Movie Review of Gettysburg (1993)

by JoHarrington

Based on the book 'The Killer Angels' by Michael Shaara, 'Gettysburg' was filmed on location at the actual battleground. It is the longest ever American film.

There is much that is impressive about the 1993 film 'Gettysburg'.

The fact that its makers acquired permission to shoot so much footage on the actual site is mind-blowing. It adds a lot of historical accuracy to the background.

That's just one of the myriad of ways in which the 'Gettysburg' movie seeks to portray events as they actually happened. 5,000 civil war reenactors were co-opted to bring depth, numbers and yet more accuracy to those long shots.

But what most people remember is that the film is over four hours long. It doesn't feel like it. I could have watched four hours more.

Gettysburg: Director's Cut (Blu-Ray Book Packaging)

For the 150th anniversary of the battle, there are many limited edition extras in this special new release of the classic 1993 film.

An Epic Retelling of the Historic Battle of Gettysburg

Well over four hours are taken to recall four days leading up to and during the pivotal American Civil War battle. It showed the human cost of the carnage wrought there.

I over-use the word 'epic', particularly in regard to movies.  But what other word is there for a picture of this magnitude?

When the cast-members number in the tens of thousands, and the long shots take in views that sweeping and dramatic - without recourse to CGI - then there is no better description.

The 1993 movie Gettysburg is epic. 

It's also the longest American film ever shown.  The theater version is four and a quarter hours; the director's cut even longer.

Gettysburg was originally shot as a mini-series, but when financier Ted Turner saw it, he decided to send it into the cinemas instead.  It's not hard to see why.  This is a movie which demands to be shown on a big screen.  You need that to take in the sheer scale.

The wealth of historically accurate background detail is over-whelming.  Civil War enthusiasts were drafted in from all over America.  They brought with them their own uniforms, weapons and all the other bits and pieces which make them look authentic.

These were people obsessed with getting every tiny detail correct.  They re-enact the period in troops from Georgia to Washington State.  But in 1992, they were following in the footsteps of their grandparents or great-grandparents by amassing outside the real town of Gettysburg.

In some cases, this was quite literally.  A man in the blue uniform of the Army of the Potomac was standing on the stone wall, overlooking the re-enactment of Pickett's Charge.  He realized, with a chill and a welling of emotion, that he was standing on precisely the same spot, where his own grandfather witnessed and shot upon the real thing.

He wasn't the only emotional soul on in that place.  Different actors kept recalling the same thing in similar words.  This was the real Gettysburg battlefield.  Permission had been wrangled into letting certain scenes be filmed there, like the (in)famous Pickett's Charge and the brutal clash at Little Round Top.

"It's hallowed ground," said one actor.  "Sacred ground," spoke another.  Jeff Daniels, who played Joshua Chamberlain, said that it was not like any other movie that he had ever acted in. There was all that weight of responsibility.  Hallowed, sacred ground; and the ghosts of the dead watching on. 

Trailer for the Movie Gettysburg (1993)

This is the best trailer that I could find on YouTube. It's quite low quality, but the film itself isn't like that.

What is Gettysburg About?

There are historians who would gleefully settle in for the long haul in answer to that question.  But fortunately I'm only here to tell you about a movie.

Gettysburg begins with the manoeuvrings of regiments on both sides, in the Pennsylvanian countryside. 

They are all converging on the town of Gettysburg, almost accidentally, as it forms a crossroads in their parallel marches.

A lot of scene-setting takes place.  We get to meet (and emotionally connect) with many of the major players.  I doubt that it is a spoiler to state that some of them won't make it to the final credits.

The action takes place over four days - June 30th to July 3rd 1863.  It covers some of the most significant fighting in the real, historical battle between the Union and Confederate armies.

Watch Gettysburg on Amazon Instant Video

Limited Collector's Edition of Gettysburg and Gods and Generals

As the title suggests, there are few of these around. The box set has been released as a 150th Anniversary Commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg (Widescreen Edition) on DVD

Famous Scenes Re-enacted from the Gettysburg Battle

Even in a movie as long as this one, not every moment could be faithfully retold on celluloid. 

