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. Regular filmgoers should be captivated, too, especially those who made Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” into a television event. World preemed at the Boston Film Festival, pic will go out theatrically Oct. 8 in advance of TV airing.
“Gettysburg” concentrates on the three days of fighting, with about 45 minutes devoted to the day before. General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) believes that he can end the war with a decisive victory over the 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. The military leadership keeps changing, some of the commanders lack battle experience and there are stirrings of rebellion among the troops.
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. Elliott presents us with a portrait of the professional soldier, doing his job quietly and efficiently.
On the Northern side, the chief point of reference is provided by Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), a Maine college professor so ill-suited to his role that he has to keep reminding his aide-de-camp — and brother (C. Thomas Howell) — to stop referring to him as “Lawrence” instead of by his rank. Chamberlain’s moment of truth comes on the second day at the Battle of Little Round Top. As depicted here, Chamberlain’s efforts to hold the Northern line against the Southern forces could have made a movie all by itself. It is a fitting climax to the first half of the film.
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 risksare astronomical, and that they can win tactical advantages by continuing to fight defensively. It is little solace to him that he is proved right in the final day of battle, which takes up the second half of the movie.
In spite of its length, the film works on several levels. There’s the sense of this being as close as an audience can come to seeing what the Battle of Gettysburg was actually like. The final credit scroll runs 10 minutes, with an impressive list of historical advisers and Civil War organizations that helped stage the epic reenactments.
Second, there’s the cast. Jeff Daniels walks away with the film as the mild scholar who, when tossed into battle, rises to the occasion. He wins audience sympathy with an early speech about what the North is fighting for, which is never really answered by the South.
Whereas the North is fighting for principle — freeing the slaves and preserving the Union — the representatives of the South voice several viewpoints, with the “state’s rights” argument given to a politician who is laughed at by the other Southerners. The most eloquent call to arms is a speech late in the film by Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead (Richard Jordan) arguing that his troops, at least, are there to defend the honor of Virginia.
If the film can be criticized on any level, it is that its focus is almost entirely on the officers. C. Thomas Howell’s lieutenant has a poignant scene talking with captured Rebels about why they’re there, but the only real representative of the non-officer class is Sgt. Buster Kilrain (Kevin Conway), a loyal and battle-scarred sidekick.
Among the Southerners, acting honors go to Sheen and Berenger, with Sheen giving some idea of why Lee remained a general respected by soldiers on both sides during the war. Stephen Lang and the late Richard Jordan provide other perspectives of the Southern aristocracy, with Jordan especially moving in a scene talking about a comrade-in-arms who is leading the Northern forces in the coming battle.
In a bit of in-joke casting, both documentarian Ken Burns and Ted Turner have brief cameo bits.
Credit has to go to writer-director Ronald F. Maxwell and stunt coordinator/second unit director Steve M. Boyum for capturing the madness of the battle scenes.
Maxwell has tried to make this something that works on the big screen as well as on TV. In addition to the theatrical release version, he has also cut a 4 1/2 -hour edition (six hours with commercials) that will run on Turner’s TNT cable channel in 1994 as a three-part miniseries, and has also prepared a 5 1/2-hour version for homevideo release.
“Gettysburg” succeeds as a motion picture event, and as a re-creation of a pivotal chapter of American history. After a summer of flash and sizzle, audiences may be ready for a healthy dose of substance.