Dir. Ronald F. Maxwell. Starring Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels, Martin Sheen
I can’t think of another movie made in the past quarter-century which should have seen big screens less than Gettysburg. This isn’t a statement of the film’s quality, but of its marketability, because let’s face it, this is a unicorn of a film. Longer than four hours – longer than Once Upon a Time in America, Lawrence of Arabia, Gone with the Wind, and a bunch of other movies famous for their girth – there’s not a smidge of romance in a reasonably faithful historical drama about an event that no Americans can remember and, comparatively speaking, few care very much about. Gettysburg, in terms of its foreignness to the average audience, is like Lord of the Rings or Dune – the difference being, of course, that some people care very much about LotR and Dune and only a small subset of middle-aged dudes care about Gettysburg. (Most of those middle-aged dudes are extras in the film, Civil War reenactors who played the nameless men of the two armies.)
As far as I can tell, the only reason this film got made is because Ted Turner digs the Civil War, heard about the project, and backed it; in that way there’s something humorously, quintessentially American about this dramatic and vital American story. It’s told in a way that would (and not unreasonably) shudder present-day Clinton liberals; one black person, about thirty seconds with women, focused entirely and sympathetically on white men, especially the Southern ones. In return, viewers are given scenes of striking intimacy with its characters contrasted with scenes which convey the vastness of the battle (and still manage to leave out absolutely key moments from the conflict; so it goes). Despite the fact that Gettysburg couldn’t have gotten past a focus group and is politically incorrect, it’s still here. And it’s a good movie regardless of the identity politics or its genre idiosyncrasies.
Part of the reason it’s a good movie is the source material. The Killer Angels, the 1974 Michael Shaara novel which is at once a stunner of actual historical fact (how many people, before reading the book, knew that the 20th Maine took in the 2nd Maine, or understood the importance of John Buford’s role in the battle?) and a truly fictional account (Shaara’s Lee, in particular, is fundamentally different from history’s), contains insight and language that make the film itself sing. Most of the good monologues are given to Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (skinny Jeff Daniels), or to the people surrounding him, like Kevin Conway’s fictional Private Kilrain.
I’ve read F. Scott Fitzgerald and gone to college, not necessarily in that order, and so I can say with some certainty that the American Dream and its trappings are moth-eaten and decayed. But there are speeches in this film (lifted largely from Shaara’s novel), which make me wonder if there isn’t something noble about being American after all. Consider:
Even monologues which are not about Americans in particular, but which speak to a human nature which I don’t believe to exist, are beautifully treated:
The music helps – Randy Edelman’s score for this film is as essential and underrated as Bill Conti’s music in another story about American myth, The Right Stuff – and sentimentality does much of the rest of the work. Yet it doesn’t deserve our total condemnation. As an art piece, these monologues have the magic that is typically associated with the stage, not film, and certainly not film that didn’t get its cue from a play in the first place. These two monologues, both in the first half of the film, are probably the best of the bunch.
There are other monologues that follow, particularly from the mouth of Confederate brigadier Lo Armistead (Richard Jordan), which fall a little more flat. Some of them, especially the pair in which Armistead reminisces fondly about his friendship with Union general (and future war hero) Winfield Hancock (Brian Mallon), aren’t unwelcome. They disrupt the flow of the film a touch, but they provide an essential piece of the puzzle. It was not called the Brothers’ War for nothing; Armistead, who considered Hancock a brother (and vice versa), gives us good reason for empathy. Alternately, Armistead’s monologue before Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd is a panegyric to Virginia and the bravery of its men, which rings a little hollow when you think about what they were (tacitly, in some cases, and in others vocally) fighting for.
Gettysburg does not try to navigate the issue of slavery very much at all. Chamberlain, in the monologue linked above, calls the Army of the Potomac “an army out to set other men free,” and says that the whole of the nation ought to be “free ground.” Longstreet (Berenger), Lee’s key lieutenant, makes the unorthodox/frankly ahistorical case that the Confederacy “should have freed the slaves, then fired on Fort Sumter.” Otherwise, slavery is elided in favor of the fight itself, and in favor of the men who fought for those three days. Again, this is more a softness in the movie than a weakness, though I can understand the point of view that reads it as latter-day “War of Northern Aggression” mumbo-jumbo. The film doesn’t need to make slavery its key issue to be a good one, and it functions just fine on the twin peaks of talky character development and sweeping battlefield scenes. It’s merely strange, even within the universe Gettysburg creates, that no one seems to consider slavery a factor worth talking about at the bloodiest site of a war fought over slavery.
By the standards of more current war films, Gettysburg is not a bloody movie; even war films about made-up wars, like Rogue One, have more gore. Part of it I attribute to the guys playing the soldiers; I have no doubt it was hard enough to do fake wounds and fake blood for the number of reenactors who were there for filming, much less for everyone who gets “shot.” Maybe a more important reason is that Gettysburg seeks to achieve its verisimilitude in different ways. I’ve referred to the vastness of the film more than once, and where Gettysburg leaves out the gallons of fake blood that they could have left in Adams County, it does not shy away from long, wide shots which convey the scale of the battle. Something like 150,000 men were engaged in the battle over the course of three days; perhaps 50,000 of them were reported killed, wounded, or missing by the end of those three days. And Gettysburg lets you feel that weight of sheer numbers in multiple places. We know that, with the 2nd Maine added in, the 20th Maine numbers shy of 400 men. It feels like we see just about all of them on Little Round Top, and yet those 400 appear dwarfed by the Confederate soldiers who show up in wave after wave after wave, coming seemingly from all sides. Maxwell has a laser focus on the 20th Maine for ages in the center of this film. Short of a few cuts away to Devil’s Den before the fighting on Little Round Top gets going, Chamberlain and his small, relatively inexperienced command are the sole focus of the film for at least half an hour. Within this microcosm of the larger battle raging on July 2nd, and with the enormously high stakes made clear (if the 20th Maine is flanked, then the Union army is too, and then the Confederate army wins this key battle), it feels like far more than a few hundred men are in position at this key juncture. The clear winner, though, captured in every detail, is Pickett’s Charge, the climactic sequence of the film. Beginning with the show of force from E.P. Alexander’s artillery (cannon after cannon after cannon is fired for literal minutes) to the actual march itself, viewed from all angles, in close-up and from distance, from below and, uniquely, from above, it looks like fifteen thousand men are closing in on that fabled clump of trees behind the stone wall. What Gettysburg ignores in special effects it makes up with flesh and blood marching and falling.