Ted Turner doesn’t do anything in a small way. The premiere entry for his new feature production unit is a 4 1/4-hour epic on the biggest battle of the Civil War, and it will prove a hit with history buffs. Gettysburg concentrates on the three days of fighting, with about 45 minutes devoted to the day before.
Gen. Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) believes that he can end the war with a decisive victory over Federal troops by taking Gettysburg, then marching on Washington with an offer to President Lincoln of terms for peace. The rebel leader and his men are tired after three years of fighting a war most thought would be over in a month. The Northern troops are in disarray.
Thus, the stage is set for a battle that would see more than 53,000 American soldiers killed, more casualties than there were during the entire Vietnam War. Writer-director Ronald F. Maxwell, adapting the Michael Shaara novel The Killer Angels and relying on historical research and documents of the era, tries to reconstruct what happened on both sides during the fateful events of early July 1863.
The first day is seen through the eyes of Brig. Gen. John Buford (Sam Elliott), whose actions prevent the South from gaining an early advantage. On the Northern side, the chief point of reference is provided by Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), a Maine college professor ill-suited to his role.
Among the rebels, the chief conflict is between Lee, who wants a decisive victory, and Lt. Gen. James Longstreet (Tom Berenger), who argues that the risks are astronomical.
There’s the sense of this being as close as an audience can come to seeing what the Battle of Gettysburg was like. The final credit scroll runs 10 minutes. Daniels walks away with the film as the mild scholar who, when tossed into battle, rises to the occasion.
In addition to the theatrical release version, Maxwell cut a 4 1/2-hour edition (six hours with commercials) to run on Turner’s TNT cable channel in 1994 as a three-part miniseries, and also prepared a 5 1/2-hour version for homevideo release.