Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Saturday, April 11, 2015

From History To Legend- March To Mortality

Some links before starting today. Norma had a photoblog from Hong Kong.Yesterday having had been a Friday, Parsnip had a Square Dog Friday post. And Eve is taking part in A-Z this April; you can find her posts at her blog.

Now then, here is the second of my two movie reviews for Civil War films....

“Afterwards men in tall hats and gold watch fobs will thump their chests and say what a brave charge it was. Devin, I’ve led a soldier’s life, and I’ve never seen anything as brutally clear as this.” ~ John Buford

“Win was like a brother to me, remember? Towards the end of the evening, things got a little rough. We both began to... well, there were a lot of tears. I went over to Hancock. I took him by the shoulder, I said, Win, so help me, if I ever raise my hand against you, may God strike me dead. Ain’t seen him since. He was at Malverne Hill, White Oak Swamp, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg... One of these days I will see him, I’m afraid. Across that small, deadly space.”  ~ Lewis Armistead

“Generals can do anything. There’s nothing so much like God on earth as a general on a battlefield.” ~ Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

“Soldiering has one great trap. To be a good soldier, you must love the army. To be a good commander you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love. We do not fear our own death, you and I. But there comes a time... we are never prepared for so many to die. Oh, we do expect the occasional empty chair, a salute to fallen comrades. But this war goes on and on and the price gets ever higher.” ~ Robert E. Lee

"Lovely ground." ~ John Reynolds
"I thought so, sir." ~ John Buford
"Now, let's go surprise Harry Heth." ~ John Reynolds

"Up, men! And to your posts! And let no man forget today that you are from old Virginia!" ~ George Pickett

“Well, if he’s an angel, all right then, but he damned well must be a killer angel.” ~ Buster Kilrain

“That’s Hancock out there. And he ain’t gonna run. So it’s mathematical after all. If they get to that road, or beyond it, we’ll suffer over fifty percent casualties. But Harrison... I don’t believe my boys will reach that wall.” ~ James Longstreet

“There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count.” ~ Winfield Scott Hancock

Michael Shaara’s classic novel The Killer Angels won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1975. It is my favourite novel, and tells the story of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg through the eyes of some of the commanders, both North and South. The novel was adapted by director and scriptwriter Ronald F. Maxwell and released in 1993 as the film Gettysburg, filmed on and around the battlefield itself, involving a cast of thousands, including many re-enactors who make a life’s hobby out of this sort of thing. The film follows the novel closely, giving us the point of view of commanders on both sides in a balanced way while conveying the ferocity of the greatest battle ever fought in North America.

The film begins with a voiceover, showing the movements of the Union and Confederate armies in late June 1863, as the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) moves north into Maryland and Pennsylvania, pursued by the Army of the Potomac, moving more quickly than expected. The Confederate army have been used to victory time and again, while the Union army has suffered losses and the incompetence of commanding generals. This time, however, things are different- the Southern cavalry commander, Jeb Stuart (Joseph Fuqua) is missing, off on one of his grand rides up north with his cavalry, leaving the infantry blind in enemy country. This worries Lee’s senior commander, James Longstreet (Tom Berenger), who has employed the use of a civilian scout to determine the movements of the enemy.

The Union army, meanwhile, is moving quickly; command has been given over to a new commander, George Meade (Richard Anderson). The cavalry commander in the field is a brigadier general by the name of John Buford (Sam Elliott), who brings his troops into Gettysburg the day before the battle. He’s been scouting the movements of the Confederate army, and has learned they’re turning south, perhaps to threaten Washington. Buford understands the value of the ground south of the small town, the best high ground around, and makes the fateful decision to stand his ground, summoning the infantry to come up quickly and take control of the high ground before the rebels can take it. Two senior corps commanders, John Reynolds (John Rothman) and Winfield Scott Hancock (Brian Mallon) know him well enough to take him seriously, and promise to have the army up in the morning.

Coming with that army of Union troops is an unlikely officer, a colonel with his own regiment from Maine. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) is a professor who’s joined the war effort, a scholar and a man of principle who happens to be very good at the life of a soldier, an effective commander. His brother Tom (C. Thomas Howell) is a junior officer in the regiment, and tends to call Chamberlain by his first name. One of the senior enlisted men, Buster Kilrain (Kevin Conway) is a wise, gruff Irishman who’s been in the army most of his adult life, something of a father figure to the scholarly colonel. Their regiment is brought up along with the rest of the army, where they will meet destiny on the second day of the battle.

There had been efforts for years to adapt the book for the screen, either television or movies, but it was Maxwell who brought the film to the big screen. He received the backing of Ted Turner, who has a cameo as a Confederate officer during the climactic and ill fated Pickett’s Charge. Turner loved the novel too, and wanted to see it made. The National Parks Service allowed filming and battle re-enactment to be done on the battlefield itself, which gives the film a higher authenticity, particularly since places like Devil’s Den and Little Round Top had never seen this done. It is a long film- over four hours- but the material demanded that length. And the use of re-enactors, who know the story so well, allowed for a smoother filming process. Maxwell wrote the script, which closely adapts the novel, and which in turn paid heed to the history of the battle. Shaara noted at the time that while inner thoughts and some dialogue were his own interpretation, his foundation was on fact, and certainly his interpretation of the people on the page, and how they came to life on screen certainly rings true to who they were.

