Here I am on a Wednesday evening, watching Gettysburg for the eleven millionth time. Much as I admire this film -- which I've said elsewhere is my favorite war movie -- its miniature flaws are myriad, and examining them can glean some insights into moviemaking.
Take the above shot. General Meade (Richard Anderson), commander of the Union Army, has just arrived at Gettysburg after the first day's fighting. He asks General Winfield Hancock, played to ramrod perfection by the wonderfully pockmarked Brian Mallon (whose IMDB page, incredibly, lists only 9 credits, one of them as "Telegraph Operator #3" in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York), whether this is "good ground" to fight upon. "Very good ground," Hancock replies confidently. "Very. Good. Ground." Meade replies: "I hope you're right. Because we're going to have a fight here sure enough in the morning."
The frame I've captured comes just after Meade has delivered that line, which more or less demarcates the end of Act I in this gigantic film whose structure is too vast and sprawling to cram easily into the conventional screenwriting three-act template. It's a big story beat, a moment of foreboding pause, a moment when we should feel the thrill of anticipation at the epic struggle that is to follow. A "calm-before-the-storm" beat if ever there was one.
And director Ronald Maxwell messed up the blocking.
Hey, it was probably a long day. A tight shooting schedule. Maxwell is a pro and he went to Pennsylvania with $10 million of Ted Turner's money and a bunch of amateur reenactors and Charlie Sheen's dad and he somehow cobbled together this ungainly epic and made it all work. All the respect in the world to him.
But Steven Spielberg would not have been caught dead ending that scene with that composition.
The scene should end in a closeup of Meade, with Hancock and the other assembled generals arrayed in the background. The blocking should walk Meade into the foreground before he delivers his ominous last line (some camera movement could assist, but a fast dolly-in would be too on-the-nose), and it should probably be a slightly low angle, to make his figure appear more massive, to give the image more heft at this essential moment.
When it comes to movie direction, camera movement is all well and good, but blocking separates the merely competent from the truly gifted.