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USA 1993
Directed by
Ronald F. Maxwell
248 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


The Civil War is without doubt the most compelling event in US history.  750,000 American died as the Northern and Southern states fought each other over their Constitutional right to liberty, which in the South was rather perversely interpreted as the freedom to practice slavery.

Ronald F. Maxwell's detailed account of the four day battle of  Gettysburg in the summer of  1863 (it was based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara) which was shot as a television miniseries but which had a limited theatrical release goes to a good deal of trouble to give both sides of the story: the educated, enlightened Northern states fighting for a principle vs the tradition-bound South  fighting for their way of life – by interweaving various character-based  story lines.  At 248 minutes (the director's cut) it is a commitment but quite a rewarding one, at least for those interested in military history and the Civil war in particular (one suspects that a lot of the extras, of which there were more than 5000, would have been drawn from the ranks of regional historical societies).  As a stand-alone drama it is less appealing although it does hit some runs in the second half as the tragedy of the battle becomes more obvious the the already war-weary combatants (53,000 were killed or wounded over the 4 days), culminating in the folly of Gallipoli-like Confederate assault on Cemetery Ridge.

Clearly there is a high level of historical accuracy here with all the main players from the North’s  Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) to the South’s Gen. Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) being based on real people and their actual actions in the battle.  If anything, there is perhaps greater sympathy for the South, perhaps because in hindsight we know that they will be losers on the day and ultimately in the war (as much as that ultimately was a necessary thing). Sheen gives a moving performance, playing Lee as an old school Southern gentleman with a misguided notion of entitlement whilst Tom Berenger is also strong as Lt. Gen Longstreet who tries unsuccessfully to dissuade his commander from the suicidal assault on Union forces. The relationship between Brig, Gen Armistead (Richard Jordan) and Maj. Gen Hood (Patrick Gordon) who trained together but now find themselves on opposing sides is also touching. 

At times the film is a little too given to orchestra-backed segues into philosophical reflection and at others highly emotional music, but, given the issues at stake here this is not altogether an unjustified thing. Televisual qualities also come through with a lot of rather dubious facial hair (even Sam Elliott’s mo’ looks stuck on) and the occasional fumbling performer (people stumble, their swords come adrift, and in one scene, because of the shot composition, it looks like Longstreet’s beard is on fire). Notwithstanding, Gettyburg is a strong addition to the Civil War screen catalogue.




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