Ronald Maxwell’s “Gettysburg,” based on Michael Shaara’s novel “The Killer Angels,” seems an inauspicious entry in the canon of war films. Certainly there's nothing in it to compare with the directorial mastery displayed by Steven Spielberg in the opening of “Saving Private Ryan,” nor has it the ferociously intellectual quality of Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” nor the operatic sweep of Stone’s “Platoon,” nor yet the lean economy of Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli.” On a first viewing, “Gettysburg” seems rather a mess: at well over 3 hours in length, it’s a huge, lumbering film, packed with scenes of wordy speechifying (including long monologues ripped wholesale from the pages of the source novel), with two central battle sequences that seem to have been cobbled together from a surfeit of footage, rather than carefully storyboarded and assembled shot-by-shot. The makeup is sometimes terrible; there’s a scene in which General Jeb Stuart is upbraided by Robert E. Lee, and you have to restrain yourself from laughing at Stuart’s ridiculous beard before you can appreciate the rather moving dramatic moment that follows between the two generals.
Little case could be made for “Gettysburg” as the best war film. As a work of cinema, indeed, it appears only middling.
So why can’t I stop watching it?
What “Gettysburg” does, which no other war film I have ever seen manages to do, is capture something of the innate chaos of battle. I don’t mean the physical chaos of bodies thrashing about in slow motion, great masses of humans milling around in combat while moving music plays on the score; many films have evoked that, to the point where it’s become a cliché. I mean the situational chaos, the uncertainty in the commanders’ minds, the way a battle can unfold so unpredictably and so invisibly that the main actors find themselves neck-deep in it before they even know what’s happening.
In most war films, battles tend to be staged like setpieces: two armies come up to each other on a field, stare each other down for a bit, and then one charges the other and combat is joined. This is what we see in the opening of “Gladiator,” or of “Private Ryan,” or in the climactic confrontation of Kubrick’s “Spartacus.” There’s a foreordained quality to it: both armies know exactly when and where the fight is to come, and they’ve steeled themselves for it, and so it begins; and it’s usually over within a short time – whether as a result of narrative foreshortening or historical reality. Undoubtedly, in history, many battles actually unfolded like that. The combatants met on a big field and knew they were about to fight and they went and fought.
But “Gettysburg” evokes a different sort of battle – a battle that occurs as a result not of collective choice, but of circumstance. A battle in which the officers on both sides are simply trying to make the best of a bad situation, rather than consciously choosing the ground on which to fight. A simple, short voiceover narration, with an animated map showing the blue and red lines of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac, deftly establishes “Gettysburg’s” central theme. These two massive armies appear like blind caterpillars, worming their way across the landscape, seeking each other out, always maneuvering, always carrying with them the massive weight of logistics and supply.
We sense, more than in any other film, that an army is a body of thousands and thousands of men, men who must be fed and who must sleep and who must march for endless hours before even reaching the point of combat. One of the central characters, Jeff Daniels’ Union officer Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, doesn’t even get to Gettysburg until more than an hour into the film. While the conflict is unfolding up north, Chamberlain and his regiment are hoofing it as fast as they can manage.
Visually, direction's uneven; Maxwell, relying heavily on the use of reenactors, sometimes gives the impression of having turned a lot of cameras on during a staged battle and said to himself, "well, we'll sort it out in the editing room." The climactic Pickett's Charge sequence is, in this respect, a disappointment; there doesn't seem to be a lot of directorial control exercised over the imagery, and at times it threatens to break apart into incoherence. Given the logistical, budgetary, and scheduling issues underlying the production, though, it's hard to be too judgmental. And the use of reenactors bears fruit in certain shots which seem to be ripped right from those old lithograph eyewitness scenes you'd find in the pages of Harper's Magazine and other contemporary journals. At certain moments, the staging of battles in "Gettysburg" feels eerily authentic -- you find yourself thinking, "yeah, that's probably pretty much exactly how it looked."
