside Gettysburg, a Union cavalry unit led by John Buford (Sam Elliot) blocks the road leading to the town. Buford assesses the terrain and realizes his outnumbered brigade must attempt to “hold the high ground” until the main body of the army arrives. He soon makes contact with Confederate infantry heading for Gettysburg. The movie jumps to Lee (Martin Sheen) who is still in the dark about what is transpiring, but follows Napoleon’s advice to march to the sound of the guns. Lee reluctantly orders a general attack knowing the battle you get is not often the battle you want. The first of the movies set piece battles chronicles Buford’s holding action and subsequent retreat after being flanked in spite of the arrival of Reynold’s corps. The highlight is the death of Reynolds by sharpshooter.
The movie introduces a major theme as Lee and Longstreet disagree on strategy. Lee, ever the aggressor, wants to end the war with this battle and intends to attack the Union army no matter their defensive position. He has supreme confidence in his soldiers and exhibits a tiredness that influences his decisions. Longstreet, ever the defensive-minded, wants to maneuver around the Union position to force the Union to attack them on advantageous ground. This back and forth will reappear later in the movie with Longstreet playing the petulantly obedient subordinate.
The 20th Maine is marching toward destiny. They encounter a runaway slave which gives Chamberlain the opportunity to expound on his liberal professorial views against slavery. His earthy Scottish sergeant Kilrain (Kevin Conway) argues the war is a class war to ensure that Americans are judged by their ability, not their lineage. To Chamberlain’s belief that all men have a “divine spirit”, Kilrain refers to men as “killer angels”.
Longstreet’s brigade commanders discuss the war around the camp fire. They are all agreed that the war is about states’ rights and Northern aggression. A British observer named Fremantle listens to the speechifying with a “hey, I’m only here to watch the killing” look.
General Trimble (Morgan Sheppard) visits Lee to complain about his corps commander Ewell’s failure to take “that hill”, Cemetery Ridge. Lee defuses his anger, but obviously empathizes with his frustration. Meanwhile, on Cemetery Ridge, Gen. Meade arrives to ask if his subordinates have put his army in a good defensive position. Buford and others assure him it is “good ground”. Buford pats himself on the back for “holding the high ground”.
|the 20th Maine defends Little Round Top|
|Rebels advance up Little Round Top|
The second big set piece takes place on Little Round Top where the 20th Maine is stationed on the very end of the Union line. Chamberlain is ordered to hold his position at all costs. The situation is clearly outlined for the audience through some more speechifying. The subsequent series of assaults by Alabama infantry that culminates in hand to hand fighting and finally in a bayonet charge are the high water mark of the film. The second day ends with the Union still holding its fishhook line on Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top.
The last day is portentously set up by the melodramatic story of pre-Civil War BFFs Gen. Armistead (Louis Jordan) and Union Gen. Hancock. Armistead tells Longstreet of their teary parting at the beginning of the war and his desire for a reunion in the midst of the battle. This effectively adds a human element to the next day’s carnage. At Lee’s headquarters, the joy-riding Stuart returns to a wood-shed moment from the fatherly Lee. The encounter accurately reflects Lee’s command style of giving his generals lots of room for initiative and then gently scolding them if their decisions are flawed.
The third set piece is the famous Pickett’s Charge. It is shown in what seems like real time. The plan is outlined by Longstreet to his generals (and the audience). The theme of Longstreet’s reluctance to launch what he is sure will be a failed attack reappears. The 30 reeanactor cannons fill in noisily for the actual over one hundred. The 5,000 reenactors fill in for the actual 15,000 in Pickett’s Charge. There is a long stretch featuring tracking shots that has no dialogue and relies on the beating of drums that evolves into the score. The Rebels march stoically into a metal storm of first shrapnel, then canister, and finally volleys. One has to admire the dedication of those men. As to why they did it, there is a telling moment when Armistead bucks up a cringing youngster with the question “what will you think of yourself in the morning?” He responds with “I won’t think too highly of myself, but at least I’ll be alive to think!” Just kidding – he continues on after properly being shamed into doing the honorable thing.
The movie reaches a second climax (the first being the bayonet charge) with Armistead (hat on sword) reaching the Union line but falling mortally wounded. Jordan gets to chew the scenery with his death scene including a wheezing begging of forgiveness from Hancock. On the other side of the corpse strewn field, Lee rides among the survivors taking the blame for the disaster and encountering the distraught Pickett who cannot reform his division because “General Lee, sir, I have no division”.
