Gettysburg was one of two battles in the summer of 1863 that turned the
tide of the war in favor of the Union (the other being the surrender of
Vicksburg on July 4, 1863). The three days of battle that raged from
July 1, 1863 to July 3, 1863 decided the course of the Civil War in the
East by ending any chance that European nations would recognize the
Confederacy, thus ending any hope of breaking the Union blockade.
The film Gettysburg is a straight retelling of the events just prior to
and during the battle. The high points of the battle are hit – starting
with John Buford setting up the ambush of Brigadier General Harry Heth
(who was on a raid to acquire shoes) just north of Gettysburg that began
the three-day battle. The film continues to the climactic stand at
Little Round Top by Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th
Maine, and finishes with the futile and wasteful attack led by George C.
Pickett on the third day, the epitome of the outdated tactics used by
Martin Sheen does a decent job of portraying Robert E. Lee, albeit he
does bear much of a resemblance to the known photos of General Lee. It
does not seriously detract from a solid performance, though, but it was
noticeable. Tom Berenger is superb as James Longstreet, whose thoughts
about the direction of warfare were ahead of his time, a Confederate
Cassandra, knowing the future but not heeded.
The movie is a powerful war film, probably the best this reviewer has
ever seen. For a four-hour movie, it goes by pretty fast. The film is
also very realistic – a rarity among war movies from Hollywood –
although not many movies have thousands of Civil War re-enactors as
extras available to help with the research and to provide props used by
the stars (such as John Buford’s tobacco pouch).
The DVD features an excellent commentary track (with an abbreviated form
of the movie) from the director, Ron Maxwell, cinematographer Kess Van
Oostrum, and two historians (Pulitzer Prize-winner James McPherson and
Craig Symonds), which tells how the realism was obtained. It also
includes the Oscar-nominated documentary narrated by Leslie Nielsen,
plus a documentary on the making of the film, narrated by Sheen, which
goes into more detail about the way the captivating realism was achieved.
Gettysburg is the standard by which all war epics should be judged. It
tells the story, and does so in a fashion that sticks with you while not
bogging down in a romantic subplot. It is easily one of the best war
movies that have ever been made.