“The same God, same language, same culture and history, same songs, stories, legends, myths. Different dreams. Different dreams. So very sad.”
Due to its lengthy running time Gettysburg at first appears best suited for a miniseries event – and indeed began its shoot as one – but being as it is an American film depicting the quintessential American battle perhaps it deserves the prestige cinematic treatment it’s proffered. Director Ronald F. Maxwell sets a leisurely pace counting down the three days of battle, casting his eye over an enormous cast of characters and settling in with a number of officers as they endure the great undertaking. Strong character couplings abound in figures such as Confederate Generals Lee and Longstreet and Union soldiers Colonel Chamberlain and Sergeant Kilrain. Actors ranging in caliber from Sam Elliott, Martin Sheen, Jeff Daniels, Tom Berenger, and, in a scene stealing turn, Kevin Conroy are allowed to wax philosophical on war, enjoying the greatest number of monologues this side of Shakespeare. From today’s point of view the slow pace is fitting for the kind of war being fought, one of the last major conflicts of world history where opponents could spy on one another from across a battlefield without imminent threat. It’s a studious look at a carefully considered war, even when generals are called upon to make split decisions. For all the thinking out loud Martin Sheen does as Robert E. Lee, when he commands all his forces to go on the attack as he canters his horse down an anonymous road it is a true shock, even if it is completely expected.
The characters are such a driving force of this historical moment in the making that they foreshadow their own futures. George Pickett in particular is hilarious, introduced as a cocky roustabout who is teased for having been last in his class at West Point. One can hardly understand what the comparably more stoic Longstreet sees in this grinning doofus, but he swears by the man’s abilities as proven by their shared history. As the battle wears on Pickett becomes steelier, and when his moment of infamy arrives Maxwell wrings genuine pathos out of his humiliation. It’s a heartbreaking shift in focus for who is at first introduced as a minor character. Chamberlain’s plain sense of fairness is sure to be tested from the moment he’s introduced, and the hellish fighting he’s subjected to is proof of the kind of leadership and sacrifice necessary to stave off defeat. As impressive as the acting is, it can’t be denied that for the most part these are real men being played, and it can be difficult to see how much license is being used in each portrayal. Sheen’s portrayal of Robert E. Lee is one that could be problematic. Widely agreed upon as the greatest strategist of the war and a highly honorable man, Lee is the most mythologized figure of the movie, and his depiction onscreen will either delight or rile. Sheen plays him like a Greek oracle working on a higher plane, speaking in a haunted lilt, a man so inseparable from his duty that he dozes off while puzzling over the war. A gloriously drawn out climactic scene shows his messianic reputation among the troops (backstage trivia reveals that the scene was birthed by veneration for Sheen himself; here’s to hoping what was caught on film shows him in character), but for some the film may appear to buy into his legend too earnestly.
Earnestness at large will be the most divisive aspect of Gettysburg for most viewers. Judged alone by the fact that it was produced by Ted Turner, originally to run as a miniseries on basic cable, it’s not difficult to see that it is meant to be a patriotic ode to the soldiers who endured the last painful struggle to shape a nation. It’s largely devoid of villains and the violence is more reminiscent of the bloodless clutch-chest-and-cringe variety of the old days. With its saggy surplus of monologues, it swaggers in like it has the last word on warfare. This may make it sound so old-fashioned, and to an extent it is, but it has aged spectacularly well for a reverent war movie produced not long after mainstream Hollywood sunk its teeth into Vietnam. In other words, it’s not blatantly anti-war. Possibly the biggest reason it gets away with it is that the war in question was a domestic dispute, one that is still overly romanticized and that predates the US’s reputation as the policeman of the world. In addition to this, it’s remarkably even-handed in its portrayal of the Union and the Confederacy, finding fascinating personalities to explore on both sides without relying on the current cynical trope of reducing all characters on all sides to unforgivable scumbags. In that way it’s a genuinely likeable, inoffensive experience, gifted with all the energy and melancholy of high drama, but also withholding from the audience the kind of obvious catharsis commonly expected from the generic war movie. There is no true sense of victory when it ends; only crushing disappointment on one side and shaky relief on the other. All those speeches, whether inspirational, ruminating, obnoxious, or imperative, all come out sounding like a lament. Save for some moments of braggadocio on the Southern side and vengefulness on the Northern side, no one comes out ugly. It holds up each man’s achievements and failures without ever offering easy judgment. Maxwell merely ups the ante by painting these men in the most favorable light, and it makes it all the more sad to consider the wastefulness of combat. If men are capable of such nobility, how do things come to this?
With the current vogue in war movies being gritty realism, a number of viewers may convince themselves they have a problem with its representation of the war, accompanied by the swaying banners of North and South, soldiers backlit by the piercing sun, and the swooning score. Gritty realism isn’t the prerogative here. Historicity is. Maxwell leans closer toward mythologizing oftentimes, but there couldn’t be a closer reading of the battle onscreen than what he has captured, and he fills it with many moments small and large that make one pause. The Civil War has gifted cinema a plethora of eye-popping battle scenes. Take recent examples like the assault on Fort Wagner in Glory, the Battle of the Crater in Cold Mountain, or the Lawrence Massacre in Ride With The Devil. Gettysburg boasts some of the greatest sustained battle scenes of the war, its tracking shots of the frontlines spellbinding, a constant achievement of practical effects and great timing, in addition to beautiful sound design. Chamberlain’s suicidal defense of Little Round Top perfectly captures the exhilaration of the close quarters combat experienced by the troops, so caught up in the percussive violence that the value of human life takes a backseat to the carnage. It may seem a contradiction in terms, but it’s clear that the sheer adrenaline of fighting shields the men from any sense of self-preservation, and in so doing grants them the willingness to wreak havoc upon one another. Each time a lull occurs, Chamberlain is given worse news than the lull before, and right when the audience expects a shift in focus to the Confederate camp for a recuperative calm discussion of tactics, a character hollers “Here they come!” forcing Chamberlain to spill out new commands before the scene erupts in another roll of musket fire. As it plays out with men charging at one another in the humid Pennsylvania summer it’s utterly draining, and ultimately one of the most rewarding battle scenes ever shot. To the credit of its cinematographers and editors the battles never grow old, as is the risk when most of the fighting scenes involve a lot of standing in formation and firing. The depiction of the final day of battle falters for being a tad too messy and uninvolving, but the sheer scale and grandiosity of it all partly compensates for it.
Maxwell returned years later with Gods And Generals, an unfortunate monstrosity of a prequel to Gettysburg that he couldn’t get a good handle on. With that standing in stark contrast, it shows just how much Maxwell and company did right the first time around. While providing the best possible interpretation of actual events, it expounds on war without taking jabs or raising the ire of the viewer, and despite how dry that makes it sound, it still knows how to entertain. For anyone looking to take a crack at the Civil War again, they could do no better than to study this epic, brimming with insight and spectacle in equal measure. It’s only a matter of time before an American Civil War saga emerges, and it can only be hoped that as much passion is put into it as is shown here.