GETTYSBURG (1993)

  • Release Date: 23/09/1993
  • Cast: Martin Sheen, Jeff Daniels, Tom Berenger, Sam Elliot, Stephen Lang.
  • Director: Ronald F. Maxwell

I had heard great things about Gettysburg ever since I developed a love for Hollywood war films but I never got myself to watch it. I am now confident that it was a lack of maturity that kept me away from this film that at first sight looked slow, dialogue-heavy and without much of a glitzy action set pieces. Even a few years before today, I was someone who enjoyed war films that were brisk, action-packed and laced with heroic exploits. I loved them even more if they had a pulse-pounding background score and memorable but brief dialogues. Even though Gettysburg has all of that, it is executed with such subtlety that it becomes a film that is a far cry from films like Hacksaw Ridge, Platoon, We Were Soldiers, etc. Having finally seen this film, I can safely say that it is easily one of my favorite war films of all times now.

The American Civil war waged between the Union and the Confederacy from 1861 to 1865. Two years into it, the conflict reached a point that turned the tides of the war in favor of the Union. The Battle of Gettysburg is considered by many as the turning point of the war even though the war continued for another 2 years. General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) of the confederates crossed his entire army through the Potomac and had reached the outskirts of the town of Gettysburg when he learned that the Union Army was not more than 4 miles away from him. General Meade had newly taken over the command of the Union Army and Lee saw this as an opportunity to push him back and destroy his army as he would be cautious in his first campaign in the lead. The battle started off as a minor skirmish between the Confederates and the Cavalry of the Union led by Brigadier General Buford (Sam Elliot) who was successful in holding off the Confederates outside Gettysburg before the rest of Meade’s army could come in.

This proved to be a huge turning point for the Union Army as they perched and dug in on the higher ground that they had successfully retained. The Confederates were still confident that they would be able to throw down the Union Army from the higher ground and launched an aggressive assault the next day. Hundreds had perished in this pursuit but the Union flank led by Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) held its ground. Colonel Chamberlain went down to the extent of ordering a bayonet charge but still refused to leave his ground. The confederates were taken aback by the indomitable spirit of the Union and just couldn’t clear the hilltops. This failure led Gen. Lee to make a decision that would haunt him till the day he breathed his last.

On July 3rd, 1863, Gen. Lee ordered his second in command, Lieutenant General James Longstreet (Tom Berenger) to plan out and attack the Union center with a strength of 15000 men. Lee believed that the Union was stronger at the flanks and since they were expecting the Confederates to attack the flanks, an attack at the center of their line would come in as a surprise to them. He also underestimated the numbers of the Union center thinking it to be about 5000 only. Lieutenant General James Longstreet advised him against the charge as he believed that such a charge would be devastating for the army and they would lose all their men. His opinion was that since the army would have to be moved across a distance of 1 mile of open fields, it would give the union artillery clear line of sight to pick out the men even before they reach their lines. Whatever little would survive would then be annihilated by Muscat fire and bayonet charges. But Lee was adamant and ordered to commence the charge.

Everything happened exactly as Lieutenant General James Longstreet had imagined and the Confederates were butchered mercilessly. The total casualty on both sides combined was over 53000 but the Union army prevailed in the end, forcing Lee’s forces to retract across the Potomac. The spirit of the Confederates was still not broken and the war continued for 2 more years but the Battle of Gettysburg swung the balance of the war decisively in the favor of the Union. Gettysburg, the film is a graphic and faithful retelling of the three days of the war seen through the eyes of the men on both sides of the conflict emphasizing key moments of the battles and also giving us a peek into the inner workings of the men involved.

I watched the Director’s Cut of the film that is 4 hours 31 minutes long but to me, it felt like 2 hours, maybe even less. The film is so ripe with intriguing characters, story elements and breathtaking visuals that it’s hard to take one’s eyes off the proceedings. The film seamlessly alternates between the characters of the union and the confederate sides and keeps us in line with the proceedings on both ends of the line. There are prolonged scenes where we get nothing but men speaking among themselves, sometimes trivial issues but through these dialogues, the director gives us a peek into the psychology of the men and what the war means to each one of them. I believe this is one aspect that the film does better than most other films made on this subject. Ronald F. Maxwell presents both sides of the story without taking any sides himself and maintains a level headed approach.

