It is hard to imagine how anyone who’s a Civil War buff could fail to enjoy Ronald F. Maxwell’s four-hour epic about the battle of Gettysburg. It’s also hard to imagine how anyone who isn’t would be able to stay in his seat for the duration of the film.
I fall into the former category, but then, I grew up in Richmond, Va., a city Tom Robbins aptly describes in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues as “the world’s largest Confederate Museum.” (It’s true. The first thing we were taught in driver’s ed was how to negotiate the traffic circles on Monument Avenue without plowing into Stonewall Jackson or Jefferson Davis.)
For those who are referring to Vietnam when they talk about “the war,” a brief synopsis: The battle of Gettysburg was fought in July 1863. It was as far North as the Southern army ever got and the last time it would fight on Northern soil. Gettysburg followed a string of Southern victories and was meant to be the spectacular Confederate offensive that would end the war. Instead, though the war dragged on until 1865, Gettysburg marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. And at Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee, who up until that time had seemed all but invincible, made the misjudgment of his career by ordering one of the most notoriously hopeless maneuvers in military history: Pickett’s charge.
One problem in making a movie about the battle is that the Southerners have all the meatiest roles. Above all, Gettysburg is Lee’s story, and the filmmakers clearly spent a good deal of time looking for a parallel Union figure. George Meade was out, since he had only assumed control of the Union forces a short time before, and had not (then or now) emerged as a strong personality. So they chose Union officer Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a college professor from Maine who found himself in the right place at the right time to improvise and carry off a maneuver whose failure could arguably have cost the Union the war.
Though director Maxwell’s screenplay is based on Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels, the film is more like an elaborately staged re-enactment than a continuous narrative. This seems unavoidable, since the film begins on Day 1 and ends on Day 3 of the conflict, never leaving the battlefield. Gettysburg is literally about the battle itself, not the battle as it appears in the context of a larger story. The characters, after all, spend most of their time fighting (or, in the case of top officers, watching other people fight). And what character development the film slips in between cannonade bursts is in shorthand: Lee (played rather impassively by Martin Sheen) murmurs devoutly about “God’s will”; Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) gives a group of would-be deserters a rousing speech about the Union cause.
Perhaps appropriately, trying to follow Gettysburg is roughly analogous to finding oneself in the heat of battle. First, there’s the multiplicity of characters: As the opening credits roll, photographs of the historical figures involved are followed by photos of the actors in costume as their characters. But this identification aid is not enough—almost everyone seems to fall into the category “men with beards,” and further distinctions are few. Then there’s the action: The characters spend most of their time discussing strategy—land mass, positioning of troops, flanking maneuvers, etc.—but unless the viewer has a firm notion of what happened and how, it’s hard to make much of their talk. James Longstreet (Tom Berenger) draws a diagram in the dirt at one point, and there are many frankly expository conversations, but to no avail. (I’ve walked the actual battlefield with a diagram in my hand, but I got muddled during the movie anyway.)
Gettysburg starts off rather awkwardly by using the same still of three Confederate prisoners photographed at Gettysburg that Ken Burns used to such good effect in his documentary series. (The filmmakers might just as well have used Molly Mason and Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell” while they were at it.) Another unwelcome flourish is the tendency of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to burst forth from the soundtrack at every poignant or patriotic moment—which is most of them. (Similarly overdone are the biblical shafts of light behind Pickett’s charge.) But the film’s more serious misstep is its reliance on Yankee and Rebel stereotypes: A Southern hayseed drawls to a group of uncomprehending Northerners that the South is fighting for “our rats.” The Southern officers speak to each other as if they’re at a white glove luncheon. Meanwhile, conversational openers like “What do you think of Negroes?” serve to set up the predictable monologues behind Union lines.
Only rarely do the filmmakers tinker with history. In one such instance, Confederate officer Lewis Armistead (Richard Jordan) and Union officer Winfield Scott Hancock (Brian Mallon) are chosen to illustrate the commonplace Civil War phenomenon of old West Point buddies finding themselves opponents. According to historian Shelby Foote, Armistead and Hancock were not aware of their proximity at Gettysburg. But in the film, both wax morose over the irony of their situation. And sometimes what the film chooses to include and what it chooses to discard are perplexing. For instance, the soldiers refer to Armistead by his nickname, “Lo,” without ever mentioning the rather interesting fact that it was short for “Lothario.”
What Gettysburg does successfully is capture the sense of a large battle as a series of countless tiny, decisive moments. Equally revealing is its recreation of the era’s particularly brutal style of warfare, and the precise kind of military heroism that it required of both officers and soldiers: namely, following orders you know are wrong. But, though trumpeted as the largest-scale Civil War re-enactment in film history, its depiction of Pickett’s charge is less effective than Burns’ shot across the empty field: Some things are better left to the imagination. Unfortunately, the film’s ratherabrupt end also leaves the battle’s aftermath to the imagination, though the filmmakers do tack on brief character-by-character epilogues. Perhaps a scene depicting the 17-mile wagon train of Confederate wounded that headed South the following day would have been more appropriate.