(Review updated July 25, 2015)
"Gettysburg" is one of my all-time favorite war films! It re-creates the Civil War's battle of Gettysburg with superb acting, an excellent screenplay, a hauntingly beautiful musical score, and some of the most authentic and stirring battle scenes I've ever seen in a movie.
Based upon Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize winning novel "The Killer Angels," this film follows the principal characters, and chronicles the main events, which occurred at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania from July 1-3, 1863. The events depicted in the film are notable for their historical accuracy. Some of the most exciting battle scenes in the film are General John Buford's engagement with the Confederates on the high ground north of Gettysburg on July 1; the defense of Little Round Top by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain's 20th Maine on the following day; and, of course, Pickett's Charge on the final day of the battle. The battle scenes contain plenty of smoke and fire, but are done without copious displays of blood and gore.
The acting in "Gettysburg" is excellent throughout. Jeff Daniels , who portrays Chamberlain, probably gives the best overall performance, but Martin Sheen (Robert E. Lee), Tom Berenger (Gen. James Longstreet), Sam Eliot (Buford,) Stephen Lang (Gen. George Pickett), and Kevin Conway (Sergeant Kilrain) also give performances which are outstanding for their realism, grittiness, and historical accuracy. Special mention must also go to the late Richard Jordan, whose portrayal of Confederate General Louis Armistead was consistently eloquent and moving.
I originally purchased "Gettysburg" in 1999, when it was available only in VHS format. Over the past fifteen years, it has also been released in both DVD and Blu-ray formats. The Blu-ray version is the first to contain the entire film, uninterrupted, on one disc. It corrects most of the technical flaws found in previous releases, making it, of course, technically superior to versions found on VHS and DVD. The high definition video and audio found on the Blu-ray version of "Gettysburg" are not what I would call reference quality, but are nevertheless excellent.
"Gettysburg" is a long movie; it runs to just over four hours. Still, it held me spellbound from start to finish, mainly due to its dramatic intensity and realistic battle scenes. I highly recommend this outstanding film not only to Civil War enthusiasts, but for anyone who loves a sumptuously produced and well acted war film.
Many other reviewers have written about the movie Gettysburg itself, so I thought I would comment on the DVD itself.
I have an extensive DVD collection, and if you have experienced what I have, among them are the great quality transfers and some real dogs. Gettysburg might well be THE finest transfer I've seen. The video (I play it on a widescreen HDTV) and audio are outstanding. I must emphasize that the video delivers unbelievable clarity, perhaps the best I've seen. Clearly, the careful attention to detail and loving recreations that were the foundation for the original movie have been carried to the DVD with that same committment. It is refreshing to see a studio that REALLY cares about its product.
As an aside, I should also mention I am an amateur Civil War historian focused on the battle of Gettysburg and of course find the film an outstanding, albeit limited, short history of the battle. This DVD will expand other people's knowledge if they avail themselves of the feature length commentary, especially the portions by James McPherson from Princeton U. His narrative not only amplifies details of what the movie shows, but also puts a broader perspective on it, such as other important engagements at Gettysburg such as Culp's Hill, the Wheatfield, and others.
Bottom line: GET THIS DVD.
on October 1, 2003
"Gettysburg" is perhaps the best attempt by any film to capture a single battle from beginning to end. It is not a movie for everyone since there is no artificially-embedded love story (as in. "Pearl Harbor"), and in fact, there are no women in this movie at all. It sets out to depict the largest battle ever fought on the American continent. Its success is the product of the deliberate choice of the director to respect the source material, namely one of the finest historical war novels ever written, "The Killer Angels", by Michael Shaara.
Gettysburg is a battle of superlatives. It was the largest and bloodiest encounter battle of the Civil War, adding up the three days between July 1 and July 3, 1863, and it tore the heart out of the Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.. It is also the most controversial battle, generating more than its share of debates over decisions and tactics. Was Lee off his game at Gettysburg, as Shaara suggests? Or, as other historians argue, was the battle lost by "Old Pete" Longstreet's case of the "slows" on July 2 (the attack on Devil's Den and Little Round Top) and July 3 (Pickett's Charge)? Longstreet's postwar memoirs lay the blame for Pickett`s Charge squarely at Lee's feet, but since Longstreet joined the Republican party after the war, many Southerners are quick to blame him for Lee's defeat.
