Movie Review: The Director’s Cut of “Gettysburg”

There are very few movies out there that can change a person’s life—Gettysburg did that for me. Having first seen it when I was about seven or eight, when my mom taped it off of one of the many airings on TNT in the 1990’s, this was the film that single-handedly turned me into the History and Civil War buff I am today. I watched the VHS tape until it wore out and would no longer work. In fact, even sometimes today, when I watch Ron Maxwell’s 1993 epic, I can still remember where certain commercial breaks were. Little did I know that the version I watched all those times was actually the same director’s cut I received on Blu Ray from Warner Brothers last week, the same film which you are all eagerly waiting for.

The deleted scenes from Gettysburg have never been a mystery. The director’s cut was released in 1994 on VHS and was the version of the film shown regularly on TNT. All scenes have also been available on YouTube for the last few years. When I first bought the DVD when I got little older, not knowing what a director’s cut even was, I wondered what happened to the scene where General John Reynolds asks a soldier how he can see out of his glasses, because they are so covered in dust. That very scene is now back into the film, along with a few others, totaling about seventeen minutes. They are not nearly as important to this script as those for Gods and Generals were to that, but it still helps with character development and building the storyline. One of the scenes the film could have done without, but the others were still very important to understanding certain events that happened in and around the time of battle.

To comment very briefly on the technical components, let me just say that I was somewhat disappointed in the visual quality of the film. While it is still much better than the DVD, it is grainy and almost hazy in certain spots. This is really no one’s fault, as some films just do not transfer well to Blu Ray. I have no complaints about the audio, but the video could have just been a little bit better.

Though both this film and its prequel, Gods and Generals, are both fantastic movies, I will always have a softer spot in my heart for Gettysburg, not only because it was one of my first favorites, but because of the tremendously superior casting. Everywhere you look, there is a star who sneaks in for a role, even if it lasts only two minutes (like that of a certain ex-James Bond). Normally when epic films go that route, and throw in every major actor they can, it fails, but somehow this film always seems to accomplish what it sets out to do, and that is give us an idea of how these men thought, and how their thinking led to decisions that helped shape the country we have today.

There has never been a film made, before or since, that has taken a single event spread out over the course of as small a time as three days is, and tried to cram every bit of information they could, all while still remaining entertaining. Sam Elliot lands the role of Union cavalry general John Buford, and it is too bad that Buford was not more involved in the battle, because Elliot’s scenes end after day one. Somehow, in watching his scenes, I do not even think he had to act to give us this spectacular performance—it seriously looks as if he is just being himself. His mustache is real, his accent is not put on, he looks like he lives on the back of a horse, and all this plays in to why his few brief scenes are so memorable. The first deleted scene to make its way into the film involves Buford, and when they are riding through the town of Gettysburg. While next to Colonel Devin (David Carpenter), a woman in the town asks if there are going to be any problems with the approaching Confederates. Devin responds, “Nothing the cavalry can’t handle.”

The majority of all the deleted scenes occur with in the Day One time frame. These include Martin Sheen’s passionate depiction of Robert E. Lee discussing the strange disappearance of J.E.B Stuart (Joseph Fuqua) with his aid Major Taylor (Bo Brinkman), right before Taylor goes into his mouth-watering description of the breakfast that is available for Lee that morning. There is also some dialogue there that is rather important, and that is when Lee says the Confederate army must be charitable to citizens in the area, and not act how the Yankees did when they invaded Virginia. Taylor blatantly says that those orders are hard to follow.

To move on to the Union side of the cast, Jeff Daniels gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, as he is able to portray the man as both a scholar and a warrior. Like I have said in previous articles, it was a travesty that Gettysburg did not receive even one nomination from any organization, even though Richard Jordan’s character of Lewis Armistead was both haunting and incredible and should have won him a supporting actor Oscar. C. Thomas Howell plays Chamberlain’s brother, and there is some extended dialogue between him and one of the 2nd Maine prisoners who refused to fight because their papers expired. Here they have a pretty comical conversation about how many bugle calls the Union army has.