The film is called Gettysburg and it never forgets that. Whatever happens in the film in terms of character and story development are all means to feed the war on which the concentration of the narrative is. The battle is relentless and even when we are not watching a charge or artillery barrages we see the men deal with whatever was happening. The action sequences are scintillating. In my research, I found out that the film was shot in the exact locations where the battle was fought. It’s not every day that something like that happens. Descendents of Union and Confederate soldiers came in hordes with their own uniforms, weapons and even cannons to contribute to the picture. They also came in with invaluable pieces of information that not only helped the makers make the film and the action a lot more authentic but also enabled them to add a human touch to it all. Most of these men worked without any pay. That is how much they cared for the story and that is why Gettysburg became such a great and accurate picture.

I was enthralled by the sheer magnitude of the action that is on display here. Every man, every cannon, every gun and every horse on display is for real. I cannot bring myself to imagine executing something this big with all the real people and animals and without the aid of so many new things that we have at our disposal today. It’s needless to say that since everything on display is real, it adds a very different kind of physicality to the action and that is something no CGI can recreate even in today’s era. If one looks closely, one can definitely spot chinks in the armor of the rendering of the battle sequences but those are minor hiccups that can easily be forgiven. There are two major charges apart from numerous face-offs and both the charges are built up beautifully.

The one on the union flank where Chamberlain fights off against a marauding Confederate offensive is my favorite. It is so because it is one fight that both the parties had an equal chance of winning and the ones involved threw caution to the wind and just committed themselves to it resulting in a sequence that was as close to the real deal as can be re-created on celluloid. The march of the confederates on the Union center was more tragic than breathtaking but it was an exceptionally well-executed sequence. I also really liked the portion where Buford and his dis-embarked cavalry hold off the Confederates for a day. There was some real gusto in the manner in which that action sequence was executed and it is in strong keeping with all that was to follow. The artillery barrage of over 100 guns on each side is recreated with breathtaking realism and panache and is easily one of the high points of the film.

Each and every performance in the film is brilliant. Certain acts may feel a tad bit melodramatic but I believe that these men were in a situation that none of us have ever been in and how they would react under those circumstances was difficult to predict. Hence we have to give the benefit of the doubt to the director. Tom Berenger leads from the front as Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet. We see the man gradually tapper out as the situation gets increasingly worse for his army. In the final moments of the battle when Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett (Stephen Lang) requests his permission to begin the march to the Union center, he can’t bring himself to give the order. Just before that, in a key scene, he requests Gen. Lee to relieve him of his command in a stern voice but then immediately apologizes. There are countless such moments of brilliance in his act throughout the film.

Jeff Daniels as Colonel Chamberlain is my favorite character of the film. I just loved every scene that he shares with his brother and the men of the 2nd Maine Regiment who are assigned to him. These men were on the verge of mutiny but the manner in which he turns them over is beautiful to watch. He is also the man at the forefront of the battle on the next day when the Confederates attack the flanks of the Union. He shares many tender moments with his brother that is heart-warming. It must also be noted that it is through him, that we understand the take of the Union on the war. Daniels delivers a knockout performance giving us the perfect feel of the character.

Martin Sheen has a smaller role as the soft-spoken Gen. Lee but his part is the most affecting. It’s for the simple reason that whatever he does affects everyone around him and drives people to do things that would affect all the characters in question. I could take him to be a man who was the most beloved General in the whole of America. Sheen leaves no stones unturned to enact the great general to perfection. Sam Elliot also has a small part towards the beginning of the film but he makes a stunning impact with his baritone and commanding mannerism. Stephen Lang as Confederate Gen. Pickett is wonderful. He spends a great part of the first two days sitting out the battle and when on the third day he is called out to lead the charge on the Union center, he throws caution to the wind in the excitement of being a part of the battle finally. The most harrowing portion of his act comes in the end— in the form of his realization— when he faces Gen. Lee after his whole division is wiped out. Cooper Huckabee as Henry T. Harrison, the Confederate spy is quirky.

Gettysburg is easily one of the greatest war films ever made. The reasons for that are many. The story that it sets out to tell is extraordinary. The material it deals with is given due respect and Ronald F. Maxwell never compromises on the historical accuracies. The film has some of the best actors of its time essaying major characters and they all bring their best game to the fore. The film has the kind of action that we cannot imagine to pull off in today’s time simply because of it being the real deal. The scope and mounting of the film is something that we can only marvel at. Add to that some subtly done human drama and an unbiased outlook on one of the most controversial national topics of America and you have a film that is unmissable.

Rating: 4.5/5 (4.5 out of 5 Stars)

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