Shaara's book, and therefore the film, makes choices in this debate. Shaara sides with Longstreet (aptly played by Tom Beringer), who is depicted as a thoughtful, reluctant warrior who vocally opposes the sanguinary frontal assaults launched by Lee on July 2nd and July 3rd . (For a different perspective, I highly recommend Noah Trudeau's latest book, "Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage.")
It is a delight to see the musty daguerreotypes of Civil War leaders come to life as living, breathing characters. For the Confederates, Tom Berringer's Longstreet is tops, followed by Confederate generals "Lo" Armistead (Richard Jordan) and Stephen Lang `s amazing George Pickett, a stunning contrast to Lang's later alabaster imitation of Christ as Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson in "Gods and Generals." These are interesting, complex people, and "Gettysburg" even manages a sense of humor. The debate on Darwin between Pickett and Armistead is funny, concluding with Pickett defying any Southern gentleman to openly claim that "Robert E. Lee is descended from an ape." On the Union side, there is Jeff Daniels as the bookish hero Joshua Chamberlain, Sam Elliott as the hard-bitten cavalry general Buford, and Brian Mallon's pugnacious General Winfield Scott Hancock.
Some die-hard grognards have complained that "Gettysburg" glosses over details of the battle. But Shaara, and the film, were right to concentrate on the highlights: the initial skirmish and ultimate Union rout on July 1, the confused battle for Devil's Den, the Peach Orchard, and the against-all-odds defense of Little Round Top on July 2 by Joshua Chamberlain's (Jeff Daniels) 20th Maine; and, of course, Pickett's Charge. Massive volumes have been written about just one day of the three day battle, and any film which tried to cover it all would be a ponderous bore.
The few speeches in the movie are necessary, I suppose, to explain the larger motives for the war. Jeff Daniels' Chamberlain has to give the obligatory Abolitionist speech, and Armistead trys to explain the Southern "Cause" to the English camp follower Freemantle just before Pickett's Charge. The few speeches in `Gettysburg" hint at the malignancy that emerges full flower in "Gods and Generals" (written by a different Shaara) in which the camera's pause on any character become the excuse for a five to ten minutes of pious blather.
The flaws of the film are few. One major flaw is Martin Sheen's portrayal of Robert E. Lee as an unblinking somnambulist, whose approach to strategy is by mumbling "it is God's will" as officers rush up with dispatches. Robert Duvall's more animated Lee is the only (and I mean only improvement) that "Gods and Generals" has on "Gettysburg." Sheen's wide-eyed robot Lee is hard to square with the historical brilliance of Lee at Second Bull Run and Chancellorsville, and contemporary accounts of Lee as a witty conversationalist, a battlefield gambler, and with an eye for the ladies.
Ted Turner's use of thousands of amateur reenactors to stage the battle is both a blessing and a curse, but mostly a blessing. Let's face it - the authentically-decked out and equipped amateur soldiers look far more like the real thing than the standard Spanish rent-an-army employed in similar epics such as "Waterloo." However, I suspect that the troops in the movie, particularly on the Southern side, are cleaner, neater, better fed and older (lots of retired folks are reenactors) than the actual participants in the battles. (A common observation of the time was that you could smell Lee's troops approaching before you would see them). The other problem with reenactors is they object to having their limbs and heads blown off, or torsos reduced to bloody pulp by cannon balls. This is not "Private Ryan" or "Band of Brothers" - these soldiers, even when blasted by cannon, die clean deaths, and do not convey the historical eyewitness accounts of the horror, not to mention thousands of corpses set out in the hot July sun. But these are very minor quibbles. This is as good a re-enactment using real people as you can expect.
