Gettysburg

"There's an old Indian saying: Follow the cigar smoke, find the fat man there." - General J. N. Buford

Director: Ronald F. Maxwell

Writer: Michael Shaara, Ronald F. Maxwell

Principal cast members:

This Hallowed Ground

Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel 'The Killer Angels' by Michael Shaara, 'Gettysburg' is one of the most moving and historically authentic presentations about the American Civil War ever created. Financed and supported by media mogul, Ted Turner, it is a movie that makes no effort to endear itself to a general audience. Running over four hours and containing a cast of characters with dozens of serious actors, none of them female, the mass market appeal of the movie is never really a concern. It is a slice of history, brought to life with the skills of great actors, both professional and amateur, and it enlightens us and deeply moves us, if we will let it.

In the summer of 1863, the outcome of the American Civil War seemed very much in doubt. Despite its clear superiority in numbers of men and quality of arms and equipment, the Union was facing a series of defeats in the eastern theater where Washington and Richmond, the two capitals, were less than a day's ride apart. Following a demoralizing Union defeat in the Battle of Chancelorsville, General Robert E. Lee took his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia through Maryland and into Pennsylvania, causing a panic in the north. Having fired the commander of the Army of the Potomac and replaced him with a new general, Abraham Lincoln desperately needed his army to come through with a victory, this time fighting on their own soil.

'Gettysburg' tells the story through the eyes of the soldiers who fought it. The film spends a little time attempting to explain how men on both sides justified their cause. For Northerners, it was about keeping the Union together and eliminating the abomination of slavery. To Southerners, it was about preserving the right of their states to determine their own destiny. For men on both sides the fight was for freedom, despite their opposing points of view. The film brings this to life through a number of characters, but predominantly through the eyes of two men whose careers seemed to reach a pinnacle of destiny at this crossroads in Pennsylvania.

Tom Berenger plays General James Longstreet, Lee's most trusted and reliable aide. One of the few men who could advise Lee on strategy and tactics, Longstreet still found himself often overpowered by Lee's drive and decisions, and that was certainly the case here. During the course of the three days, we see Longstreet balancing the need for a defensive strategy against the obvious value of aggressive tactics. He also has to weigh the difficulty of fighting against men with whom he served in Mexico and studied at West Point. Ultimately, he is tasked with organizing and ordering a charge he knows in his heart is doomed to fail.

Berenger's portrayal of Longstreet is excellent throughout. There is a clear difference between the friendly camaraderie he shares with his subordinate commanders and the formal respect and professionalism between himself and his commander, Robert E. Lee. When forced to order the assault he is sure cannot possibly succeed, the conflict between duty and the fear he faces is overwhelming. Berenger's tortured face communicates this perfectly, despite several pounds of beard added for historical authenticity.

Opposite him in the Union ranks is Jeff Daniels as Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Unlike Longstreet, Chamberlain was not a professional soldier. At the start of the war he was a professor of rhetoric and religion at tiny Bowdoin College in Maine. He joined the army out of patriotic fervor and was made an officer based on his intelligence and character. Right before the battle of Gettysburg, having seen just enough battle to know how horrible it could get, Chamberlain has to assume command of the 20th Maine regiment. The regiment is under strength and on top of that, it has been assigned to guard a group of mutineers from the 2nd Maine who believe their enlistment should be up though the government disagrees. Chamberlain has to unify the men of the regiment and he also has to hurry his men to a battlefield where the fate of the nation may hang in the balance.

Daniels is superb in what may be his best performance ever. It is clear this is no by-the-book military man, but it is also clear he is a man of uncommon wisdom and character. When the 20th Maine is thrown into the fight at a critical moment and position in the battle, Chamberlain rises to the occasion in a display of ingenuity and bravery that eventually won him a Medal of Honor.

Secondary to the story of how these two men face the most significant battle of their careers is the tale of Union General Hancock and Confederate General Armistead. Brian Mallon and Richard Jordan are superb as these two old friends who are now forced to face each other across the field of battle and lament the fact that they are forced to meet again in this way. In the climactic assault on Cemetery Hill, both are cut down as Armistead's brigade charges the Union defenses commanded by his old friend.

My initial impression of Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee was that he had been miscast. Lee is a legendary figure and his nobility and bearing are impossible for any actor to fully duplicate. On repeated watching, Sheen does an admirable job of capturing the essence of Lee's commanding presence as well as his humanity.

Stephen Lang is a delight to watch as the dashing, romantic leader of Longstreet's lead division on the final assault. George Pickett was not known as an outstanding soldier, but he was a charismatic and appealing character which Lang delivers to the screen with utter perfection. But his sorrow and dismay as his division is destroyed attacking the Union defenses is also perfectly delivered. Ordered by Lee to look to his division, Pickett's shocked and horrified face turns to his commander and says, "General Lee, I have no division."

The one enlisted man among the principal actors is Sgt. Buster Kilrain of the 20th Maine, played by Kevin Conway. Though Kilrain is not actually a character who historically existed, he is used by Shaara to epitomize the normal Union enlisted man, many of them Irish immigrants and all of them determined to prove they're every bit as good a man as those they face across the lines. The character of Kilrain is used as a mentor and counselor for Col. Chamberlain and in one scene, discussing the equality of negroes, Chamberlain waxes poetic about the qualities of a man, quoting Shakespeare, "in form, how like an angel."

Kilrain's response: "Well if he's an angel, he's a damn killer angel." In Kilrain's world, all men are equal and the only thing that separates them is how good a shot they are. In Buster, we see the emerging new United States: one without an aristocracy or landed gentry, but a world in which a common man can rise as far as his skills and ambitions will take him. Kilrain is what the United States is about to become. Kevin Conway is marvelous in this part.

One of my favorites in the film and in the history of the battle is Union Cavalry General John Buford, played here by Sam Elliott. History records that it was Buford who, upon finding the Confederate army, chose the battleground on which to meet them. He picked the terrain on which to make his stand, knowing the advantages those hills offered. He was a true veteran soldier who knew how to hold a position. A few weeks earlier, his small division of troopers held a pass against the full might of Longstreet's corps for six hours before having to retire when no reinforcements came.

Now, Buford knows what will happen in the battle to come. He knows that holding this terrain is the one and only hope the Union has of stopping Lee's brilliant army. He makes the fateful decision to dig in and make his stand hoping desperately that the Union First Corps will arrive before he is overwhelmed. Elliott delivers one of his best performances ever as this weary but very experienced general making one of the most important decisions of his career.

Perhaps the most important acting performance in Gettysburg is not provided by professional actors at all, but by the thousands of volunteer Civil War re-enactors who arrived in Pennsylvania to assist the filming of this work. It was a true labor of love for these men who camped out in the hills and endured hours of filming to help Maxwell and company get things absolutely right. In the documentary about making the movie, Sam Elliott cannot say enough about how valuable and essential these men proved to be.

What you get is a beautiful picture of an event that can be hard to understand from 150 years away. The passion and the hopes and the values of these men are things that can be foreign to us. But the horror and terror of fighting a war is something that can be very real to us even now. Watching Gettysburg, we see the finest and the worst of America played out in three days of bloody fighting and it can help us to understand what this country was and what it has become.

For a student of the American Civil War, this film is a delight and a moving experience. But for those who know little about the war or have no interest in it, one viewing can educate and enlighten you greatly on one of the most significant events of our nation's history.

Coolness factor: 5

Writing: 6

Acting: 7

Overall entertainment: 7