In honor of the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American War between the states, this week’s pick is the 1993 epic Gettysburg directed by Ronald F. Maxwell and adapted from the novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. The film dramatizes the events of the Civil War’s most decisive battle. The film stars Tom Berenger (Lt. General James Longstreet (CSA), Jeff Daniels (Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain (USA), Martin Sheen (General Robert E. Lee (CSA), Kevin Conway (Pvt. Buster Kilrain (USA), C. Thomas Howell (Lt. Thomas Chamberlain (USA), Richard Jordan (Brigadier Gen. Lewis A. Armistead (CSA), and Sam Elliot (Brig. Gen. John Buford (USA).
The film opens with narration and a map concerning the movement of the Confederate States of America’s Army of Northern Virginia which was planning an offensive into the north in order to lure the Federal Army of the Potomac into a decisive action which could end the fighting and allow total succession of the south from the rest of The United States of America. The narrator (Morgan Sheppard) tells how Lee’s army advanced through the mountains of West Virginia into Pennsylvania undetected.
Lee hopes that the army will succeed and if so, A letter has been prepared by Confederate President Jefferson Davis and is to be delivered to the desk of President Abraham Lincoln once the Army of the Potomac is destroyed, and Lee’s army controls a huge area north of Washington D.C. What both armies don’t realize yet, is that the most decisive and bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil is about to commence in and around the small Pennsylvanian town of Gettysburg.
The film dramatizes the events of the battle and how it unfolds very well. In the beginning, the Confederate forces who are at the front of the advance, mainly Gen. Longstreet’s (Berenger) army are unaware just how strong the Federal forces number. An actor turned spy Henry Harrison (Cooper Huckabee), informs the General that the Federal forces exceed sixty-thousand and that large patrols of calvary have been spotted just a few hours ride from Longstreet’s encampment. Longstreet relays this crucial information to General Lee (Sheen) who is the commanding General of The Army of Northern Virginia.
Lee is a solid tactician and steps up more reconnaissance from his calvary, especially Maj. General J.E.B. Stuart (Joseph Fuqua) who has not been heard from or seen in days. Lee is bothered that the “eyes” of his army is off conducting raids and harassing the enemy without any word or information. Lee has no adequate intelligence on just how big General George Meade’s (Richard Anderson) army numbers. Both Lee and Longstreet look at a map of Pennsylvania and find the tiny hamlet of Gettysburg as the perfect base of operations to conduct further offensive operations against the Union forces.
At the same time, Gen. Buford’s (Elliot) Federal calvary reaches the outskirts of Gettysburg on the afternoon of June 30, 1863. Buford surveys the area with his officers and realizes that if Confederate forces come up from the west and north, they could gain a foothold on the high ground and it would spell disaster for Meade’s forces who are still far from Gettysburg. Buford deploys his division along McPherson’s Ridge where the opening shots of the battle are to commence the next day. Buford dispatches a letter to Gen. John Reynolds, (John Rothman) commander of Union I Corp who are the closest force from Gettysburg.
The battle unfolds on July 1, 1863 where Buford and Gen. Henry Heth’s (Warren Burton) division clash at McPherson’s Ridge. The Confederate forces are unaware and believe that the tiny force they’ve encountered are just local militia units and not crack Federal calvary troops. Heth has no official word from Gen. Lee to commence offensive actions and commits his forces to battle. Heth sends in is forces who are repelled by Buford’s troops several times.
During the battle Gen. Reynolds arrives to reinforce Buford’s troops who are outnumbered by the Confederate forces. Gen. Lee is still unaware of the location of Meade’s army and has not yet committed to a full battle, even though the battle has already commenced. Lee’s intel still rests on the words of the spy Harrison and Lee is still unable to locate Gen. Stuart, or find out what his forces have to report.
Other side stories in the film include Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) and his beleaguered 20th Maine regiment who help to turn the tide for northern victory during the battle of Little Round Top. Chamberlain’s division is dispatched to the far line of the Federal positions to repel any attacks which allow Lee’s Confederate forces pouring into a committed battle at Gettysburg. Chamberlain enlists in the help of one hundred and twenty members of a disbanded Maine regiment who refuse to fight. Chamberlain sways all but six to help continue the fight, and three more join his regiment on the second day of the battle.
Little Round Top proves to be the action which saves the Union army from total annhilation at Gettysburg. Longstreet’s failure to capture the heights above Big and Little Round Top, and refusing to listen to his adjutant Maj. Gen. Hood (Patrick Gorman), add to the Confederate failure in the battle.
The third and final day of the battle commences on July 3, 1863 where Confederate forces commit all they have left in what is known as Pickett’s Charge. Lee believes that the Federal line is the weakest in the center of Cemetery Ridge and commits his remaining forces and units that haven’t fought yet, such as Gen. Armistead’s (Jordan’s) brigade into breaking the Union center and winning the battle. Gen. Longstreet is convinced the attack will fail, and orders a massive artillery barrage as a canopy for Confederate forces to overwhelm the Federal center.
The Confederate forces fail to reach their objective and the battle is lost. Lee who was revered and adored by his troops informs them that it was all his fault and that they must admit defeat and withdrawal. The battle at Gettysburg turned the tide of the war, yet fighting would continue on for two more bloody years eventually reaching a conclusion at the battle of Appomattox where Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant’s forces thus ending the American Civil War.
One of my favorite parts in the film is during the battle of Little Round Top where Chamberlain’s troops stop several waves of Confederate charges and run out of ammunition. He orders a bayonet charge where his men rush down the hill and capture a large force of Confederate troops who are stunned and amazed at such an action. For his bravery and refusing to give up, Chamberlain was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his leadership and brilliant strategy during the engagement.
One other scene I like is the conversation between Gen. Longstreet and Lt. Col. Arthur Fremantle, (James Lancaster) a member of the British Army and an observer with Longstreet’s forces. The Colonel was sent as an emissary by Queen Victoria’s government to assess whether Britain should enter the war on the side of the Confederacy. Both Longstreet and Fremantle discuss the irony of the situation and Fremantle tries to rationalize why both sides are fighting one another. He refers to Americans as “transplanted Englishmen” and that they all share a similar history and that even the names of their fellow soldiers and adversaries is very much English in origin.
Gettysburg was initially a project pitched to executives at ABC in 1991. The production was later picked up by media mogul and Civil War buff Ted Turner who produced the film for his cable network station TNT. The film also had a short theatrical run when it was released in the fall of 1993. Turner himself also made a cameo in the film as one of Pickett’s officers during the charge. Even though the film was considered a commercial failure and that most audiences didn’t want to sit through a 254 minute long film, Gettysburg made up for it by being a staple in classrooms across America which show it to students who are learning about an important era in American history.
The film also prides itself on casting thousands of Civil War re-enactors from across the country as extras for the epic battle scenes. Gettysburg was followed up by the less than adequate prequel Gods and Generals (2003) which depicted earlier battles of the war. It was considered a far worse failure than Gettysburg ever could have been.
Gettysburg is available on DVD and soon to be released on Blu-Ray on May 24, 2011 through Warner Bros. Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.