Before that, John Reynolds (John Rothman) gets another scene, upping his screen time, saying that, “We will fight them inch by inch through the town if necessary.” He is shown as being very calm and confident, and this certainly helps the worrisome Buford as he does not think his cavalry can hold out against Henry Heth’s (Warren Burton) infantry.

On the eve of the first day comes some more added footage, this time involving the film’s central character of James Longstreet, played by Tom Berenger. Here, the star of Platoon gives one of the best performances of his career. The most gripping scene involving him, in my eyes, comes right before Pickett’s Charge is about to begin, when the namesake, played to utter perfection by Stephen Lang, asks him if he should commence the attack. Clearly sick to his stomach at the mass death that is about to unfold, Berenger does not even speak, he just gives a small hand gesture. The only thing about his character, and that of others, that detracts from the film is something that has been mentioned and mocked time and time again…the beards. In case you are wondering, no, they do not look any better on Blu Ray. They do not necessarily look worse, but let’s just say they are even more noticeable (as hard to believe as that is). It’s a shame that the production company did not want to pay, as Bo Brinkman put it to me in an interview, “the best beard guy in the business”, that Maxwell had found. With so much screen-time in this nearly five-hour epic, you would think more care would have been taken to the beard that Blu Ray’s official website has called, “fearsome”.

In getting to the actual footage with Berenger, it includes a discussion with his brigadier generals Richard Garnett (Andrew Prine), who thanks his commander for the opportunity to get back in the action. Pickett and Longstreet then talk about Pickett’s division seeing a lack of action, and how he is worried that the war will end soon and his boys will have missed out on most of it (he would sure make up for it on July 3!). A visitor from Britain, Colonel Arthur Freemantle (James Lancaster), portrayed as being very debonaire, yet savvy, tells James Kemper (Royce Applegate) and Garnett that he has never seen Longstreet “fraternizing” so much. He then finds out that Longstreet lost his children in a Scarlet Fever epidemic a year prior, and that was the reason.

The next inserted scene after this is probably more important to the script than any other. Coming on the heels of Morgan Sheppard’s much talked about scene involving a livid General Trimble ripping on General Ewell for not taking Culp’s Hill, a mistake many historian’s blame for the Confederates’ loss of Gettysburg, maybe even the war. Lee confronts the general along with Jubal Early, A.P Hill, and Robert Rodes and asks if it was possible to take the hill, and their explanations are given. With this being such a short scene, if any of these should have been left in the original cut, this should have been it.

Moving to day two, which is July 2nd, I have a special connection to this day, because it is my birthday (perhaps I died in the battle during a past life). Here we see the emergence of Chamberlain as one of the more intelligent regimental commanders in the army, for his bold last stand on Little Round Top, against wave after wave of charging Confederate soldiers. Helped along by an old army veteran, Buster Kilrain (Kevin Conway in a comical and touching performance), he holds his ground and orders a daring bayonet charge that he only thought of because he did not go to West Point. Being a professor without an in-depth knowledge of military tactics, he got creative at just the right time. The cinematography during this battle scene is spectacular. The smoke, combined with the light shining through the forest of trees adds an almost surreal feel to it. This is where I must also comment on the blood (or lack thereof) in this film. Many criticize Maxwell for not depicting blood and gore realistically. When men are shot they slump to the ground, and when we see bullets rip into soldiers, there is very little, and in some cases, no blood shown. There is a reason for this, and that is the greater good and educational value of this film. Because of its PG rating, it can be viewed by virtually any audience. Had it been rated-R, would I have been able to watch it and be captivated by it as a seven-year old? Hell no. As much as I would like to see a realistic battle scene, with blood flowing and limbs getting taken off left and right, this was not the time or place for it. This film, despite three distinct battle scenes, was more of a focus and study on the men, their feelings, and their tactics. The battle is just there as a result, and not the driving force. Once you can understand that, you can appreciate the value of its bloodless scenes.

After that portion of the battle, when Longstreet is walking through the field hospital, after briefly checking in on an injured General Hood (Patrick Gorman, in an emotionally draining scene), he meets up with Henry Harrison (Cooper Huckabee), the actor-turned-spy,  for the second time in the film, and there is some extended dialogue there. The last major deleted scene comes before the battle on the second day, which was when Longstreet and Freemantle discuss tactics. Personally, I did not care for it at all and understood why it was cut. The acting by Freemantle when he exclaims how brilliant Lee is seems rather put on, and the excitement is fake. The director’s cut could have done without it as well.

