[November marks the 30th anniversary of the film GETTYSBURG, in honor of which I am reposting my review from 1993.]
CAPSULE: This film of military history contains more authentic military history than any other film I have ever seen. The film itself is more than four hours and very little seems to be fiction. Perhaps a little is speculation, but the highest proportion of time is reenactment of the most important battle in United States history. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4)
As usual when I see an historical film, I will go home afterward and pick up many historical accounts of the event and pick holes in what I have seen on the screen. I have not yet read Shelby Foote's account of the battle of Gettysburg (which is about 120 pages), but I have read several shorter accounts. What I have discovered is that the film contradicts no account any more than the accounts contradict each other. And that is not surprising since by all accounts writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell, after basing his script on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, THE KILLER ANGELS by Michael Shaara, allowed his small army of historical experts to be tyrants over the production of the film. What made it to the screen is what the experts agreed happened. What STAR WARS was to the special effects film, GETTYSBURG is to the historical film. Nobody who sees the film and later reads account of the battle can come away without the feeling of having witnessed the battle already and without remembering a flood of images from the film. As far as how well the actors look and dress like people of the Civil War the film gets an A+. For the degree to which each major actor looks like the actual person he is portraying the grade is a not-too-shabby B+. (The opening credits show the original and the actor and invite comparison.) Why not higher? Well for example at the time of his most familiar photographs, Lee had a fuller beard than Martin Sheen sports. That is the sort of variation you get. Of course nobody mentions how full Lee's beard was at the time of Gettysburg so perhaps I am underrating the film. But if I can find no less picayune quibble than the length of a beard in a 254-minute historical film, I am not just impressed, I am floored.
The actors are often familiar, if you can make them out under the heavy beards typical of the Civil War period. (The presence of women, incidentally, is limited to a count of two and a screentime of about six seconds.) But actors seem to be chosen more for proven acting ability than for marquee value. The players include Tom Berenger as Gen. Longstreet, Martin Sheen as Gen. Lee, Stephen Lang as Maj. Gen. Pickett, the late Richard Jordan as Brig. Gen. Armistead, Jeff Daniels as Col. Chamberlain, Sam Elliot as Brig. Gen. Buford, and Kevin Conway (whom I thought had been dead for at least a couple years) as the what I would guess was an interpolated character, Sgt. Buster Kilrain.
Gettysburg was the climax of the Civil War as Midway was the climax of the war in the Pacific. And I found myself comparing this film to the 1976 film MIDWAY as I watched it. MIDWAY is only five minutes longer than half of GETTYSBURG's length, yet for that film a whole fictional plot of "human interest" was added about an American commander's son in love with a Japanese-American woman. Apparently the filmmakers thought that so much history was too much for the viewer. In GETTYSBURG with the exception of a few conversations to broaden the characters, and a rhetorical speech added here and there, what we see is all documented history and ironically the film is more and not less compelling as a result.
From the point of view of the film five men were responsible for the South going from a winning war to a losing war with this one battle. For the North, Buford created the strategy and Chamberlain defended the weak flank. For the South, Jeb Stuart chose to raid rather then reconnoiter, Ewell failed to attack at a strategic moment, and Lee's ego told him to fight the battle even on the enemy's terms because winning would almost certainly bring the end of the war. Of these the most screen time is devoted to Chamberlain who, torn with self-doubt, shows himself to nonetheless represent both heroism and decency.
GETTYSBURG was reportedly made as a television mini-series and at some point was redirected to the big screen. It will certainly lose much of the impact of its huge cast when translated to the small screen. In incredible list of historical reenactment societies apparently volunteered to act as extras and to reenact the battle. The men participating in Pickett's charge form a very long wall that will not be nearly as impressive when the flanks are cut for television's aspect ratio. On the other hand, getting the film on video will allow the stopping of the film and reading from historical sources about the various actions being depicted. My initial reaction to the film was that it must have cut out a lot of what was really happening to concentrate only on Buford's defense of the high ground the first day, Chamberlain's defense of the flank the second day, and Pickett's charge the third day. The first source I saw that described the battle in any detail listed three important actions and they were exactly the ones chosen by the filmmakers. This engaging film is almost a textbook about the battle and because at the same time it is so enthralling, this is one of best and perhaps in some respects is the best historical feature film ever made. Nothing quite like this has ever been done at this length and done this elaborately, so it is all the more impressive.
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2023 Mark R. Leeper