I recommend "Gettysburg" for historical movie fans, and do not forget the wonderful Ken Burns' documentary, "The Civil War."
on June 10, 2000
July 1,2,3 of 1863 were pivotal days in our country's history. "Gettysburg" does an admirable job of summing up the actions and emotions of this battle in about 4 hours. This is the best Civil War movie that you are ever going to see. Why is it so good? Here are a number of reasons:
ONE: The Acting...There is a good amount of solid actors playing key roles in this movie. Sam Elliot, Martin Sheen, Jeff Daniels, and Tom Berenger are the big names. They are supported by other very good actors. They play their parts with proper accents and believability.
TWO: Balance...Some Civil War movies almost make the South seem like the bad guys ("Glory" comes to mind). No matter what part of the country you are from, as you watch "Gettysburg" you feel for the fighters on both sides. You understand the tough choices they had to make as this movie spends even time in both army camps. In a normal movie, I would have expected the Pickett's Charge scene to be a story of the Northerner's great stand. In this movie, both the South and the North are given their due during this key assault.
THREE: Personal Stories...This movie isn't just about the nuts & bolts of the battle (who was stationed here, who charged there etc...), but it also does a phenomonal job of telling the stories mostly of the key officers in this battle: Buford, Stuart, Chamberlain, Lee, and Longstreet. One part that was especially done well was the struggle between two close friends, Armistead (CSA) and Hancock (USA).
FOUR: Soundtrack...Very appropriate and beautiful music during different parts of the battle.
I could go on, but I think this highlights the strengths of this great movie. It's one that's well worth watching.
on December 30, 2000
"Gettysburg" brings one of the best Civil War novels ever written to colorful life. This is a movie about a battle, no doubt about it, and the filmakers have avoided trying to appeal to the widest range of people. Those looking for period romance should look elsewhere.
Gettysburg was the pivotal battle in the Eastern theatre of the Civil War, with the Federal army winning the only clear-cut victory they were to achieve after Malvern Hill. The movie follows five main characters:Union Brigadier General John Buford, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the Union 20th Maine, rebel Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, rebel Lieutenant General James Longstreet, and rebel General Robert E. Lee. Through these men the story of the Battle of Gettysburg is told.
The filming is well done, but as the movie was orginally intended for release as a TV miniseries, the resolution is low. Reenactors were used to depict the two mighty armies who clashed in Pennsylania in July, 1863. They know their hobby: uniforms are meticulously accurate and the view of army life in camp and upon the field of glory feels right. That said, some of the reenactors are pretty overweight, and the Confederates especially lack that "lean and hungry" look that period sources describe.
Several key portions of the battle are covered in depth. The first day is probably the best done: Buford's skillful defense of the high ground to the south of Gettysburg, the rout of the Union right, and the death of General Reynolds are all shown, and the viewer feels the ebb and flow of the fight. The second day focuses on the action at Little Round Top, and that is all. This appraoch works well in the movie, but the climactic fight around the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, and Culp's Hill is overlooked. The third day gives up the chance to show us the clash of sabers as Custer charges Stuart's tired troopers and Kilpatrick sacrifices his men in a series of headlong charges against Confederate infantry. Instead, the movie makers choose to focus on Pickett's charge. It is VERY well done. Long lines of rebel infantry advance on the angle, and the enormity of their defeat is readily apparent.
The performances are all top-notch. Martin Sheen's Lee is not quite the charismatic leader of men that the real Lee was, but his agonizing over decisions and simple faith in God will help viewers to identify with the great man. John Buford is played extremely well by veteran Western actor Sam Elliot. But the best performances are turned in by Tom Berenger as Longstreet and Jeff Daniels as Chamberlain.