The terrain was too big, with so many people there, fighting intensely for three days.  I doubt even the history books have uncovered every tale that could have been told.

Instead, Gettysburg focuses on some of the biggest, famous or most significant events.

By-passing the opening scenes, in which both armies converge on the town and its surrounding ridges, the first major battle is that of Seminary Ridge. Reports tell of the Army of the Potomac taking Cemetery Hill.

Day two of the battle focuses primarily on Devil's Den and Little Round Top, especially the startling defense undertaken on Joshua Chamberlain's watch.

Day three, of course, is Pickett's Charge.  Just writing the words cannot begin to express the cinematic brilliance of those scenes. 

It was re-enacting this which convinced so many Civil War enthusiasts to take their valued period collections to the Gettysburg battlefield. That included the canon artillery, which mostly belonged to re-enactors.  Few had seen so many fired at the same time.  The ground shook under them.

Those were the real trees in which the Confederate soldiers waited and prayed.  That is the actual ground upon which the real charge occurred.  The real stone wall was what awaited those actors who followed their predecessors in reaching the 'High-water Mark of the Confederacy'.

In short, it was as real as it could possibly be.  Watching it play out was both awe-inspiring and downright upsetting.

The Opening Credits of Gettysburg (1993)

A lot of effort was undertaken to match actors physically with those they portrayed. The beginning shows photographs of the real person, which fade to display their actors.

Gettysburg is Based on a Book by Michael Shaara

The working title for the movie Gettysburg was The Killer Angels. It is based on Michael Shaara's exquisitely researched novel of the same name.

It was only shortly prior to release that a decision was taken to make the subject matter blatant in its title.

Michael Shaara never lived to see his seminal story turned into a film.  He wanted that very much, but every single movie company turned him down.  It wasn't seen as commercially viable! 

(Which just goes to show how badly even the 'experts' in the industry can get things wrong.)

Ronald F. Maxwell recalled reading The Killer Angels and couldn't rest until he was able to create the movie.  It took him fifteen years to get the financial backing to do so.

In the end, CNN's founder Ted Turner put up $20 million of his own cash, so that the movie could be made.

Read The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War

How Historically Accurate is the 1993 Movie Gettysburg?

It's a movie based on a semi-fictitious novel of a real historical battle. With that in mind, it's quite surprising just how true to life it was.

Let's start by stating here that Gettysburg is not meant to be utterly faithful to what happened on the battlefield between July 1st and 3rd 1862.  That's not the story that it's telling.

At least, it is, but removed by one step.  The movie is very loyal to The Killer Angels, which is an historical novel.  It's not a text book.  There's a distinction.

Historical novelists can take liberties.  They are capturing the emotion of a scene and putting words in their character's mouths.  While those people may once have lived and breathed, it may not be 100% as written in these tales.

That said, Michael Shaara was a Civil War buff and he was incredibly respectful of the reality of the Battle of Gettysburg.  He endlessly researched personal diaries and letters to gain an insight into the thoughts of the people who lived it.

His findings helped to humanize his characters and flesh out his detail.  Then Ronald F. Maxwell adapted Shaara's writing into this movie's screenplay.

It was all a bit sanitized and clean, emphasizing the glory over the futility and ugliness of war.  But otherwise there was little with which I could pick fault.

The fact that the movie was filmed at Gettysburg, with a team of historians advising and hordes of re-enactors ready to speak up, really did keep things on a level. 

There were some factual errors, which IMDb has listed.  They all appear to be quite minor points.

Watch The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns

Ken Burns was an historical advisor for the movie, and he even scored a cameo role! His thirteen hour documentary series has been called THE masterpiece of the genre.

Randy Edelman's Musical Score for Gettysburg

This is the movie for which the composer is most well known, though he also scored 'Dragonheart', 'The Last of the Mohicans' and 'To the Stars'.

Apparently, when Randy Edelman was first offered the chance to write the soundtrack to this movie, he refused. 

It was the length of it, plus the momentousness of the subject matter, which caused him to balk.  He didn't think that he was equal to the task.  It took much persuasion and a copy of The Killer Angels shoved under his nose to finally get him to say yes.

