Review: Gettysburg (Film, 1993)

Review: “Gettysburg” (Film, 1993)

By Carrie S., 5/24/11

Directed by: Ronald F. Maxwell
Original Release Date: 10/8/1993
Original Run Time: 262 minutes

On May 24, 2011, “Gettysburg” (1993) was re-released with extended footage along with “Gods and Generals” (2003), another Ronald Maxwell film which serves as a prequel.

When this film originally came out I was working as a staffer at the Willow Knolls 14 movie theater in Peoria, Illinois. I still remember the anticipation for the film and what it was like for the several months we showed it on the big screen. We even managed to get the special 70mm print for which we brought in a projector that seemed more fit for a giant to operate than a mere human.

Because I could see movies for free in my off time, I took full advantage of it. The theater was often packed not only with those interested in the Civil War or the battle itself, but by many who were ordered to go view it as part of a class assignment. Because of its three-plus hours in length, many returned just to see things they missed the first time. Even if you are well-versed on the battle of Gettysburg, it’s easy to miss things along the way or get confused over some of the people in the film that at times seem to look exactly like four other characters.

I found myself talking with a lot of students who would come out during the intermission (and sometimes right in the middle of a scene), confused over what they were watching. At times I accompanied them back into the theater, helping them figure out who people were and talking them through the scene in a whisper. That was probably my biggest complaint of the film: no clear definition or education of who these people were. The movie starts with photos of the real individuals, yet doesn’t give a name of who they are. The image of the real person morphs into an image of the actor with the actor’s name given, making the whole thing useless. In the book “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara, which the movie is based on, it gives clear descriptions of the key players so you have an idea of who they are before they step foot on the battlefield. Given that this movie was an opportunity to educate, I felt that attention to the minor detail of at least identifying people in the opening would have greatly enhanced the film.

When I visited Gettysburg, PA in 2010 it immediately led me to hunting down the movie, which I amazingly found at my local Wal-Mart. My husband had never seen it, so I had the pleasure of introducing it to him. I found that the film holds up well even compared to today’s technology standards.

First, it must be made clear that this story is a blend of fiction and historical facts; it is not meant to stand up as an accurate historical representation.

The book itself is so detailed that I give Director Ronald Maxwell credit for the pin-point accuracy of the battle scenes and his efforts at character development. What impressed me the most was how several of the key actors really took things to another level; it was not just another acting job for them. They researched the people they were playing and spent time with the reenactors; they did what they could to become these people, and it showed in the final product. People like Tom Berenger (as James Longstreet), Jeff Daniels (as Joshua Chamberlain), Richard Jordan (as Lewis Armistead), Brian Mallon (as Winfield Scott Hancock), and Sam Elliott (as John Buford) have always stood out in my mind as bringing their characters to life. While Martin Sheen was the big name in the film – playing none other than General Robert E. Lee – I felt other actors before and since have done Lee more justice in how he was portrayed than Sheen’s own performance.

There are scenes between men with flowery words and wistful music, followed by Maxwell’s effort at portraying the various parts of the three day battle. The key moments for most are shown, but there’s also a lot left out which is to be expected considering the enormity of this battle and 165,000 men who fought in it. It follows the major players, though in my opinion you finish the film feeling like you have a much better understanding as to the motives and feelings of those in the Confederacy than you do the Union. It’s because of this imbalance of viewpoint that I can’t help but think of a famous quote from General Ulysses S. Grant at the end of the war: “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly.” The same goes for this film, as it’s hard to cheer with the North after seeing how hard the South fought to win.

From the novel you can feel Michael Shaara’s love for U.S. Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, who is a key focus and hero of the film; he represents the Union cause. For the South there is a lot of focus on General James Longstreet, with memorable moments also give to General Robert E. Lee and Brigadier General Lewis Armistead. General George Pickett also gets some good face time, though it’s so sporadic that his character development feels rushed and incomplete.

Maxwell also explores the bonds between men: brother to brother, soldier to soldier, friend to friend. He explores men’s loyalties and men’s hearts, and while he doesn’t go into any place earth shattering it’s a solid, basic representation. I view Shaara’s book as a love letter to those who fought in Gettysburg, and in my Maxwell does well in carrying out Shaara’s vision. The biggest problem is that Maxwell assumes his audience knows as much as he does so for anyone just learning about the Civil War it falls short of its potential.

If you know the basics of the battle of Gettysburg and haven’t seen the film, then I highly recommend it. What’s nice about the DVD is that you can watch it at home and have a handy Internet connection ready so you can pause & look up information if you find yourself completely lost. But I also want to take things a step further: If you have not seen this film & have an interest in learning about Gettysburg, I would highly recommend reading “The Killer Angels” first as it will give you a much better understanding of the film. If you don’t have time to read it, it’s great to listen to in audio book format.

As for the re-release/extended footage, there are scenes that are fluff and had reason to be cut, but also a few that clarify certain events that happen in the original film. You can’t go wrong with either version!


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