Look for Ted Turner, playing a rebel officer, to get shot down during Pickett's charge, and Civil War filmmaker Ken Burns, as a Federal staff officer begging General Hancock to seek cover during the Confederate bombardment.
on February 18, 2002
This movies is my all-time favorite for the war genre. It was well worth the $20 million price tag for Turner Pictures. Gettysburg is the classic war saga minus the romance along the lines of Gone With The Wind. The performances of all the actors are splendid. My personal favorites are the performances given by Tom Berenger as Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, Richard Jordan as Gen. Lewis Armistead, Jeff Daniels as Col. Joshua Chamberlain, Sam Elliott as Brig. Gen. John Buford, and of course Stephen Lang as Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett. The performance by Jordan was to be his last as he became ill with a brain tumor and died 9 months after the filming of Gettysburg. He is caught between love and war with his long-time friend Maj. Gen Winfield Hancock (Brian Mallon) on the opposing Union side. Armistead suffers considerable agony which is obvious to even the casual viewer especially when the director Ronald F. Maxwell spends considerable time on Armistead trying to bait Lt Gen Longstreet (Tom Berenger) into relieving Armistead of the upcoming battle. Jeff Daniels was a very big suprise for me. I picture Daniels in the toilet scene from Dumb and Dumber and would not have cast him myself in this epic, but that just shows the genius behind casting director Joy Todd. Sam Elliot's role as Buford can be summed up in the following quote "Meade will come in slowly, cautiously, new to command... And then, after Lee's army is entrenched behind nice fat rocks, Meade will attack finally, if he can coordinate the army. He'll attack right up that rocky slope, and up that gorgeous field of fire. And we will charge valiantly, and be butchered valiantly. And afterwards men in tall hats and gold watch fobs will thump their chest and say what a brave charge it was. Devin, I've led a soldier's life, and I've never seen anything as brutally clear as this"...wonderful! Alot of love was given to the filming of this movie. 5,000 non-paid re-enactors were hired to play the roles of the thousands of anonymous faces. Even Ted Turner himself picked up the musket and was among the ones counted during Pickett's charge. He can be seen, but only for a nano-second. I can write forever on this films' qualities but to finish it up, the accuracy in this film is phenomenal. The greatest example of this is how Ronald F.Maxwell uses actual quotes recorded by soldiers from that famous battle. Gen. Pickett: "Up men, up! And let no man forget today that you are from old Virginia!" Gen. Armistead: "Virginians! Virginians! For your land - for your homes - for your sweethearts - for your wives - for Virginia! Forward... march!"
on October 25, 2000
Jeff Daniels' surprising, great performance in words could serve as another Gettysburg Address as he utters them; his words in a speech to Maine's "mutineers" alluded to the only other army in recorded history with just such a mission -but without a powerful political state behind it- That of Spartacus!
It's most agreeable that Richard Jordan's portrayal of Confederate Brigadier Gen. Armisted was admirable; a complex part to play, considering Armisted's divided sympathies between both devotion to the State of Virginia and his love for the Union's Hancocks. What a performance Jordan handed in before he died! Not to mention Martin Sheen's equally admirable performance as Gen. Robert E. Lee - I must admit that I wouldn't go see Gettysburg because I didn't think Sheen would carry the role well: He's a dead-ringer for Gen. Ulysses S. Grant!! 1960s TV great Andrew Prine's return to the screen as Confederate General Garnett is as cool as Hitcher star C. Thomas Howell's Lieutenant Thomas Chamberlain (borther of Col. Chamberlain).
The action scenes in here were superbly done ... Little Round Top's surprised me, but Pickett's Charge in this film has no past comparison and is the most impressive I've ever seen: With few or no special effects, as Braveheart had aplenty, it pushed the envelope in dedication to the "Passion of Gettysburg" - so well carried out by the reactivated Civil War units on the same historical locations.
A film writer myself (Isn't everbody?), I watch this one repeatedly with envy of its conception and execution of materials in a manner consistent with actual historical context and human emotions.
Hesitant to see this movie because of Daniel's contemporary appearance in Dumb and Dumber, and Sheen's casting as Lee, I now realize what a fool I'd been - I couldn't wait to buy it on tape and anxiously pre-ordered it on DVD.
on February 12, 2000
Wonderful depiction of the events leading to a pivotal battle of the Civil War, the battle of Gettysburg, with a focus on 3 key individuals: Confederate General Robert E. Lee (played brilliantly by Martin Sheen), Lee's second, Lt. General James Longstreet (Tom Berenger), and Union Col Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels).
