Gettysburg (1993 USA)

GettysburgThere can’t be many better films ever made of the American Civil War, perhaps the best war movie of all time, and possibly one of the best films of all time. The story is historically accurate. Watching “Gettysburg”, you will know everything about the battle. Where the armies marched, who attacked, where the fighting took place etc. Facts are very precise. You will also find out how the chain of command works, from the highest general to the men fighting in the front row. Director Ronald F Maxwell really takes you there.

The first character is Tom Berenger giving a superb portrayal of Lieutenant General James (Pete) Longstreet, a Confederate corps commander. For the benefit of those who are not that familiar with civil war history, the monumental battle of Gettysburg occurred just past the halfway point of the war. Significantly, it occurred after the death of CSA Lieutenant General Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson. Longstreet graduated to General Lee’s most trusted lieutenant. The movie accurately portrays the tug of wills between Longstreet and Lee. It is historical fact that Longstreet argued against invasion of the North, agreeing to it only after getting some vague assurance from Lee that the battle would be defensively fought.

It is fact that Longstreet argued for an attack around the Union’s left flank (if there was to be an attack at all). Finally, it is undeniable fact that Longstreet argued with Lee so vehemently against the final failed attack that he later wrote that he thought he had stepped over the military line and would be relieved of command. I don’t see how Berenger could have done a better job and he deserved Academy Award recognition. I would imagine that Americans from the South are a little uneasy about Longstreet being right and the supposedly lovable Lee being wrong. But history is history. I should mention that Longstreet is my favourite Confederate Officer. Martin Sheen does only a workman-like job of portraying General Robert E. Lee. He seems to have only one facial expression, that of pain and worry.

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Perhaps that is understandable considering that Gettysburg was such a Confederate disaster, but I believe it was overdone. What I do find interesting is that historians are coming more and more to the realization that Lee was not such a great general and perhaps not even a very good one. Looking at this movie without bias, you can’t help but get that impression yourself. Jeff Daniels, playing the character of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, does a job that is every bit as good as Berenger’s portrayal of Longstreet. Chamberlain was very much the Union hero as portrayed in this film, so Northern Americans may especially like this epic. Chamberlain did in fact win the Congressional Medal of Honour for his performance during the Battle of Gettysburg. A non-regular military man, a non West Point graduate, Chamberlain went on to great glory even after Gettysburg.

Promoted all the way up to Major (two-star) General, Chamberlain was more than with Grant at the final surrender of Lee at Appomattox Court House. He was given the singular honour of officially receiving the surrender and parole of Confederate troops three days after Lee’s negotiated surrender, and well after Lieutenant General Grant had left for Washington. He also won recognition for his dramatic salute to the defeated Confederate soldiers that both Union and Confederate people of the time appreciated. The motion picture is beautifully choreographed with thousands of extras, many, most, or perhaps even all being professional re-enactors. It gave the movie a realism lacking in many other war films. The pathos of some of the Officers was palpable and made one sad whether of Union or Confederate sympathy. The musical score was memorable. I give it a ten out of ten and I, for one, enjoyed the length of the film which is admittedly long at just over four hours.

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