Can you believe that Gettysburg did not win one single award in 1993 or 1994? Watching this film leaves me frustrated every time, because the movie is so full of great performances. I know it did not get much time in theaters because of its running time, but I still consider it a travesty that this movie was ignored by every motion picture awards association, with the exception of the Chicago Film Critics who nominated Jeff Daniels for best supporting actor, even though it stayed in the Box Office Weekly Top Ten for several weeks, an incredible feat when you consider it could only be shown twice a day.
Even the critics who did not like Ron Maxwell’s epic 1993 Civil War film Gettysburg still agreed one on thing, that it was just that, an epic. From the costume design to the size of the cast, right on through to the scope of the battle scenes, it is fair to say that this movie is a one of a kind in the subject field it tackles, and is also the last of the good old-fashioned epic war films. No longer are movies made with a cast of thousands—the humans have been replaced by animatronic figures or computer generated images. No longer are battlefields used, where the soldiers march actual distances—there is now only a small area of real ground surrounded by green-screens. This is why Gettysburg stands out to me, that and the fine acting performances all around, given by Tom Berenger as James Longstreet, Jeff Daniels as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee, but there are also a few others that stand out and go underrated when viewing this film.
The entire group of Virginian brigade commanders have an excellent chemistry that unfortunately could not get any more screen time in this film already loaded with speaking roles. A young Stephen Lang (who actually grew his own beard, according to Bo Brinkman) plays the division commander of Andrew Prine (Garnett), Royce Applegate (Kemper), and of course, Richard Jordan as Brigadier General Lewis Armistead. While Lang plays Pickett’s eccentricity and personality to perfection, and the others combine to be humorous and serious as the film progresses, it is Jordan who steals the show as the passionate commander who loves his men and his Confederate country, but also loves his best friend, Winfield Scott Hancock (played by Brian Mallon) who is fighting for the Union.
Armistead recollects the time he spent with Hancock, and the last night they were together before they went off to fight against each other in the War Between the States. They were at the same house with their wives, when Myra Hancock sang “Kathleen Mavourneen” and played it on the piano, and they all began to cry. It is here when Armistead swears to Hancock that he wishes the Lord would strike him down if he ever has to fight him on the field of battle. While both soldiers faced off against one another at Fredericksburg (in the same exact way, just in reversal of who had the stone wall), their troops did not directly clash with each other. But at Gettysburg, Armistead is worried that he will have to “raise his hand” against his old friend, and in a very emotional conversation with Longstreet, gives him a package to be delivered to Myra in the event of his death. It seems that the only two times in the film where I teared up are when Jordan is on the screen. The first is this scene, and the second is as he lays dying on the battlefield.
The sadness is escalated, perhaps, because Jordan himself was dying of brain cancer while filming this movie, and actually had to be hospitalized for a brief time at Gettysburg Hospital. To keep this in mind while watching Armistead’s final on-screen moments (the general would live only three more days in real life) makes it even worse, and it is possible that Jordan was able to play this to perfection because he knew that he was dying. In a way, this all has to do with fate, and you can see in Armistead’s eyes before the charge that would kill him, that he knows he is not going to live. It is because of this belief that he was able to fight so bravely, and when getting to the Emmitsburg Road on his way to attack the Union line, he sees his men have slowed down, but he stands up, sticks his hat on his sword and yells for his Virginians to follow him. They do, prompting a roar from Pickett, and a final push that actually broke through the Union line. Unfortunately, just as it seemed the Confederates would accomplish what they set out to do, the Union would send in reserves to quell the attack. It is here that Armistead would be shot, in his upper chest area, before falling down next to a cannon. Even so, it was his men that would get farther than any others in “Pickett’s Charge”.
Every time I visit Gettysburg, and go near “The Angle”, where Armistead fell, I have to stand next to his monument that looks very plain, and simply reads, “Brigadier General Lewis Armistead Fell Here. July 3, 1863”. I stand there for a few moments, after placing a small Confederate Flag at its base, and try to take in all that he accomplished, how he could be so brave to run in front of his men, and lead them straight into a barrage of a thousand firing rifles. I always ask myself, if I could do what he did, and my answer is always, “I don’t know”. I like to think I could be as brave (I think we all do) but I just do not know. We are in a much different time frame and society, and the answer is unknown to us all. But when I pause, I am just not remembering Armistead, but the man who personified him, Richard Jordan, who did not get a chance to see the finished product of his performance, because he died in August of 1993 (Gettysburg premiered in October). Here was a great actor, who gave what I feel is the best and most complex performance in this mammoth film. According to IMDB, Ron Maxwell actually got the news of Jordan’s passing while editing Armistead’s death scene, which just adds to the irony.
And so, I make the case, nearly eighteen years later, for Richard Jordan to have received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. It does nothing now, to sit here almost two decades later, but it brings awareness to the fact that sometimes the best films/actors/actresses do not win (Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole would agree with me, I think), no matter what the case. If you have not seen Gettysburg, then obviously I encourage you to do so, because no film has had a greater impact on my life than it, and if you have seen it, then watch Jordan’s performance even closer next time, because you may be amazed at the high level of acting that can so easily be overlooked. Jordan’s performance is equal to that of John Wayne’s in The Shootist, in terms of “farewells” and that makes it all the more special.
Rest in peace to both Lewis A. Armistead (1817-1863) and Richard Jordan (1937-1993)