CLOSING: Joshua Chamberlain and his brother Thomas embrace as the sun goes down. The closing credits tell us what happened to the main characters. Pictures of the real historical figures make you feel guilty for laughing at the seemingly ridiculous facial hair of the actors. They actually looked a lot like their characters.
Acting - 6
Action – 9
Accuracy – 9
Realism - 9
Plot - 9
Overall - 10
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Only if they are a Civil War buff. This movie is the anti-“Gone with the Wind”. There is absolutely no romance (except between Armistead and Hancock – which is thankfully unrequitted). In fact only one female speaks in the movie. Interestingly, the line by a Northern belle (“I thought the war was in Virginia”) is uttered by director Maxwell’s daughter. The movie does have a lot of talking and is not graphic in its violence. It is also very educational which might be appealing to some females.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: It amazes me that some critics question the accuracy of the movie. Trust me, you are not going to get more accuracy than this movie. The small faults can be excused by the fact that the movie is technically based on a novel, but the novel is a masterpiece of imagining around historical facts. Shaara imagines conversations and thoughts of the historical figures that populate the movie, but all of it rings true. The movie is faithful to the book and few have questioned the accuracy and authenticity of the book.
The Battle of Gettysburg is probably the most important battle ever fought on American soil. It lasted three days and involved well over 100,000 men. It would be impossible for any movie to cover the battle in detail. The screenwriter wisely focuses on one key action per day. Buford’s holding action, the defense of Little Round Top, and Pickett’s Charge are adeptly reenacted. The three set pieces are much better and more enjoyable than any documentary could do.
The strategy and tactics are true to the battle. The command decisions are accurate. The movie does a great job of showing the hows and whys of the battle. There is no historical revisionism here. The motivations of both sides and of the individual leaders are clear, although the movie can be faulted for downplaying the South’s desire to maintain slavery.
|a reenactor fires an Enfield|
|Daniels as Chamberlain|
The movie has been criticized for its pro-South slant. This reflects the book. Shaara obviously found the “Lost Cause” appealing. It must have been fun imagining the stilted speaking style of the Southern aristocrats. The movie actually edits the speechifying commendably. The brushing over of slavery as the key cause of the conflict is upsetting.
The sound effects are superb. The sounds of battle are realistic. The cannon fire in particular (while not nearly loud enough) is as close to being there as you can get. More importantly, the score by Randy Edelman is one of the best in war movie history. The music matches the mood perfectly. Do not forget that the score was meant for a TV movie. That is hard to fathom.
|a face full of grapeshot|
The movie does a great job in teaching the battle. The narration and map at the beginning establish the situation and the dialogue makes it clear what the big picture is throughout the battle. I can think of no other war movie that attempts to tell the story of a specific historical battle that does a better job in replacing the written word. It is superior to “Waterloo”, “Midway”, “Pearl Harbor”, etc. in this respect.
CONCLUSION: “Gettysburg” has been harshly judged by critics who are not familiar with the Civil War, The Killer Angels, or the way people talked and groomed in the 1860s. I’ll grant you the beards look fake, but if you stick around for the closing credits, you will see that the actors look a lot like their characters. Even a minor figure like Harrison is a lookalike. Such fidelity to accuracy was not necessary, but indicates the care with which the movie was made. If you criticize the screenplay, you are essentially criticizing a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. The movie follows the book very closely. The dialogue is almost word for word from the book, which is a good thing. The scenes in the book are replicated in the movie with the only significant difference between the book and the movie being the fact that the movie deletes some scenes. It could be argued that the movie improves on the book. There is little reason to read the novel if you see the movie.
“Gettysburg” is very underrated at #46. There are several movies ahead of it which I have seen, but not reviewed yet that are inferior to it. It is a classic example of how a labor of love can overcome a small budget and low expectations. Many military history buffs rank Pickett’s Charge as one of the top moments in their “if I could witness an event” lists. This movie achieves that dream and throws in one of the all-time great battle scenes (the defense of Little Round Top).
On a personal note, I took my History Club on a field trip to see this movie during its brief run in the theaters. We had to travel two hours to see it. It was worth it, although I can't say the students were thrilled with the length.