Making the Case for Richard Jordan’s Oscar Worthy Performance in “Gettysburg”

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 No longer are movies made with a cast of thousands—the humans have been replaced by animatronic figures or computer generated images.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)

Advertisements

23 thoughts on “Making the Case for Richard Jordan’s Oscar Worthy Performance in “Gettysburg”

  1. Sandra Culter

    Greg, once again you have written about a subject close to my heart. Your article about Richard Jordan’s performance states precisely how I have always felt. This really was his crowning achievement and he did deserve an Oscar! That said, there was no bad acting in this film and it was a shame it was ignored. I have probably watched Gettysburg about 50 times! I never tire of it. I hope to visit the battlefield and stand in those same areas you mention, for the same reasons! Thank you again!

  2. Even though the movie is universally reviled, I loved Richard Jordan in Raise the Titanic. Whenver I saw him in a movie afterward, I always pictured him as Dirk Pitt. I don’t know why. THEN I saw Gettysburg, and he was no longer the hero from Clive Cussler’s series of novels. Instead, he became a living historical figure.

    I lived in Gettysburg for three years, graduated from GAHS in 2000. I worked on the Ghost Tours, and even took the Battlefield Tours. Once a year, I read Killer Angels, then I watch Gettysburg after. Between Richard Jordan and Stephen Lang, this movie comes alive for me.

  3. Steven Hancock

    Agreed. I think that both Jeff Daniels and Richard Jordan should have been considered for Oscars for this movie. I remember being deeply moved by their performances when I was ten years old watching “Gettysburg” for the first time. Every time I watch the film, and realize that we are seeing Jordan’s final film role, and his best one at that, gives me chills.

    Godspeed, Richard Jordan!

  4. Barn

    Couldn’t agree more, I’ve thought for years that Jordan should have been given the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. I like Tommy Lee Jones but how one can judge his performance to be better than Jordan’s is beyond me.

  5. Jordan and Daniels were both stellar in this film. I watched it again two weeks ago and was also struck by Berenger as well. In some ways, he gives the most nuanced performance in the movie. Longstreet was a very complex man and deeply conflicted about Gettysburg. Not to mention, he had lost his children the winter before. Berenger really brings a subtle moroseness to the role, while also delivering the excitement surrounding a battle or the dread before and after Pickett’s Charge. Even more sad, Daniels has had his peaks and valleys but remains a steadily employed actor. Berenger really fell out of the public eye, but when I saw him in Inception this year, I was reminded again why he’s such a great actor.

    Thanks for your posts on this. Gettysburg, and The Killer Angels, shaped my life when the film came out in 1993. I was 12 then. And I was amazed by this film and the men. And continue to be.

    1. Sandra Culter

      I agree with Jay about his comments concerning Tom Berenger’s performance in Gettysburg. I really hadn’t been interested in his acting until I saw his Longstreet performance. I’ve never understood why such a good and handsome actor has not enjoyed greater popularity and more roles. I can’t remember the name of the short-lived TV or cable series he did a few years ago–something about an old west coroner-investigator??? Anyway, it was a great show and Berenger did a fabulous job. Why didn’t that last? I’m grateful for the above comments on Jordan (and Lang, too.) So nice to know so many others feel the same as I do. Really, have you ever seen any other movie with so many great performances in it? There was no bad acting in Gettysburg! And I get so tired of reading about bad beards. What might anyone’s beard look like during a war! Blessings to all!

      1. Sandra, the old west investigating show you are talking about it “Peacemakers” which I never saw. I think it aired on PAX (when that was still around).

  6. andrew

    Wow Having seen the mean season with Richard Jordan last week left an i indelible impression with me. It’s ashame he did’nt have as many starring roles, but having said that his ability to completely swipe the performance from top billing actors Such as Kurt russell is a testament to his work. He was a Shakespearian actor who worked on the stage as well as behind the scenes by directing. Hell he was even a craftsman and worked on set design, even probably right down to making his own directors chair. I personally can’t stand Shakespeare myself but would gladly sit through Macbeth just to see him at work. That’s what kind of presence and unique quality of an actor he was if the performance alone is enough to just completely captivate. Sorely missed and respected.

  7. Pingback: Movie Review: The Director’s Cut of “Gettysburg” « From New York to San Francisco

  8. Michael

    Just wanted to add my agreement with this article. In a film full of moving portrayals, Jordan’s is the best. His not winning the Oscar is a travesty, but people like us will always remember his achievement, Oscar or not. Thank you, Richard Jordan.

  9. John Bishop

    An absolutely wonderful post…and I couldn’t agree more. I was honored to see Gettysburg in a theater during the first week of its release…and have seen it numerous times since. Each time…without exception…I am moved to tears by the powerful performances. Yes…Daniels, Berenger, Sheen, and Lang are all very deserving of the high accolades they have received. Many are remiss if they do not include Sam Elliot and Kevin Conway in their recognition of the film’s great performances. But no performance is as well-crafted and moving…in this film or any in my experience…as that so proudly delivered by Richard Jordan. I would only hope that somewhere in the world…from the simplest community acting class to the finest academies of the art…the two scenes you have provided above are shown as exemplary examples of the craft. Though fully deserving of an award…perhaps there could be no finer tribute to the film…and the man…than that. Best regards to all….

