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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Gettysburg

Starring: Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels
Director: Ronald Maxwell
Rated: PG
RunTime: 248 Minutes
Release Date: October 1993
Genres: Action, Drama, War

*Also starring: Martin Sheen, Sam Elliott, Maxwell Caulfield, Kevin Conway, C. Thomas Howell, Richard Jordan, Royce D. Applegate, John Diehl, Patrick Gorman

Review by Mark Fleming
3½ stars out of 4

An epic, sweeping and fact-faithful vision of the turning point of America's appalling 4-year Civil War. Far from being a one-sided affair where the economically superior Federals crushed a rebellion by the impoverished Southern states, this film demonstrates exactly how close General Robert E Lee's forces came to victory, and altering the whole course of history. This is a drawn out affair - originally shown on US television in episodes. The duration allows the stage to be realized atmospherically, and the various commanding officers introduced. When battle does commence, tactics remain lodged at the Napoleonic stage: mass infantry charges across open ground. Defensive firepower, however, has improved considerably: Gettysburg becomes the resting place for tens of thousands of young Americans.

The leading players are well cast, and some even bear striking resemblances to their historical models. Lee was the dynamic and forthright Southern commander. Martin Shaw captures the essence of the leader: a painstaking believer in duty, but a man who personally feels the desperate infantry casualties, and who understands that he went through military academy with many of his opposite numbers. Tom Berenger is gruffly solid as General Longstreet, the brilliant Confederate tactician who urges caution, even as Lee plans outright victory. On the Northern side, Jeff Daniels gives his schoolteacher-turned-officer calm dignity, coupled with a daring streak.

Actual events are presented in dramatized form. While everyone knows the North prevailed on the day, the attention to detail and the characterization give the story its dramatic purpose and drive. The main Confederate assault signaling the final day of hostilities is a stirring picture of the nobility and, ultimately, pointlessness of war.

In every aspect - scenery, uniforms, campsite layouts, equipment, drilling of thousands-strong ranks of men, right down to how individuals on either side view their situations - Gettysburg is a vivid portrayal of a history-forging battle.

By dwelling on the hopes and despair of the officers who have close friends and relations in the enemy ranks, the nightmare of a Civil War is rammed home with depth and poignancy.

While all the lead characters are based on actual officers, we get no insight into the mindset of the actual foot soldiers facing musket balls across open country. Saving Private Ryan has created a whole new blueprint for the visceral savagery of war. Somehow a direct artillery hit causing a few men to stumble to the ground becomes quaintly anachronistic.

The combination of strong characters and attention to period detail creates a visually stunning portrait of a defining moment in American history.

Copyright 2001 Mark Fleming

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