Saturday, August 28, 2010

Gettysburg (Ron Maxwell - 1993)

I'm not sure how many times I’ve seen Gettysburg. This isn't a perfect movie, and the current form shows remnants of a much longer film that probably would've been better. (The film could've easily been six or eight hours long.) For example, the scene where General Tremble complains to Lee about General Ewell is apparently historically accurate, and it's very, very well played by Morgan Sheppard. The problem with the scene is that General Ewell doesn't even appear in the existent cut of the film, so the conflict doesn't really mean much, especially to someone who doesn't know the particulars of the battle. The general idea—that there were Confederate officers who saw the importance of taking Cemetery Hill after the first day of the battle—is an important one, but it would’ve been more resonant if we had seen Ewell (an interesting historical figure) at some point before then. Maxwell also falls into the trap of including several heavy-handed monologues. Most of these were lifted directly from the novel, but books are a different medium than film, and they worked there. Here, except for the character-developing monologues, Maxwell doesn’t quite know how to approach them, and so it’s basically a character declaiming about some theme (The Cause, Duty, Honor), with music in the background.

On the plus side, though, Randy Edelman's score is appropriately epic, and his arrangement of “Kathleen Mavourneen” is lovely. Tom Berenger is at times too subtle and too withdrawn as General Longstreet (Longstreet had suffered a great personal tragedy—the loss of three of his children within one week due to scarlet fever—not long before Gettysburg, so it does kind of make sense) but he's excellent at other times, as Longstreet sees things, and has insights that his fellow officers can't see, as he feels compelled by duty to order attacks that he knows will fail. Sam Elliott, as John Buford, the unsung hero of the battle, is at his best, and Martin Sheen is pretty excellent overall (his final monologue is devastating). Best of all is Richard Jordan as the tragic Lewis Armistead. Of all the monologues in the film, he gets the best one (with Longstreet in the tent), and he absolutely kills it. Jordan’s performance in general is emblematic of a great strength that Gettysburg shows—the way it emphasizes the humanity of everyone involved in the battle. Even Edward Porter Alexander, an artillery commander who appears in just a few scenes, emerges as a fully-formed, believable person. However, I think the best thing about the movie is the way it handles the geography of battle. Movies and miniseries hardly ever get this right. Whenever we’re following a particular unit, we often wonder: Where is this unit with respect to the rest of the army? Where is this army positioned with respect to that army? You know that here; it's all made very clear, and everything in the battle scenes unfolds with amazing clarity. Unusual for a war film, the battle scenes aren't confusing at all, and that's a pretty amazing accomplishment.

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