SAME LAND. SAME GOD. DIFFERENT DREAMS.
There’s no question that Ted Turner and Ronald Maxwell have been good for each other. Turner founded Turner Pictures and its first release was supposed to be a six-hour miniseries based on a novel about the 1863 battle of Gettysburg. Well, the miniseries turned out to be such an impressive project that a decision was taken to turn it into a movie.
Once it aired on the TNT network it was a smash hit and director Maxwell was lauded by critics for his work. This is easily one of the best films ever made about the American Civil War.
The year is 1863. In early July, Union and Confederate forces are converging on a small town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg. The ensuing battle would take place over three days and when all the smoke had settled, over 51,000 soldiers had lost their lives in the bloodiest battle ever to take place on American soil. The filmmakers don’t take sides, which is pretty common in American portrayals of the Civil War, but choose to linger on some of the most colorful participants of the battle. Those include Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen), the brilliant and beloved general who makes a disastrous decision on the third day of the battle that would give the Union forces victory and eventually change the outcome of the war.
We also get to meet James Longstreet (Tom Berenger), the Confederate Lieutenant General who realized that his commander could be wrong; Joshua L. Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), the inexperienced Union Colonel who were to become one of the greatest heroes of the war; and John Buford (Sam Elliott), the Brigadier General who managed to hold off Confederate assaults until General George Meade’s forces arrived in Gettysburg. Meade was, incidentally, the Union equivalent to General Lee, but he never makes an appearance in this film. Why, I don’t know, but I guess Lee was a more interesting character to the filmmakers because of his complex attitude to the war.
Thoroughly impressive battle sequences
Enough with the historical details. Director Maxwell has gone to great lengths trying to recreate this battle; thousands of real-life Civil War reenactors took part in the making of this film and the battle sequences are thoroughly impressive. Some viewers may think they’re a bit too lengthy, but consider the fact that this is a unique experience; there will probably never be a more realistic reenactment of the Gettysburg battle. It was all shot in the Gettysburg National Military Park (exquisitely so by Kees Van Oostrum) and Randy Edelman’s stirring music grabs your attention from the very beginning.
The script focuses entirely on this military campaign; there are no women in the cast. Some viewers will be turned off, but those who are interested in learning about this battle, and who can take the expected patriotic speechifying, will be truly satisfied. The cast does its very best and I would like to mention Daniels in particular, who is absolutely outstanding as Col. Chamberlain, the teacher whose exhausted face says it all about the tragedy of brothers fighting one another.
I think that what I like most about this film is how Ted Turner beat the odds. Who thought that he would produce a film, meant to be a simple television production, that would actually become one of the best and most passionate to come out of Hollywood in 1993? Certainly, this passion was captured by actor Richard Jordan in his final, moving performance as General Armistead, forced to turn his army on his best friend.
Gettysburg 1993-U.S. 248 min. Color. Produced by Robert Katz, Moctesuma Esparza. Written and directed by Ronald Maxwell. Novel: Michael Shaara (“The Killer Angels”). Cinematography: Kees Van Oostrum. Music: Randy Edelman. Cast: Tom Berenger (James Longstreet), Jeff Daniels (Joshua L. Chamberlain), Martin Sheen (Robert E. Lee), Sam Elliott, Maxwell Caulfield, Kevin Conway… George Lazenby. Cameo: Ted Turner.
Trivia: William Hurt, Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones were allegedly considered for the part of Lee. Also released in a 270-minute version. Followed by a prequel, Gods and Generals (2003).
Quote: “To be a good soldier you must love the army. To be a good commander you must be able to order the death of the thing you love.” (Sheen)
Last word: “I can say that I was surprised at the virulence of the attacks against me for portraying honorable men like Robert E. Lee, who fought for the South. I attribute the attacks to the fact that over the past 20 years or so slavery has been taken for granted as the only cause of the Civil War. Those who fought with the South were firmly embedded in the psyches of the chattering classes – journalists, politicians and average citizens – as Nazis. With 30-plus years in the motion-picture business, the criticism leveled at me went beyond criticism of filmmaking. I welcome criticism of my films. The attacks were moral judgments intended to delegitimize the film.” (Maxwell, Virginia Business)