directed by Ronald F. Maxwell
(New Line, 1993)

No one alive today can know what it was like to live through, much less fight in, the American Civil War. Fought entirely on U.S. soil, it tore families apart and set friends against each other in bloody, hateful combat.

But if it's possible to get an inkling of what it was like to live through that experience, Gettysburg -- based on Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels -- will do the job.

The movie, filmed on location in Gettysburg and surrounding Adams County, captures in remarkable detail the events and personalities of those three days of hard fighting in July 1863, which left about 53,000 casualties on those rolling hills and fields. With 261 minutes of screen time, there is ample room to tell the tale. While scholars may argue the historical inaccuracies -- for instance, placing the heroic 20th Maine division from Little Round Top at the site of Pickett's Charge the next day -- there's no denying that, overall, Gettysburg is a masterful piece of historic cinematography. (Also, while some points do vary from history, I'm told the movie adheres extremely closely to the tale as told in Shaara's book.)

There are moments of incredible drama, such as the second-day assault by Confederate troops on Little Round Top. The defending 20th Maine division, already depleted from previous engagements, holds off a series of charges until finally, out of ammunition, they fixed bayonets and charged at their relentless foes for hand-to-hand combat. Even more stirring is the ill-fated charge commanded by Major General George E. Pickett (Stephen Lang), when approximately 15,000 men marched into blistering fire at the center of the Union line.

Working with a literal cast of thousands, including 13,000 Civil War reenactors who volunteered for the film, director Ronald F. Maxwell is able to give a real sense of scale when portraying the various assaults and defenses of the battle, particularly in the case of Pickett's Charge. It is hard to watch some of these scenes and not believe someone had a video camera handy back in 1863.

But, despite the scope and sheer numbers involved in this story, Maxwell doesn't lose touch of the human side of things. During breaks in the fighting, we hear the emotional conflicts among men who believe in their cause -- on both sides of the field -- but who don't really want to fight or kill their countrymen on the other side. Particularly touching is the case of Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead (Richard Jordan, in his final role) and Major General Winfield Scott Hancock (Brian Mallon), best friends and comrades in arms before the war who found themselves, not only fighting on opposite sides in the war, but in direct conflict on the third day of Gettysburg. Some of the best on-screen interaction comes between Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels in a sterling performance), commander of the 20th Maine, and his brother, Lt. Thomas D. Chamberlain (C. Thomas Howell), who serves as his aide.

There are plenty of vignettes about people to be found, from the Shakespearean actor turned army scout Henry T. Harrison (Cooper Huckabee) to the ill-timed death of Major General John F. Reynolds (John Rothman) and the dogged determination of Sgt. Buster Kilrain (Kevin Conway), the only fictional character among the film's major players.

Gettysburg also lends a great deal of insight to the decisions and strategies that determined the fate of the battle. General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) has an almost blind faith in the rightness of his cause and the abilities of his men, which causes him to ignore the sounder advice of Lt. General James Longstreet (Tom Berenger). The tardiness of Major General J.E.B. Stuart (Joseph Fuqua) may have set the South up for defeat, while the early initiative by Brigadier General John Buford (Sam Elliott) gave the Union an excellent tactical advantage as the battle began.

The conflict is ugly at times. Men fight and die in desperation. You can sometimes feel their fear, their hunger, their pain. But wow, Gettysburg brings the battle and the men who fought there back to life in a way I never dreamed possible.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 13 July 2002

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