"GETTYSBURG" (1993) Review
In 1974, author Michael Shaara’s novel about the famous three-day battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was published. Titled ”The Killer Angels”, it told the story of the Gettysburg battle from the viewpoint of certain military leaders – Confederates James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee and Lewis Armistead and Union leaders John Buford and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. The novel went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. But despite this accolade, Shaara never really made any money from the novel. Nor did he live long enough to reap the benefits of his creation in the years to come – including the movie adaptation called ”GETTYSBURG”.
Released in the fall of 1993, ”GETTYSBURG” starred Tom Berenger as Longstreet, Jeff Daniels as Chamberlain, Sam Elliot as Buford Richard Jordan as Armistead, and Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee. The movie was directed by Ron Maxwell and produced by Ted Turner. And despite being over four hours long (the running time is officially four hours and fourteen minutes), managed to surprisingly maintain my interest without me falling asleep. And that is something that the 1939 Oscar winner, ”GONE WITH THE WIND” cannot boast. True, one could say that ”GETTYSBURG” is a movie filled with a great deal of combat in compare to Margaret Mitchell’s story, which featured no combat at all. But despite being a story about a famous battle, ”GETTYSBURG” featured a lot more narrative drama than it did combat action sequences. And yet, director Maxwell managed to keep the movie at a good pace – with the exception of one period in the story.
Ronald Maxwell had not only directed ”GETTYSBURG”, but also wrote the screen adaptation of Shaara’s novel. I must admit that Maxwell did a pretty good job in closely following the novel. Although there were times when I wish he had taken a few short cuts. Actually that time occurred in the series of conversations leading up to the final action sequence – namely Pickett’s Charge up Cemetery Ridge on the third day. It simply lasted too damn long. I had found Chamberlain’s discovery of his first sergeant’s death, Longstreet’s instructions to Pickett and the latter’s brigade commanders, and Longstreet’s gloomy prediction about the Charge dramatically satisfying. But honestly . . . I could have done without Armistead’s speech about Virginians to the English observer – Lieutenant Colonel Fremantle (James Lancaster), Armistead’s last conversation with Richard Garnett, Chamberlain’s conversation with Hancock and the sequence featuring the Confederate troops cheering Lee. It was only during this last act that the movie threatened to bore me.
There had been complaints that ”GETTYSBURG” had failed to make any allusions to the slavery issue. Well, whoever made those complaints had obviously failed to see the movie. Not only did Longstreet commented about the slavery issue to Fremantle – before the latter immediately changed the subject – but an encounter with a runaway slave led to an interesting conversation about race, slavery and bigotry between Chamberlain and the 20th Maine’s First Sergeant Kilrain (Kevin Conway). There were other aspects of the movie that I had also enjoyed – Buford’s commentary about the importance of the Gettysburg location, the aforementioned Longstreet’s prediction about Pickett’s Charge and Lee’s ironic comments about being a military commander. And I also enjoyed some of the movie’s more comic moments – Chamberlain’s efforts to prevent his brother Tom (C. Thomas Howell) from being too informal in the presence of the 20th Maine men and the conversation between Pickett and his commanders about Darwinism.
But ”GETTYSBURG” is, first and foremost, a war movie about a specific battle. And like many other war movies, it is filled with battle sequences. On the whole, I found them pretty satisfactory. One must remember that this movie had been released at least five years before Spielberg’s World War II drama, ”SAVING PRIVATE RYAN”. Which meant one should not expect the battle scenes to be particularly detailed in its violence in the same manner as the 1998 movie. In other words, most of the battles seemed to feature a great deal of musket fire, explosions, and bodies either falling to the ground or being blown sky high – something one would see in television miniseries like ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” or ”THE BLUE AND GRAY”. The most graphic scene I can recall occurred during a non-combatant scene that featured the field hospital filled with both bodies and body parts, where Longstreet visited one of his division commanders, John Bell Hood. However, I must commend at least two battle sequences. The actual charge up Cemetery Ridge had a great sweep, enhanced by Kees Van Oostrum’s photography from a helicopter. That effectiveness of that sweep was nearly ruined when the Confederate troops finally reached the Union position. There, the scene became nothing more than a confusing mess of both Union and Confederate troops merely shoving each other around. Too bad. Another memorable battle sequence featured Chamberlain and the 20th Maine’s conflict with the 15th Alabama regiment on Little Round Top. The battle started in a generic manner as the two regiments exchanged musket fire. But once the 15th Alabama came across the 20th Maine’s position, the violence became rather detailed and spilled into hand-to-hand combat and short-range firing. I can even recall one Union soldier slamming the butt of his musket into the crotch of a Confederate. And the 20th Maine’s charge down Little Round Top turned out to be as exciting as the charge made by Pickett’s division up Cemetery Ridge.
But it was the cast that really impressed me – especially the performances of Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen, Richard Jordan, Kevin Conway, Stephen Lang and especially Jeff Daniels. Berenger did an excellent job of portraying the very human James “Pete” Longstreet, Lee’s ”Old Warhorse”. But his most poignant moment occurred when his Longstreet regretfully ordered Pickett to commence his charge without uttering a word. I was amazed at how the actor allowed Longstreet to age within seconds during this sequence. Martin Sheen portrayed Robert Lee beyond the historic icon as a brilliant, yet obviously flawed man. Both Conway and Lang gave vibrant performances as the Irish-born Buster Kilrain and George Pickett. Lewis Armistead turned out to be Richard Jordan’s last role and many have claimed that it was one of his best. I heartily agree. In fact, one of his finest moments on screen occurred when his Armistead rallied his troops up Cemetery Ridge by sticking his hat on his sword (which actually happened, by the way). Unfortunately, Jordan died of a brain tumor nearly three months before the movie’s theatrical release. For me, the heart and soul of ”GETTYSBURG” turned out to be Jeff Daniel’s masterful portrayal of the talented Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Not only did he managed to portray the Union leader as a flesh-and-blood human being, he also gave one of the best speeches – in which he attempted to convince the remnants of the mutinous 2nd Maine to join his regiment – on the silver screen. It seemed a shame that Daniels had never received an acting nomination or award for his performance.
I would not go as far to say that ”GETTYSBURG” is one of the best war movies ever made. Quite frankly, it is not. But it is one of the better Civil War movies I have ever seen. Not only did director/screenwriter Ronald Maxwell managed to adhere closely to Michael Shaara’s novel, but maintain a steady pace for a movie that turned out to be over four hours long. It presented its historical characters as human beings and not waxwork dummies that seemed prevalent in a good deal number of other Civil War movies. And more importantly, it provided a history lesson on one of the most famous battles during that particular period. I heartily recommend it.