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No movie director has focused on the Civil War more intently than Ronald F. Maxwell, who wrote and directed one of film history's most extensive treatments of a single battle - the humongous Gettysburg of 1993, clocking in at almost four and a half hours - and followed it a decade later with the humongous Gods and Generals (2003), a prequel about the Confederate general known as Stonewall Jackson in the months leading up to the Gettysburg melee. Gods and Generals looks at things from the perspective of what eventually became the losing side, but Gettysburg works hard to be evenhanded, alternating between Southern and Northern viewpoints and expressing sympathy for all concerned.
Gettysburg does all the things a large-scale historical docudrama is expected to do. It details the preparations for the legendary battle, lays out the whys and wherefores of key strategic and tactical decisions, sketches the personalities of rank-and-file troops as well as important Union and Confederate officers, and depicts the major engagements of the conflict in wide-screen images photographed on 70mm film. True to the historical record, the movie ends by acknowledging that Gettysburg did not become the decisive clash that General Robert E. Lee hoped it would be, but was merely the prelude to two more years of bitter, bloody fighting. Although it lasted only three days, the combat involved some 160,000 troops - 70,000 in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia facing off against 90,000 in the Union Army of the Potomac - and more than 53,000 of them fell on the battlefield. In a scene that captures the tragedy with particular force, Lee rides onto the field when the killing has stopped, casts his troubled eyes on the aftermath of the slaughter, sees with bewilderment that Major General Pickett is not standing with the men under his command, and orders him to return instantly to his division - whereupon Pickett sorrowfully tells him that he has no division to return to, since every one of his men has been killed.
The movie's neutrality with regard to North and South is admirable in some respects, reminding us that war is always hell, wreaking equal measures of misery and destruction on the young and the old, the eager and the reluctant, the just and the unjust alike. Maxwell's insistence on impartiality leads to a certain moral slipperiness, though, even on the core issue of slavery. Asked by a Union officer why he's fighting in the conflict, for instance, a captured Confederate soldier gives what he sees as a sensible answer. "I ain't fightin' for no darkies one way or the other," the young Southerner says to the Northerner. "I'm fightin' for my rights....Why can't you just live the way you want to live, and let us live the way we do?" This is the argument for states' rights that segregationists continued to exploit for another hundred years, and I wanted to hear the Union officer make the case for the other side, perhaps asking why the Southern states don't let black people live the way they want to live. But the officer abruptly changes the subject, allowing the matter to rest instead of challenging the prisoner's profoundly flawed reasoning. At moments like this, Maxwell's scrupulously balanced treatment shows that neutrality has its limits.
The super-long running time of Gettysburg derives from its origin as a TV miniseries backed by Turner Pictures, the production company owned by Ted Turner, who was so pleased with the results Maxwell achieved that he delayed the film's television premiere for a year so his distribution outlet, New Line Pictures, could give it a limited theatrical run first. This wasn't the most profitable decision Turner ever made - box-office earnings were modest - but it was a smart publicity move, building anticipation among American-history buffs who made the picture a rousing hit when it reached the TV and video circuits (Turner also turns up in a brief cameo as a doomed Confederate). History enthusiasts played a significant role in the making of the film as well. Drawing on the dedication of Civil War re-enactors, Maxwell placed more than 5,000 of them before the cameras, portraying everyone from neophyte soldiers to horsemen, marching musicians, and color guards. Cooperation also came from the National Park Service, which granted permission for filming at Gettysburg National Military Park. Principal photography also took place on farmland in neighboring Adams County, Pennsylvania, and Maxwell's creative partners - especially cinematographer Kees Van Oostrum and editor Corky Ehlers -blended all of the locations into a convincing geographical whole.
Along with its anonymous foot soldiers, Gettysburg benefits from famous faces in higher-level roles. Chief among them are Martin Sheen, conspicuously dignified as General Lee, and Jeff Daniels, who brings both gravity and a touch of his trademarked folksiness to Joshua Chamberlain, an important Union colonel. Others include Tom Berenger as Lieutenant General James Longstreet and Richard Jordan as Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, in Confederate grey, and C. Thomas Howell as Lieutenant Thomas Chamberlain and Sam Elliott as Brigadier General John Buford, wearing Union blue. Kevin Conway and John Diehl also stand out as Union enlisted men. Not every actor managed to impress the critics, though. New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden, for instance, found qualities of nobility, quiet suffering, and pensive self-reproach in Sheen's portrayal of Lee, but faulted Sheen for not presenting "a flash of holiness that would make the character a spiritual lightning rod."
Other critics have found the movie too long and slow-moving for comfort, and I've always wondered why the neatly coiffed hair and bushy, bogus-looking beards of the battle-weary officers rarely look mussed-up or dirty no matter how draining their physical and psychological ordeals become. More important, I wish the movie were more attentive to the extremes of bloodthirsty mayhem that produced the appalling images in some of Matthew Brady's great Civil War photographs. Detailed, expansive, relentlessly solemn, and pious to a fault, Gettysburg is likely to thrill Civil War connoisseurs and history mavens more than general audiences looking for lively, fast-paced entertainment; as Roger Ebert wrote in his mostly favorable review, it's a picture "that Civil War buffs will find indispensable, even if others might find it interminable." But even skeptics may see its depiction of old-fashioned, hand-to-hand, sword-and-musket-slinging combat a welcome change from the hyperkinetic, tech-heavy violence of most modern war movies.
Director: Ronald F. Maxwell
Producers: Robert Katz, Moctesuma Esparza
Screenplay: Ronald F. Maxwell; based on the novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
Cinematographer: Kees Van Oostrum
Film Editing: Corky Ehlers
Production Design: Cary WhiteMusic: Randy Edelman
With: Tom Berenger (James Longstreet), Jeff Daniels (Joshua L. Chamberlain), Martin Sheen (Robert L. Lee), Kevin Conway (Sgt. "Buster" Kilrain), C. Thomas Howell (Lieut. Thomas D. Chamberlain), Richard Jordan (Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead), Royce D. Applegate (Brig. Gen. James L. Kemper), Richard Anderson (Maj. Gen. George G. Meade), John Diehl (Private Bucklin), Maxwell Caulfield (Col. Strong Vincent), Patrick Gorman (Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood), Cooper Huckabee (Henry T. Harrison), James Lancaster (Lieut. Col. Arthur Fremantle), Brian Mallon (Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock), Andrew Prine (Brig. Gen. Richard B. Garnett), John Rothman (Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds), Tim Scott (Lieut. Gen. Richard S. Ewell), Morgan Sheppard (Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble), Stephan Lang (Pickett), Sam Elliott (General John Buford).
by David Sterritt