At the risk of being lampooned, I wish he'd listened to his instinct.  I adored the screenplay; and I was moved time and again by the direction.  There were people on my screen acting their hearts out and carrying me with them.

Then this over the top of it, distracting me greatly. 

I appear to be in the minority here though.  Despite Edelman's lack of awards for the Gettysburg OST, all I keep reading are fans gushing over it.  But to me it came across as corny through to cheesy in parts.  Epic adventure and sweeping historical scenes had accompaniment that sounded suspiciously like my uncle playing on his keyboard.

I don't know.  Maybe it's just me.  Judge for yourself with a couple of tracks - the main title of the movie is played over the opening credits, up above.  Below is Men of Honor.

Gettysburg Soundtrack: Men of Honor

Gettysburg: Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

The movie is so long that it took three albums to release the main tracks from Randy Edelman's haunting score!

What Do You Think of Randy Edelman's Musical Score for Gettysburg?

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Gettysburg Does NOT Pass the Bechdel Test

This movie doesn't even pass first base! Did we really expect it to?

Image: Olivia Maxwell in GettysburgThe Bechdel Test seeks to evaluate the representation of women in movies.  It asks three simple questions.  The film has to pass all three.

Firstly, is there more than one named female character in Gettysburg?   No. 

The fact that the other two questions kind of follow on from that one renders the whole test a fail.

The closest we got was Olivia Maxwell's character, who appears briefly to encourage Buford's passing Union cavalry.  Nice bit of trivia here, insofar as the actress is the daughter of Ronald F. Maxwell, who wrote the screenplay.

However, her character was credited only as 'Tantytown Woman'.  There wasn't another woman for her to have a conversation with, let alone about subjects other than the men.

There is an argument to be made that Gettysburg isn't really a film about women.  It's about hundreds of thousands of men rushing onto a battlefield, where 51,000 of them will be slaughtered.

But there were women there.  At least five of the soldiers were women dressed up as men (three Confederates and two Union).  There were other women with less salubrious roles in the camps too. 

The field hospitals had nurses; and the town had its female side of the population. The only civilian killed during those three days was a woman.  Jennie Wade was in her kitchen, tending the wounded, when gunfire passed through her front door.  It killed her outright.

So yes, there was the opportunity to include a few female characters in this movie, though the reality was that their numbers were undoubtedly swamped by the men.

Three questions are asked of each movie. They are so simple that it would be harder to fail than pass. They examine the role of females in that film. Nearly half fail.
When we imagine the heat and blood of Gettysburg, it's the men that we see standing or falling in the blasts. But there were women there too, in the ranks, with their muskets.
Updated: 03/19/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 05/13/2013

Wow! That really much have been something to see. I do love living history displays. It helps to imagine the reality so much better, even if these things omit the more unsavoury elements. Probably for the best!

cmoneyspinner on 05/13/2013

I was smack dab in the middle of a reenactment of one of the battles with my husband and all my children. I'm telling you! A memorable experience! :)

JoHarrington on 05/11/2013

I would love to visit Gettysburg. I've watched so many documentaries and read so many books about it now, I'd like to see where it all happened. What was it like being there?

I agree with you about Ken Burns.

cmoneyspinner on 05/11/2013

You’re right. Historical novelists can take liberties. But for historical accuracy documentaries by Ken Burns are an excellent resource. We visited the Gettysburg battle grounds. A memorable experience. Great review!!!

JoHarrington on 10/26/2012

It's one of the few occasions when I'll actually forgive the film-makers for not passing the Bechdel Test. Women were there, and their stories should be told, but I think it may have looked a little forced in this particular film. Overwhelmingly those at Gettysburg were male, and this tells that fact very strongly.

We just need a part two now, which focuses upon the women there!

koffeeklatchgals on 10/26/2012

I thought Gettyburgs was a wonderful movie - maybe a liitle long - but so dreamatic and real. Unfortunaately there was an opportunity that was not used. As you mentioned, the women of the war were not memtioned. What a shaeme.

JoHarrington on 10/24/2012

I'd forgotten all about 'The West'! Yes, that was an amazing documentary. I didn't realize that it was also Ken Burns.

Kate on 10/24/2012

I live the ken burns documentary you refer to. I live his doc ' the west' too

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