[box cover]

Gettysburg

Anybody who has attended a massive Civil War reenactment knows that it can be an exciting — and noisy — affair, with hundreds of industrial-strength Civil War buffs (er, "living historians") dressed in their finest period garb and ready for some black-powder fighting. In our age of digital entertainment in relatively small settings, be it the cineplex or home theater, nothing can compare to the pageantry of staged battle on an open field, and even more impressive is the participants' commitment to historical accuracy, down to the smallest of details. But Civil War reenactments aren't stories, they are pageants, and this proves to be a crucial flaw in the otherwise impressive Gettysburg. Originally produced by Ted Turner for cable TV, this four-hour saga rounds up all of the principals who did battle during those fateful three days in July of 1863, but sometimes less is more — and for Gettysburg, more often seems like too much. In the supplementary materials on the DVD edition, virtually everybody associated with the project speaks of trying to "honor" those who fought and died, and of course they want to be sure they have created a film that is a fair representation of history. But Gettysburg refuses to draw up a compromise between history and entertainment, which is sure to please lovers of everything Ante-bellum but can frustrate those who are looking for an exciting war film. Where Gettysburg is strongest is in the first half, as the Army of Northern Virginia, led by Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen), finds itself in a standoff with the Federal Army of the Potomac. Much of these early sequences work well in small settings, particularly with the introduction of Union Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) and Confederate Gen. James Longstreet (Tom Berenger) — two men who have no love for war but excel at tactical command. But as character gives way to wholesale massacre, the most crucial parts of the battle are taken to such historical accuracy that they defy all conventions of cinema. The Confederates rushed Chamberlain on Little Round Top seven times before he executed his "swinging gate" offensive, but the many charges depicted here are largely repetitive and somewhat numbing. And while the mile-long march of Pickett's Charge on the third day took 16 minutes, again, do we need to see seemingly endless panormas of soldiers walking across the field before the fighting begins? Beyond that, so much love and attention is showered on the major characters by director/screenwriter Ronald F. Maxwell that they are given substantial monologues, sharing the personal stories or high ideals that have led them to this place, which destroys opportunities for pithy dialogue or crisp verbal conflicts, and thus tends to bog down the plot. But if some film buffs will have their complaints about Gettysburg, Civil War buffs will want to watch it repeatedly for the very things that can be so frustrating — historical figures delivering grand speeches amidst thousands of reenactors engaged in brutal, rank-and-file warfare. Warner has decked out the DVD as well, with a commentary by director Maxwell, cinematographer Kees Van Oostrum, and historians James McPherson and Craig Symonds (edited together from separate recording sessions, and only included for some sequences). Also on board is a 50-minute behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of the film, an older, 30-minute documentary on the Battle of Gettysburg narrated by Leslie Nielsen (which regrettably has so much MPEG-2 shimmer it's shocking), and an interview gallery. The best supplement is all too brief — ten minutes of maps that illustrate the battle's progression, narrated by a knowledgeable, yet unidentified, historian.
—JJB



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