Those of us who regularly complain about the inaccuracies of "historical" films are pretty much obligated to like Gettysburg, writer-director Ronald F. Maxwell's laborious labor-of-love account of the pivotal Civil War battle of 1863. Working from Jeffrey Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 novel The Killer Angels, Maxwell delivers a four-and-a-half-hour epic that stands up to historical scrutiny as a literal cast of thousands participates in the Civil War reenactment to end all Civil War reenactments.
Originally produced by Turner Pictures to be a TNT miniseries, the finished product won a slightly edited theatrical release (with twenty-minute Intermission) before finding its cable afterlife. Maxwell's director's cut, adding seventeen minutes, is the preferred version, and home video now affords viewers the option of powering through or creating their own intermissions. Maxwell's uncompromised vision is not without its flaws—primarily a tendency for dramatic corniness—but Gettysburg wins the day by giving a detailed account of the three-day battle (for the first time in a feature film), shot on the actual locations where the events took place.
For better or worse, Gettysburg does not expend any of its lengthy running time getting to know the grunts. Rather, the major players are the officers of the Confederate and Union armies. The film begins by establishing the starting point of dramatic arcs for the key players on both sides: Lieutenant General James Longstreet (an excellent Tom Berenger) and General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen)—whose dominant Confederate army appears strong and organized—and Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) whose Union division appears to be the opposite, despite his efforts to keep up appearances. Other vitally important figures include Brigadier General John Buford (Sam Elliott), the canny officer who claimed the high ground for the Union army, and Major General George Pickett (Stephen Lang), who led the ultimate Pickett's Charge.
The sociological debates sewn into the narrative quilt omit any bald defense of slavery (on the Confederate side, it's all about states' rights), rather protecting the characters' nobility by airing only the views that meet with modern political correctness. That said, Maxwell successfully strikes a balance of empathy for the men on both sides, many of whom betray frailties and all of whom act out of a sense of righteousness; for this, we're encouraged to see most all of these men as great, if only for their willingness to face daunting odds, as both sides variously do. Despite Sheen's talents and even though Maxwell affords him a moment of private doubt, Lee shows little human depth beyond his history-book image as a commanding leader; the film acknowledges his blind spots and celebrates Longstreet's relatively unsung military strategy. In what could be seen as an unintentionally comical moment of backpedaling, Maxwell has Lee conclude, “And does it matter after all who wins? Was that ever really the question? Will almighty God ask that question in the end?” Or is that an intentional bookend to Longstreet's sad observation "We Southerners...would rather lose a war than admit a mistake."
The film stands on firmer ground with Chamberlain, played brilliantly by Daniels as a man who, despite his nerves, rises to every occasion; there's gentle humor and heart in its dealings with his near subordinate and brother Tom (C. Thomas Howell), and Daniels becomes one with his character as he makes a humbly imporing speech to deserters whose renewed commitment he desperately needs and, later, as he makes the tough calls in defending Little Round Top. When a strong actor sells such a long, passionate speech, it's a major win for Maxwell, and it happens several times in Gettysburg. There's exquisite genuineness to Morgan Sheppard's delivery of an impassioned report given by Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble to Lee, and Richard Jordan gives a fairly miraculous valedictory performance as Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead, who expresses aching fraternal love for an old friend across enemy lines, as well as charge-the-troops fire when the moment calls for it.
Though one may wish for more artistic refinement from Gettysburg, every frame identifies it as a passion project for Maxwell, and it's undeniably impressive for its massive undertaking of reenactment.
In Warner's new Blu-ray Digibook release, Gettysburg looks better than I've ever seen it. That said, it's hardly the most impressive of hi-def transfers, even taking into account the source material's probable limitations due to budget. On the plus side, the four-and-a-half hours of material show no sign of compression problems, grain and color are natural, and detail and texture are strong. On the other hand, crush, edge enhancement and telecine wobble detract from the image. Where the twain meet, this is a solid transfer, and certainly a darn sight better than its standard-def equivalent. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix pretty clearly makes the most of its source, which also has its limitations: though it doesn't reach a you-are-there intensity, the mix does have solid effects and placement, as well as clear dialogue.
The feature disc includes commentary by writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell, cinematographer Kees Van Oostrum, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson and military historian Craig Symonds. The trio offers interesting information, to be sure, but only the most patient will be able to sit out the substantial gaps in this four-and-a-half-hour track, which would have benefitted from a function allowing listeners to skip ahead to the next bit of commentary.
The rest of the bonus features reside on the second disc, a DVD. “The Making of Gettysburg” (52:06, SD), narrated by Martin Sheen, includes interviews with Maxwell, executive producers Moctesuma Esparza & Robert Katz, Jeff Daniels, Stephen Lang, Sam Elliott, filmmaker Ken Burns, historian and novelist Shelby Foote, Sheen, Tom Berenger, special effects coordinator Matt Vogel, production designer Cary White, Reenactor Corps commander Michael Kraus, costume designer Mike Boyd, property master Kelly Farrah & assistant property master Dr. Ray Giron, makeup supervisor Allan Apone, C. Thomas Howell, military choreographer Dale Fetzer, Andrew Prine, and historical advisor Brian Pohanka.
Also here are the dated Cinemascope short “The Battle of Gettysburg” (29:37, SD), narrated by Leslie Nielsen; “On Location” (5:31, SD), consisting of raw B-roll footage; the well-narrated “Maps of the Battlefield” (7:36, SD); tourist promo “Ron Maxwell’s Invitation to Take the Journey through Hallowed Ground” (7:01, SD); and the film's “Theatrical Trailer” (2:50, SD).
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