Now, for the third and final day of the battle is where we see some of the best battle scenes ever filmed, Pickett’s Charge. Unlike Gods and Generals, which unfortunately had to revert to thousands of CGI figures for distance shots at Fredericksburg, the thousands of men seen marching into battle against the stone wall at “The Angle”, where General Hanock’s (Brian Mallon) men await, are real. The filming of this scene alone is an achievement, and it is made even more special when you take into consideration that it was filmed on the actual location where the men began the charge in 1863. The outcome was tragic, as Pickett’s division was nearly destroyed after a mile-long march over open ground while facing infantry and artillery fire, and this scene captures that, but not without some fanfare. The reason why the dialogue leading up to this is so important is because it captures both sides of feeling. Longstreet knows the attack will fail, while the headstrong Lee can see an end to the war in sight. Pickett and Garnett are eager to fight, while Trimble and General Johnston Pettigrew (briefly played by George Lazenby) are thankful for the opportunity to take part. There is even a very sobering scene when Harrison asks Longstreet if he can join, and he is basically told how the army will be decimated when all is said and done.

There is an emotional, almost tear-jerking moment when Lee rides out and hundreds of his men swarm him to cheer, and try to shake his hand. The music, written by Randy Edelman, played during the scene leaves you breathless, as you take in just how important Lee was to his men, and much of a Christ-like figure he seemed to be. But many of those cheering men would be dead just hours later in the ill-fated attack.

From the sweeping camera shots to the music, from the soaring cannon balls to the men being thrown in the air from their impact, the charge scene really deserves a place of prominence in war films. Armistead will steal the show towards the end with his brave gallop towards the wall before being shot, and then is cared for by Union soldiers when the battle is over. Here is where my eyes always seem to well up, because we do not only see Armistead dying, but Richard Jordan as well, who died weeks before the film reached theaters, from brain cancer.

With the review now complete, I just cannot help but feel that I have missed something, because the film is so long and there are so many characters and sub-plots involved. I originally reviewed the film here, a few months ago, so I was trying not to repeat myself and get in those deleted scenes. Once again, I cannot give a number rating here. People may have their squabbles about the film, but to me, it will always be very special. This was a labor of love for Maxwell and the more than ten thousand reenactors who paid their own was to take part in the depiction of the most important battle of our most important war. This masterwork of story-telling and historical drama deserves more respect than what it gets.

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17 thoughts on “Movie Review: The Director’s Cut of “Gettysburg”

  1. Steven

    Good review, Greg. I remember sitting with my Dad and watching the film when it first came on TNT in 94. Like you, the film ignited a passion for history, which has led me to where I am now: getting my Masters Degree in United States History. Pickett’s Charge is fantastically realized.

    I’m getting the Blu-ray for my Birthday, though I’m getting the “Gods and Generals” Blu-ray on Tuesday.

    God bless!

    1. Kyle

      Another case of these movies igniting a love of history in somebody: me!

      I saw Gods and Generals in theatres in 2003, but not until I received the DVD a few years later did it “click” with me. That DVD started me on my love of the Civil War; unfortunately, that disc is now scratched beyond repair. 😦 Fortunately, the extended cut is coming out in a few days. 🙂

      1. Steven

        Same here with my DVD. I’ve watched the Pickett’s Charge so many times, the “Sons of Virginia” scene between Armistead and Fremantle won’t even play all the way through before skipping to the next part. Glad the Blu-ray is on its way soon. Getting the Blu-ray of “Gettysburg” for my birthday, thank God.

  2. Blake

    Good review. This movie transformed my life in a similar way. Oddly enough, I didn’t see the film till after I visited Gettysburg with my family. I was 10 at the time, and saw the movie when I was 11 (I rented the VHS). I already had a budding curiosity about the Civil War back then, but it was “Gettysburg” that advanced my enthusiasm for history as well as filmmaking. Actually, I think it was also the first Civil War film I had ever seen. If I had watched it prior to visiting the park, I’m sure it would have made that experience all the more tangible. Even so, I do have fond recollections of the trip.