Truly classic storytelling beautifully presented. Each key event is intelligently and gently depicted leaving little of the battles, the personalities, and the actions to be misunderstood. I felt much closer to the unfortunate events that were our Civil War than I ever imagined. I don't consider myself ignorant as a rule, but to tell the truth I never envisioned that the battles were basically fought hand-to-hand, face-to-face, long lines of fighting men falling, almost randomly, on both sides.
This movie, along with John Frankenheimer's "Andersonville" jump-started a serious interest for me in these historical docudramas, and the Civil War in particular. Thank you Mr. Frankenheimer, and Mr. Ronald Maxwell (director of "Gettysburg").
"Gettysburg" represents that rare occasion in the movies where the filmmakers are painstaking in their attempts to get all of their facts right and still make a watchable movie. And though you can quibble about a few of the dtetails, they succeed quite well. The movie is based on the hugely popular novel, "The Killer Angles," which placed dialog in the mouths of the leaders who fought the battle and breathed life back into the legends. The movies is quite faithful to the book, and places its emphasis on Maine Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) as well as Confedrate Generals Lee (Martin Sheen) and Longstreet (Tom Berriger).
The DVD version of the movie places the whole 254 minutes on one double-sided disk. The film looks terrific and there are a number of extras, including a "Making Of" sequence and a documentary of the battle itself. There are also battlefield maps to help the viewer and audio commentary by the filmakers. If you add it all up, it makes for one great package for any devoted Civil War buff and even those less committed who merely want to understand their history better.
on April 15, 2000
The archtypical battle of the Civil War is well-portrayed in this adaptation of Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels". Like the book, and to its credit, the film is more about the men than the battle.
The first half of the film focuses primarily on Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the actions of the 20th Maine at Little Round Top. This professor-turned-soldier, superbly played by Jeff Daniels, was perhaps the finest embodiment of the American ideal of the citizen soldier - not born to war, but prepared to pick up the sword when necessary. Thoughtful, yet decisive; compassionate, but resolute.
The second half of the film deals with the final day of battle - Pickett's Charge. Generals Lee (Martin Sheen) and Longstreet (Tom Beringer) are examined - Lee's firm (though, in this case, flawed) generalship, and Longstreet's internal struggle between doing his duty or following an order that might (and did) cost hundreds of lives.
Throughout the film, other noteworthy performances are to be found as well. Sam Elliot is inspiring as General Buford, Union hero of the first day of battle. Sergeant "Buster" Kilain, played by Kevin Conway, well demonstrates the sort of "ordinary courage" that many people today (myself included) find so extraordinary.
But perhaps the single best performance in the film is that of the late Richard Jordan in the role of Confederate General Lewis Armistead - his last film role. The story of Armistead and his friend, Union General Hancock, is the entire Civil War writ small - brother against brother, friend against friend. Armistead's filial affection for Hancock is examined, and his courage under fire and inspiring leadership show well during the scenes of Pickett's Charge.
Most interestingly, none of the characters comes off as a *bad* person - everyone is a good guy, everyone is a sympathetic character. Previous reviews notwithstanding, the men who fought the Civil War were often deeply religious, and this is well portrayed [unlike so many films these days which tend to mock people of faith (particularly Christians)]. To me, this goodness only heightens the tragedy of America's bloodiest war.
The movie isn't just about people, but events as well. The re-creations of the elements of the overall battle are superbly done, thanks in no small part to the thousands of Civil War reenactors who participated (gratis) in the making of this film. The combat at Little Round Top is accurate (within the bounds of filmmaking), but most impressive was the entire Pickett's Charge sequence - thousands and thousands of men walking the same ground as did those men who marched to their fates in 1863; it nearly brought a tear to my eye to see it.
There are not enough superlatives to describe this film. It is utterly magnificent.
This was and is my favorite film. Buy it.