It is because of Ronald Maxwell that no director will ever again be able to make a movie about the battle of Gettysburg. This film, which was based on the Michael Shaara novel titled, “The Killer Angels”, had its name changed to Gettysburg, upon test audience reactions stating that they felt the title reflected that of a movie about a motorcycle gang. But no matter what the title is, this movie is and always will be the most prominent Civil War film, surpassing the likes of Glory and The Blue and the Gray made before it.
I try to get to the battlefield every year around the anniversary, but this summer I was unable because of my work schedule. However, I am going to be there next week, and with each trip to Gettysburg comes a viewing of this film, even in the rare instances I go twice a year. This movie never gets old, plain and simple.
For those who do not have an interest in the Civil War, this may not be the film for them. There is no Hollywood drama here, just a good storytelling of what was going on in the minds of the greatest generals and leaders present at a small Pennsylvania town for three ill-fated days in July.
In a time-slot that eclipses four hours, we see examinations into the thoughts and tactics of Generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet from the Confederacy, and Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain from the Union. These are the three focused on, but we also see the South’s Generals Pickett, Armistead, Garnett, Kemper among others, and the North’s General Hancock. The film is predominantly told from the Southern perspective, but the North gets prominence on the first day with Sam Elliot as General Buford and Chamberlain’s stand at the Little Round top on the second day of fighting.
Martin Sheen plays Lee and nailed the role. His beard looked to be one of the few that were actually real, leading to no continuity errors. Lee is presented as a very calm demeanored general, loved by his troops and heavily respected by his offers, much like the real Lee.
Tom Berenger tackled a more complex role in General Longstreet, who is torn between acting on his instincts to disagree with Lee, and being a good soldier and obeying his orders, no questions asked. The two men find themselves quarreling several times throughout the three days, which occurred in real life, and some historians suggest that had Lee listened to Longstreet, the Confederates would have won Gettysburg, and possibly even the war.
The role of Union officer Chamberlain went to Jeff Daniels, who nailed the very serious professor-turned-soldier from Bowdoin College in Maine. It is because of his lack of military training that he ordered the bayonet charge on the second day of fighting that saved the Union line, because many doubt a trained and true officer would have been so bold. The character of Chamberlain’s brother Tom went to 80’s acting star C. Thomas Howell, who injected some humor into his very serious brother. It is also hard to believe that Daniels would go on to star in Dumb and Dumber just a year later, showing his wide range of acting talents.
The supporting cast was also outstanding. Sam Elliot plays the rugged cavalry general John Buford, Stephen Lang as George Pickett, Andrew Prince and Richard Garnett, Patrick Gorman as John Bell Hood, Brian Mallon who plays a terrific General Hanc0ck (I honestly wish he got more screen time), and Richard Jordan as Lewis Armistead.
Out of all of those, though, it is Jordan’s that steals the show. Armistead and Hancock were best of friends before the war started, and Armistead is very sad he will have to face him on the third day of battle. Sensing he will be killed, he gives a special package to Longstreet to deliver to Hancock’s wife upon his death. This is made all the more emotional when Armistead is seriously wounded, and dies off camera. His final words, after hearing Hancock was injured too were, “No! Not both of us. Not all of us. Please, God!” Richard Jordan himself would also die just days after filming, without living to see the finished product.
Though this film experienced mild box office success, cracking the top ten at one point, it did not receive much time in theaters because of it’s four hour-plus running time and limited showings theaters were restricted to. Gettysburg would achieve notoriety a year later, when it was broadcast as a two night event on TNT, whose owner Ted Turner produced the film, and even had a small role as Colonel Waller T. Patton.
In just two nights, 23 million people would tune in to watch, making it the most watched television event in TV history at that point in time.
This film holds a special place in my heart as the film that got me interested into the Civil War, a passion that is with me today. For that, it will receive a 10 out of 10, despite it’s flaws, such as no mention of the brutal July heat, smoke coming out of actors mouths, flopping bayonets, and obvious fake beards. Those goofs are fun to watch for, but this is such a serious film, and try to not have a tear in your eye at one point or another during Pickett’s Charge, which is one of the most well choreographed battle sequences I have ever seen.
That seems to be the stamp on Maxwell films: realism. Each battle scene is very simple and realistic, with no drama. All that is added is the wonderful score by Randy Edelman, another element of this film that is one of the best.
It is also worth noting the film’s unique opening credits, where a picture of the actor is overlayed with a picture of the person they are portraying, showing the similarities between the two.
I cannot recommend this film enough, and if the interest is there, also check out Gods and Generals, the prequel which was released ten years later in 2003. It uses much of the same actors, and is a little shorter, but once again we have great battle scenes, even if it does have too much dialogue.