”In the morning, there's to be a great battle. Tomorrow or the next day will determine the war.”
The Confederate army had crossed into Pennsylvania from Virginia, pushing into Union territory to force the North to concede defeat. The two armies converged on Gettysburg, a town of little note until July 1 1863. Over the next few days it would serve as a battleground for some of the bloodiest fighting of the American Civil War. The battle didn’t spell the end of the war but it was most likely the turning point for both armies. This seemingly inconsequential battle outside a small town in Pennsylvania was a heavy blow against the Confederate army thanks to poor tactics, incompetent officers and a bullheaded commander unwilling to listen. It all could have gone very differently if not for a few key reasons and one can only imagine what the United States would look like today if the South had won. The movie itself presents a small window into the war, only several days during which the Battle of Gettysburg took place but it provides us with a glimpse of a different time when a country was torn apart.
I’ve wanted to watch this movie ever since reading Killer Angels by Michael Shaara as the film is based on the book. It closely follows the story, leading us chronologically through each day of battle culminating in the triumph of the Union over Johnny Reb. I really appreciated that several aspects of the book were carried over into the movie such as both sides of the conflict being shown and given equal screen time. The viewer sees that the Union and Confederate soldiers are formal, polite and well-spoken, allowing us to see the dynamics of conversation and everyday life, including the variety of music and song that permeated the camps before and during the battle which I found pleasantly surprising. It brought to mind the idea that these were ordinary men, mostly volunteers and not career soldiers, who had left homes and families with little understanding of what they would be facing.
The opening credits were both entertaining and informative. Photos of the participants are overlaid with the actors portraying them and some of the resemblances are uncanny. I also appreciated both the performances of Jeff Daniels, who I’m consistently surprised by, and Richard Jordan. Both gave performances that made me feel for the character. Daniels as Chamberlain had this quiet, concerned quality and Jordan as Lew Armistead choked me up when he spoke about not wanting to meet his friend in battle who happened to be fighting for the other side. Everyone else left me rather cold, including Martin Sheen as General Lee which I did not expect.
It was interesting to watch a 20 year old film and see how much cinematics have changed in such a short time. I expected a regular amount of quick cuts throughout but instead found a film composed of long takes. At times this was frustrating, partly because I felt it slowed the action down as quick cuts could have been used to great effect during the battle. Long takes can be effective when used properly, they can amp up the tension but I don’t feel it was used to full effect here. The battle scenes could have been shot more dynamically and occasionally it felt as if they were being shot at angles that didn't take full advantage of the scope of the battle. I did however get a chill during the various shots of lined cannons firing in succession. This, combined with the technology available at the time, made the film seem more like a History Channel documentary. I did appreciate the lack of gratuitous violence as the film could easily have tipped into a gorefest. Instead, the portrayal of death and destruction felt authentic. It did however, feel as if there was a lot of untapped potential in this film.
One of the issues I had with the movie was the viewer didn’t get the great internal dialogue present in the book. In Shaara’s work, the reader could see into the hearts and minds of the major players and empathize with their situation, how they would be forced to fight friends and fellow countrymen. This made it easier to care about and worry for men on both sides of the conflict. The connection with the movie characters isn’t as well established as the story rests entirely upon the visuals, omitting an important aspect of the book. As a result, there wasn’t as much tension built around character survival as I didn’t care about about everyone living through the battle.
Running close to four hours though, this movie feels overlong. Some of the dialogue feels stale, stretching out scenes to an interminable length. And then, when we finally reach the battle scenes, they are less than eletric. The movie just doesn't measure up to the book. That doesn't mean it's a bad movie though. If you’re looking for a visual representation of what the Battle of Gettysburg looked like, filmed where it took place 130 years later, watch this movie. I also cannot recommend enough the soundtrack composed by Randy Edelman. It is spectacular.