(United States, 1993)
When I saw this four-plus hour epic projected theatrically in October 1993, I was astounded. The intervening years have only increased my respect for what the project accomplished. Since I initially viewed Gettysburg, I have read Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels" twice, have viewed all of Ken Burns' The Civil War (which, despite its availability, I hadn't done beforehand), and have watched other films about (either directly or peripherally) the War Between the States. But I keep coming back to Gettysburg, and every time I watch it, I am more impressed. If I were to make this list ten or twenty years hence, Gettysburg might be much higher. The rigorous historical accuracy is one of the film's strengths. Gettysburg does not play fast and loose with the facts in order to develop a better story – the historical version needs no embellishment. The performances, mostly by character actors (not stars) are perfect, and the pacing couldn't be better. Lengthy, rousing battle sequences are punctuated by sufficient quiet moments to allow us to gain a deeper understanding of the many characters and their circumstances. They are not mere faceless names on a battlefield. Four-hour films can be difficult to watch in one sitting, but the intermission in Gettysburg is perfectly placed to allow the experience to be broken into two parts. However, it's quite possible that, once you reach the end of the first segment, you'll proceed right to the second one without a pause or a bathroom break. This is history-come-to-life at its most vivid and compelling.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The film is divided into two parts, with an intermission in between. The first section begins on June 30, 1863 (the day before the start of the battle of Gettysburg) and ends during the day of July 2 with Col. Joshua Chamberlain's legendary defense of Little Round Top. The second part concentrates primarily on July 3 and the disastrous charge of Maj. Gen. George Pickett and 15,000 members of the Confederate Army against the entrenched Union position atop Cemetery Ridge.
Over 50,000 were killed or wounded during this pivotal battle of the Civil War, and Gettysburg takes pains to breathe life and logic into the reasons for this. Yet it does far more than that. Rather than functioning as a text book come to life, the film uses its actors to flesh out characters from history, giving not only personalities to those on both sides of the struggle, but believable causes as well. We are presented with the rare opportunity to see not only the clash of arms on the field of battle, but the clash of wills beforehand. Historical accuracy was of great concern to the producers and director. They hired a veritable army of advisors to correct even the most minute mistakes in the script, and "recruited" more than 5000 unpaid re-enactors to fill up the screen during the battle scenes. The result is a movie that looks and feels real.
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