In numerous brief dialogue scenes, the film repeatedly reiterates its point about how battles develop chaotically, contingently, unpredictably. We constantly see officers surveying the land, peering out through binoculars, trying to figure out how much time they have and how many troops they can commit and where would be the best place to put them. Events are unfolding in real time; nobody has the luxury of simply planting their army and waiting for the battle to start. The sequence of events begins in earnest when Federal cavalry officer John Buford, played by Sam Elliott with a relish that stops just short of being over-the-top, arrives in town, sees Confederate troops coming, and decides to stage a delaying action to “deprive the enemy of the high ground.” Later, the battle escalates when Lee confronts General Harry Heth, who has encountered Buford’s men and tells Lee “the situation is very confused.” Scene after scene shows generals conferring, trying to find the best calculated risk, hurriedly deciding where to place their troops, dealing with situations one at a time. The larger event, the thing that will be stamped in history books as The Battle of Gettysburg, doesn’t exist yet, isn't complete yet -- is evolving one moment and one choice at a time.
Dramatically, “Gettysburg” deserves more credit than it frequently receives. This is a film that you’re stunned to realize contains almost as many great acting moments as “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Begin with Elliot’s turn as Buford. He’s asked to perform a difficult monologue -- a page of dialogue ripped straight from Shaara’s novel, so ornate and prosy that it would be the doom of many a lesser actor to recite. But Elliot pulls it off somehow, investing the words with such emotion that Buford seems to be having a transfiguring vision before our eyes.
A parallel scene, much later, is given to Tom Berenger’s James Longstreet, when he describes with chilling precision the doom that awaits the bold soldiers about to make Pickett’s Charge. As framed in the film, Buford and Longstreet are the two armies’ respective Cassandras: possessing the gift of sight, able to describe with perfect clarity the calamity that is to come before them. By the mere luck of the draw, one of these men is able to use his vision to affect the outcome, while the other stands helplessly by watching his men get blown into bits. The connection between them is made explicit when Elliot’s Buford describes precisely the situation that Longstreet will later find himself in: “The way you sometimes feel before an ill-considered attack, knowing it’ll fail, but you cannot stop it, must even take part, help it fail.”
The impressive ensemble doesn’t stop with Berenger and Elliot. Jeff Daniels turns in one of his best performances as the Union hero, Chamberlain, though unlike Elliot he is not quite able to make a ponderous and prosy speech his own: when he tells a group of mutinous Maine men how important the war effort is, we're inclined to reach for the fast-forward button. Later, though, Daniels breaks your heart when the film holds on a long closeup of him as his brother tells him of the death of a beloved comrade. “Yep,” is all Daniels can say, as he clenches his torrential emotions within himself and behind a stoical Northeastern demeanor, and squeezes out a single tear. That’s an Oscar moment if there ever was one.
And look at the relish with which Daniels screams “Bayonets!” as he prepares to lead his embattled regiment on a desperate charge down Little Round Top, while Randy Edelman’s superb score swells with emotion. We immediately sense that this moment will be the highlight of Chamberlain’s life, something upon which he will look back with fierce nostalgia for the next fifty years to come. War is hell, yes, but sometimes war is also a hell of a lot of fun, this scene seems to say – provided you emerge from it unscathed.
There are smaller actor turns that linger in the mind and bear repeated viewing. One of my favorite moments shows prickly General Trimble (William Morgan Sheppard) reporting in frustration to General Lee on the failure to capture a critical hill.
This is the after-action report reconceived as operatic aria; Sheppard shows total mastery of his instrument as he precipitously varies the pitch of his voice, stops and starts again, alternates between apologetic decorum and irrepressible rancor, and holds us enthralled with every word. In Sheppard’s Trimble is embodied the enormous frustration of the missed opportunity, of knowing that the battle should have gone another way, and that thousands will die because of a foolhardy decision by an incompetent officer.
There's a lot more to discuss about this flawed, sprawling, fascinating film, but I'll have to get to it in another post. Suffice to say that "Gettysburg" has been an instrumental component in my gradual, hesitant groping toward being a Civil War buff. The movie helped me turn the corner, to see a key battle as a vast roiling confluence of independent personalities each striving for success, distinction, survival -- rather than as a musty, dead sequence of names and dates buried in a textbook.