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Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels, Martin Sheen and Sam Elliott head an all-star cast in this epic adaptation of Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels, a stunning account of the bloodiest battle of the United States' Civil War--Gettysburg. On July 1, 1863, two armies with distinctly different visions--one, of freedom for all; the other, of freedom for some--square off at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Three days of fierce fighting transform the quiet wheat fields of this tiny farming town into a mass graveyard for over 50,000 soldiers. Filmed on location at the actual battlefield, this monumental production captures on a grand scale the legendary battle of Gettysburg.]]>
Even without the movie, the Gettysburg DVD would qualify as a valuable document for Civil War enthusiasts. The feature-length commentary is highly informative for filmmakers and historians alike, and the making-of documentary, while not strictly about the production of Gettysburg, incorporates historical insights from the film's entire primary cast. Equally noteworthy is the Oscar-nominated 1955 documentary The Battle of Gettysburg, narrated by Leslie Nielsen. Produced and written by MGM studio executive Dore Schary (just as Nielsen was about to star in Forbidden Planet for the studio), the film relates the events of history through scenic views of the Gettysburg battleground as well as the many statues and landmarks that serve as timeless reminders of Gettysburg's historical significance. Battle maps and strategic descriptions are also provided, making this DVD a concise and compelling tribute to the soldiers--North and South--who perished on those fateful days in 1863. --Jeff Shannon
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The first was the 12-inch laserdisc version that was surprisingly well made. It was the theater-length release, at 254 minutes, and for me, a Civil War buff, watching it was almost like a religious experience. (I had a similar epiphany when I watched the Ken Burns Civil War documentary some time before, now available as a DVD.)
The second was the “director’s cut” boxed-set laserdisc, that came with a nice book about the movie and about the battle itself. This second version, 17 minutes longer than the previous release, extended some scenes and added a few new ones, at least one of which added some dramatic depth to the movie. While I believe that the early disc was audio encoded in basic Dolby Surround (I am stretching my memory here), the second was done in DTS, which is also how the original was presented in movie theaters.
The problem with this 271-minute boxed set was that the video and audio (the DTS audio technology notwithstanding) were both inferior to that of the earlier disc. The video was excessively dark and off color in some scenes and, worse, the audio lost much of its impact, particularly the sections that involved canon and musket salvos. The canon salvos lacked the low-end reach and even the sequences with musket fire seemed to be dynamically compressed. The team responsible for the reissue may have assumed that the sonic impact of the canons and muskets we had with the earlier disc would be too much for most TV speaker systems, or even outboard audio systems that had anemic subwoofers. They did not want set owners to rage about destroyed speakers.
The third release was a DVD, and it improved somewhat on the second laserdisc. However, even it seemed to lack the impact of the first disc. Worse, the length was dialed back to 254 minutes - an artistic blunder. The disc, being an early DVD, also had the program split between two sides, and in spite of the extra surface space the disc seemed to have some tracking problems with some players (both of mine, for example). I have read elsewhere that this was not unusual, and so I ended up ordering a fourth version from Amazon.
This one was a blu-ray item - and included a second disc that included three featurettes on the making of the movie, plus a booklet built into the disc holder that offered up some historical information, as well as information about the main actors. The movie disc itself has running commentary options by historians James McPherson and Craig Symonds. A nice, tidy item, this set.
Best of all, this fourth version combined the best technical aspects of the previous ones into a terrific visual and DTS-audio package. Indeed, the canon and musket cacophonies were now more emphatic than ever. I have watched a lot of action movies over the years, and while the individual canon thuds were no more powerful than many other explosions I have experienced with various dynamic action movies on my AV system, the combined impact of dozens of thuds piled on in close succession was in a class by itself. I am convinced that many subwoofer systems (or woofers on AV rigs that do not use subwoofers) would be damaged beyond practical use if the volume were played loud enough for the dialog throughout the rest of the movie to be properly audible. Technically, this is a stupendous, demo-grade blu-ray disc that demands a “serious” audio playback rig.
It is also a stupendous story. The actors were very well chosen for their roles, with all of the principles doing standout work. There have been criticisms of Sheen as general Lee, but I do not agree. Perhaps someone like Jason Robards might have been better (Robards looked more like Lee than Sheen, which is what my southern-born wife thinks), but Robards was 70 at the time the movie was made and Lee was in his middle fifties, the same age as Sheen was when he played the part.
Anyway, Sheen played Lee the way I see Lee. Some (major fans of Lee, we can be sure) have criticized how Sheen made Lee seem almost deluded when rationalizing the potential effectiveness of the charge on the third day. However, to my way of thinking Lee almost had to be deluded and over-optimistic about what his army could do. He had to be so to think that Pickett’s 15,000 men could traverse a mile of open space while under fire from every gun on the Union line within range. General Longstreet, as played by Tom Berenger, was the only fully rational and aware Confederate with authority involved during the battle. Longstreet wanted to have the army shift position to better ground and fight a defensive battle, but unfortunately he could not get Lee, who was looking for a fight, to make that move and did not have enough authority to veto the charge.
Regarding that charge, the movie was done before the kind of CGI abilities we have these days, so the men involved with the movie version were real men - Civil War re-enactors who had the chance of a lifetime to do a large scale presentation. There were not as many as in the original charge (perhaps only a third as many), but judicious and skillful camera usage allowed for a scene that is unforgettable. Incidentally, Ted Turner, who helped finance the movie, had a small and brief part in the move that those with sharp eyes will spot pretty quickly. Documentarian Ken Burns also had a small, and equally brief part.
Anyway, the movie is terrific. It probably would be a good idea for those not apprised of just what transpired during those three days to read an internet summary or two (or maybe even a book about the war in general) in order to get an idea of what was going on. The movie covers only parts of the overall encounter (even though those parts presented were manifestly important), and a bit of background should make the viewing more meaningful than ever. I also suggest that a viewing of the Ken Burns documentary on the whole war would be a rewarding experience.