  10. Chris

    Did Richard Jordan know his life was ending when he acted in Gettysburg? I can only guess at such what with his role in recalling his early years with Hancock (to Pete Longstreet) and his rhumey eyes sitting by the cannon wishing Hancock well. He deserves a posthumous Oscar for his gallant leave from this world.

  11. John Winfrey

    Jordan was definitely superior in the film and stole all the scenes he was in. I just finished a trip to Gettysburg a few weeks ago and drove and walked the entire battlefield. I also stood at the “Angle” and thought about Jordan’s performance in the movie. I even mentioned this to a Pennsylvania school teacher and her students on a field trip to Gettysburg while there about how great Jordan was as Armistead. He definitely deserved a nomination for his acting in the film. One of his best roles in his career. He came a long way from being a “bad guy” and young punk in some of his early westerns with Charles Bronson and Burt Lancaster in the early 70s.

    JW.

  12. Theresa Johnston

    Dear Mr. Caggiano,

    I was listening to my soundtrack of Gettysburg in the car today. I have always been so astonished that Richard Jordan wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for his performance in “Gettysburg”, ever since seeing the film when it opened in theaters oh so many years ago. Without the Internet at that time, I was never able to discover if other film fanatics like me felt the same. So, today I decided to see if there was anything on the Internet about this subject and I found your website which was posted two years ago. I only hope I am able to post this comment two years later. It is true that all of the performances in the film were extraordinary. But, Mr. Jordan’s was above and beyond all of the others. I disagree with you on one point. There are three scenes in which Mr. Jordan reduces me to tears every time I see them. The two scenes you mention and another scene which I call the “We are all Virginians” scene, which is my personal favorite, followed by the scene with General Longstreet and then the scene at the wall when he has been shot. And, I agree with you that the group of actors chosen for the Virginia officers under Longstreet has a chemistry rarely seen in any film, especially an epic like this film. And even in those scenes, Mr. Jordan shines. His relationship with General Picket in particular is both amusing and serious. Thank you for writing this article. Now I know I am not alone in thinking that Mr. Jordan’s performance in “Gettysburg” is one of the finest ever given on film, Oscar or no. I do not know and always wonder if he knew he was dying when those scenes were filmed. I guess it is possible he knew before starting the movie, but I am skeptical that he would have gotten the part had the studios known he was dying. Perhaps he knew and kept it to himself until he was hospitalized during the filming. Thanks again, Theresa Johnston

  13. Belinda Elizondo

    Just finished watching Gettysburg on this 150th anniversary of the battle, and i have to add my acknowledgement of the statements made regarding Richard Jordan’s performance. As mentioned before, all the actors gave their best but the focus on the close friendship of Hancock and Armistead gave the film heart. It was good to see Sam Elliot and Tom Berenger too. A cast of thousands~~filmed in the actual battleground~~what more can i say~~

  14. SBF1863

    I am a semi-regular visitor at the Gettysburg NMP (spent a few hours there today actually) and I’ve watched the movie more times than anyone would believe. When I first watched it, I thought the standout performance came from Jeff Daniels and it was fantastic. But now, 20 some years and many viewings of the movie later, I realize just how extraordinary Richard Jordan was and how it has affected me to this day. For example, one of the places on the battlefield I visited today was The High Water Mark/The Angle area and I viewed the monument of where Gen. Armistead fell. As I was looking at it I couldn’t help but recall Richard Jordan’s portrayal of that moment in the movie. A very, very moving scene. I also listen to the soundtrack periodically and I’m fortunate enough to own the deluxe commemorative edition. I can relate every track to a particular scene, but the songs that I seem to enjoy listening to the most are the ones that were played when Richard Jordan was on screen. To make an already long story a little shorter, his performance has had a large impact on me and in a very good way!

  15. David Greene

    As both a lifelong devotee of good movies and a graduate of a leading drama college, I am always thrilled by unusually powerful performances by film actors. Richard Jordan comes close to breaking your heart with the fine and touching scenes he delivered in “Gettysburg”. After the long succession of roles Jordan capably handled throughout his career, it struck me as a dreadful travesty that not only did the Academy fail to take any notice of his portrayal in the Ron Maxwell epic, but they omitted any mention of him in the succession of tribute images of deceased film artists that was featured in the Awards ceremony that year. It is sad how often the industry tends to overlook and slight the brilliant achievements of people who are mostly seen in supporting roles. I would also have expected Jeff Daniels’s work in “Gettysburg” to have received a nomination.

  16. andrewjgold1977

    There is no doubt that Richard Jordan deserved an Academy Award for his role as Brigadier General Lewis Armistead in this film. His depth, range of emotion and eloquence in telling an endearing story for what is perceived as an enemy by those fighting around him draws the viewer directly into the scene…. and his concern and compassion for his friend become palpable. There is no doubt in my mind that he deserved an award for this performance. That being the case, we as fans can let it be known that despite the fact that the AMPAS voting community missed this opportunity to honor Richard Jordan’s career through awarding him the Oscar, we award him our own Oscar by popular vote. May he rest in peace and may we forever be thankful to him and his family for his wonderful career.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s