  3. Wes M.

    I’m glad you mentioned the scene of Lee riding out to boost the morale of his soldiers before Pickett’s charge. Whenever I see that scene, I literally get goosebumps and tear up a bit. I like it for the same reasons. Lee was a great man and we know that most of those men will soon be dead. The music is so magnificent and I like that the scene is long and not rushed. I love the sound of all of the cheers of the men as Lee first rides out. It’s like fans cheering at a game. If any reenactors involved in the filming of that scene read Greg’s review, I’m sure all of the readers would love to hear your reminiscences of filming it. Please comment here!

    The other scene that always elicits a strong emotional response in me is when Tom Chamberlain informs his brother “Lawrence” that Kilrain died. Randy Edelman’s scoring of that scene is perfect as well as Jeff Daniels’ acting, particularly the transformation his face undergoes as he performs that scene. You see him barely flinch from the shock and then the sadness in his eyes before that tear falls. It’s so real. Yeah, definitely an Oscar-worthy performance along with Richard Jordan.

    1. Eric

      I am a reenactor who was there for the Pickett’s Charge scenes. Concerning the scene where we were cheering “Lee,” the fantastic thing about that scene is that it was spontaneous! Sheen was riding out (I guess for a ride by before the charge scene) and when we finally saw him for the first time, we heard a massive roar coming down the line, out of the woods where we were waiting. When we emerged, there was our beloved General! The film crew frantically began to film this magic moment as best they could. I believe that the kind of crazed look on Sheen’s face was both feeling the intense energy coming from thousands of reenactors chanting “Lee, Lee, Lee!” and part fear when we surrounded him! The director was so taken by our enthusiasm, he decided to do the whole thing again to make sure that he had proper footage to use in the movie. Some of the liason, paid reenactors (who were there for the entire production as go between’s with the film co and the reenactors to help maintain cohesion) objected to the “Lee” cheers and told us before the second take to not make a sound. We were really confused, as the director wanted us to go crazy, but we were being instructed by the people who worked directly with us, that to follow Maxwell’s orders would be historically incorrect. Subsequently, during the second take a large percentage of the reenactors are not cheering. Imagine just how loud the first spontaneous take was when we were all going crazy!! A last thought…we were all super impressed with Lang as General Pickett. This guy was really, really, into the role. We saw him more during the shoot than any other actor, mainly because he would come out to see his troops even if he was not filming that scene or that day! He really kept our morale up while we sat around on the “set” for 12-14 hours waiting to film ten or twelve minutes per day (there is a LOT of wasted time on movie sets). Some of the guys observed that if the real Pickett was as inspiring as Lang, it was no wonder 12-15 thousand men stepped out of those woods, into blistering heat, marched over a mile over open ground into the teeth of the Union defenses, toward near certain death…….and immortal glory.

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  5. Rick

    Any word on THE LAST FULL MEASURE getting the film treatment….would love to see the trilogy completed…..I read the books last summer after my first trip to Gettysburg, and they were amazing.

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  8. younggun

    Great review for a great film. This movie has special significance for me because I was a young lieutenant when it was released. We used it as a study in leadership over and over during my career. There are so many great moments in this film but my favorite is the General Trimble scene. I just purchased the blu ray director’s cut and can’t wait to watch it. Thanks!!!

  9. Daniel

    WHEN GETTYSBURG FIRST CAME OUT, BACK IN THE EARLY 1990’S, I WENT TO THE THEATRE TO SEE IT. THE SOUND SYSTEM WAS SO REAL SOUNDING THAT WHEN THAT OFF CAMERA SARGENT STARTS SINGING DURING THE SCENE IN THE TENT BETWEEN LONSTREET AND ARMISTEAD I LOOKED AROUND TO SEE IF THE THEATRE HAD HIRED A SINGER TO COME IN AND SING! IT WAS JUST LIKE HE WAS REALLY THERE! I WILL NEVER FORGET THAT MOMENT.

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