Maxwell’s direction throughout is sterling. He captures the ferocity of that war perfectly through the battle sequences, particularly the desperate fighting on Little Round Top on the second day, when the entire Union left flank is in danger, but also the cataclysm of the third day’s Pickett’s Charge. We feel the movement of vast forces of soldiers on the battlefield in how Maxwell’s camera team works, but then quickly find ourselves among regiments and get the close-up view in the midst of battle. The story gives balance to both sides- enough time is given to both perspectives, even though we know in our day that one side is wrong. It doesn’t romanticize the Old South in the infuriating way that Gone With The Wind did. And Maxwell even preserves a bit of Shaara’s humour in the story, mostly at the expense of one of Longstreet’s division commanders, George Pickett (Stephen Lang), a not that terribly bright but quite affable officer whose name will forever after be attached to the turning point of the Civil War. His three brigade commanders like to poke fun at his not so stellar academic record or his dim view of science.

Filming on place allowed for great authenticity, and that is much the same for the costuming and prop people. Many of the re-enactors would of course bring their own uniforms and gear for the project, but for those members of the cast who were featured players, their uniforms look very much of the era. This applies to makeup as well- most of the men (with a couple of minor cameos, this is an all male cast) have facial hair, some enough to house bird nests, but fitting for the time, and authentic to the men they are portraying. The music comes from Randy Edelman, and remains one of my favourite scores, emphasizing character moments at quiet interludes in the film, but also ferocious, desperate, and grand when accompanying the fury of battle.

The cast is huge. Many of the roles are cameos; documentary director Ken Burns, for instance, plays a Union staff officer during the cannonade on Cemetery Ridge preceding Pickett’s Charge. George Lazenby, a one-time James Bond, turns up as a Confederate division commander, Johnston Pettigrew, one of the other division commanders involved in Pickett’s Charge. Morgan Sheppard, an ancient looking actor with a huge resume of character roles (you’ve seen this actor in at least something), plays the third division commander of that charge. He’s a gruff staff officer when we first meet him, disgusted by the ineffectiveness of another corps commander, and placed into a vital position by Lee, who needs to fill a hole. Anderson’s appearance as General Meade is a brief one- he only appears once in the film as the commanding general, but that fits the story and the history, since Meade wasn’t that much of a factor in the battle. Donal Logue has more than a cameo, appearing frequently through the first half of the film- though he’s unrecognizable under facial hair- as Major Ellis Spear, Chamberlain’s capable and serious senior subordinate. John Rothman appears briefly as the ill fated General John Reynolds, playing the role as the man must have been: a superb commander, completely calm in the face of battle.

C. Thomas Howell plays the younger Chamberlain with a certain naive quality that works. Tom is the brother who always looked up to his older brother, joined the military because that’s what his brother was doing, and seems oblivious at times to military protocol, particularly his tendency to forget to address his brother by rank. He’s been in the army for awhile, has seen a lot, and yet that boyish naivety is still there. Kevin Conway, a character actor who’s been in multiple roles in the movies and television for years, gets one of the best parts as Kilrain. He’s a career soldier, the sort of senior enlisted man who make up the backbone of military services. And he’s gruff and disgusted by the foolishness of high command, something one might expect out of such a soldier. Yet he also does his duty, and is surprisingly thoughtful and wise. A conversation along the way with Chamberlain shows the father-son relationship between the two, and Kilrain’s principles as a person. He believes that only a fool judges people by the group or race- that you take people one at a time. It’s such a good role, and Conway makes it so memorable.

Brian Mallon gets the most screen time of the senior corps commanders in the Union Army as General Hancock. The real man was one of the finest officers in the army, a tough, tenacious, exceptional officer, and Mallon plays those qualities in his performance. Hancock is a commander who’s a natural leader, an inspiration to those around him, and calm under pressure. Mallon conveys that, but also shows the other side of the man, the humanity of Hancock, and a melancholy over an old friend who’s fighting on the Confederate side.

That friend, as it turns out, is Lewis Armistead (Richard Jordan), a brigade commander under Pickett, who, as fate would have it, is facing Hancock’s lines on the third day of battle. Both men become aware of each other being across the empty space between the lines, and both aware this means these two best friends will be fighting each other. It’s a twist that weighs heavily on them both, and we see that particularly in Jordan’s performance. It is the most poignant role in the film- we like Armistead tremendously; there’s a great warmth in the character. He has a sense of humour, but there’s also tragedy to him; he expresses that to his old friend Longstreet, particularly in a explaining about a vow he made the last time he saw Hancock. And now fate has brought him to fight Hancock head on. The performance is made all the more poignant by the fact that this was Jordan’s final performance; he died soon after filming was wrapped, and the film is dedicated to the memory of Jordan and Shaara.

