Maxwell's achievement is that he conveys the immensity of the battle as it unfolds as well as the tortured decisions of the officers who direct it.


A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.

"Gettysburg" captures beautifully the purely American tragedy of that epic battle. In his four hour film, Ronald Maxwell leads us slowly to an understanding of the nobility and principle of both sides. Maxwell's achievement is that he conveys the immensity of the battle as it unfolds as well as the tortured decisions of the officers who direct it.

In a lovely meadow outside the small Pennsylvania town, 150,000 soldiers fight for control of a ridge. In the one foolhardy lapse of his extraordinary leadership, the beloved General Robert E. Lee sends his men up the center of the open field to split the union line, sure that success will open the road to Washington and end the war. Instead, his decision brings unimaginable carnage.

We watch in disbelief as the Union soldiers hold Little Roundtop and then fend off the suicidal charge of General Pickett as he leads 15,000 men in a mile wide line up the unprotected hill. Wave after wave of Confederates attack - loading, shooting and reloading before the final rush that erupts into a melee of rifle butts, swords, bayonets and fists. Dressed in full wool uniforms on a steaming July day, the Confederates march to their deaths for the glory of the South and the sovereignty of their states. "Tell them," a general cries, "that all Virginia was here on this day."

Maxwell has used to great effect 5000 reenactors who act out their passionate interest in the Civil War. Among the officers, Jeff Daniels stands out as Colonel Lawrence Chamberlain, a Bowdin College professor who sees beyond the battle to the greater tragedy of a country at war with itself. Martin Sheen is dignified but stiff as General Lee, capturing his reserve but lacking entirely the quality that brought his men to see him not just as a hero, but as a saint.

The flaw that diminishes an otherwise fine film is Hollywood's inability to remember that in the 1800s, America was a country of regionalisms and very particular accents. If Maxwell has caught the flavor and sights of 1863, he has missed the speech, and the effect is to remind us that we are watching a costume epic.

It is greatly to the credit of all who made this film that they rejected the exaggerated gore of contemporary movies. There can be no greater carnage than what we see here, and by letting men fall under musket balls without lingering on them, the director leaves the audience free to see and feel the greater tragedy of their innocence and loss.

After the battle, 53,000 Americans lie dead or dying, their bodies shattered, their wounds infected. As a British bystander observes of the officers and men, "Same names, same language, same faces, different dreams." In November of 1863 at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, President Lincoln spoke his ennobling words about the men who died there. It had taken four full months to bury the dead. "Gettysburg" gives rich substance to this sacrifice.

Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
Word Count: 500
Studio: New Line Cinema (Turner)
Rating: PG

Copyright (c) Illusion

Return to Ellis Home Page