Stephen Lang has spent years playing various character roles, often villains, but this is my favourite role by the actor. He plays Pickett just as you’d expect the real man to be. Pickett’s not a bright guy- he finished dead last in his class at West Point- but he’s capable and reliable, able to follow through on orders. He also seems to be good company, cheerfully taking jokes at his own expense, even instigating some of them, a boyish sort of fellow engaged to a woman half his age. Pickett is a jovial officer- and so the ill-fated charge that bears his name leaves him utterly shattered. When we last see him, he’s a broken man, and Lang conveys all of those qualities in his performance.

This is one of my favourite roles for Sam Elliott. John Buford was fated to die later in 1863, and for many years was a forgotten figure in the Civil War. It was perhaps the benefit of Shaara’s novel that started to give him serious attention and credit again. A bright man with a gift for topography and the best use of the land for military purposes, it was Buford’s decision to fight at Gettysburg and his stubborn fight on the first day that allowed the Union infantry to come up and occupy the high ground. In doing so, Buford saved the battle and perhaps the war. Elliott conveys the tenacious nature of the man, his frustrations at commanders, and his tough, capable, and steady character. Buford is a man who can see what’s to come; his prediction of the battle to one of his brigade commanders is chillingly accurate, at least for the losing side.

Martin Sheen is given the role of General Lee, and he plays the role well. Looking at history, one is struck with the dignity of Lee, his intelligence, and his skill as an officer. These are qualities that Sheen brings across throughout the film. He’s still a torn man; he remembers that he once took a vow as an officer in the Union army, and that he served with many of the men fighting against him. And yet he believes his duty first and foremost is to his home state. He’s also an officer with great empathy for his men; he says that a good commander must love the army, but also be willing to order the death of that which he loves. It’s a great contradiction, but it fits in perfectly with the character of the man. Another element that resonates is his anger- it’s a quality Lee tries to keep harnessed, but it shows itself in a late night meeting with Stuart, whose absence until the battle has started has leaved the general deeply disappointed. The anger he expresses to Stuart is effective in the moment- a mark of a man who could be very dangerous when riled. Sheen takes all of these into account with his performance, and it rates as one of his finest roles.

Tom Berenger also inhabits the role of Longstreet just as you’d expect the man to be. Longstreet was a military genius, devising systems of trench warfare decades before its time. He was a methodical, defensive commander of great skill, an effective general who’d advanced to his position based on his own talent. He was also a man of gloom and frustration, with a tragic past, suffering multiple personal losses during the War. Berenger plays Longstreet with gravity and force, a man of strength. He knows what’s coming- he tries to argue with Lee about moving the army away from the field and threatening Washington directly- but to no avail. And Berenger’s Longstreet feels the loss of what happens, the responsibility for it all, very heavily.

Jeff Daniels gives his best performance as Chamberlain. The fighting professor from Maine was the sort of person who could master any subject before him, and he certainly excelled at military life, ending up as one of the most extraordinary soldiers of the war. He’s a man of scholarly knowledge and deeply held principles, a man who believes in the cause he is fighting for. Daniels brings those qualities to the role, and also comes across as a highly capable leader, trusted by his men, someone whose ability to speak can be persuasive. He also shows the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Chamberlain, whose last minute use of a textbook tactic saves the second day and the Union army on Little Round Top.

Gettysburg is one of my favourite films, if not my favourite. The tale of the pivotal battle of a terrible war captures the immediacy of battle, the desperate odds on both sides, and the ferocious nature of that war. It also gives the viewer outstanding performances all around, bringing figures from the past back to life in rich and deep ways. It is, quite simply, a magnificent achievement in film.


  1. This is by far my favorite war film, and one of my favorite films of any kind, every bit as good as the book or even better. (And I don't say that often.) I have the soundtrack, and could listen to it all day long.

  2. Thank you for another splendid and thorough and captivating review. I've not seen this film, but I will at the first opportunity! Have a great weekend!

  3. Thanks for the link!

    Great review of yet another movie I haven't seen. Next week, I'm reviewing Lucy, which I believe is one you haven't seen....

  4. I saw a young Sam Elliot and I'm like, wow...this movie is over 20 years old!!

    Great review too!

  5. @Mark: it's rare that a movie matches the book, or exceeds it- I think the two stand side by side so well. And the soundtracks, or soundtracks, because there are more than one- get heavy rotation from me.

    @Lowell: you should definitely see it!

    @Norma: I have not yet seen that.

    @Diane: and he wasn't quite that young when he did it.

  6. My husband would like this. I'll have to ask him if he's seen it.

  7. Great review of a great movie.
    As I have said before I have been to many of the Civil War Battle Fields.
    The history is all around. Some of the fields are not as big as one would think, considering the magnitude of the moment in time.

    cheers, parsnip


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