Gettysburg (1993): Maxwell’s Epic War Movie

Ronald F. Maxwell directed this epic war movie, adapted from the 1974 historical novel “The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara,” which chronicled the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War.

Initially, it was meant to be a miniseries on TNT, but Ted Turner (who has a cameo) decided to show the film theatrically through New Line (acquired by him).  Released in 248 theaters one or two showings per day due to its length 254 minutes), the film earned close to 13 million at the box office.

The film begins with a map showing the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Robert E. Lee, crossing the Potomac River to invade the North.

On June 30, Confederate spy Henry Thomas Harrison reports to Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, commander of the First Corps, that the Union Army of the Potomac is moving in their direction, and that Union commander Joseph Hooker has been replaced by George Meade.

Longstreet reports the information to General Lee, who is concerned but orders the army to concentrate near the town of Gettysburg. At Union Mills, Maryland, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine is ordered to take in 120 men from the disbanded 2nd Maine who had resigned in protest,  authorized to shoot any man who refuses to fight. Chamberlain persuades all but six to take up arms.

In Gettysburg, Brig. Gen. John Buford and his cavalry division spot Henry Heth’s division of A. P. Hill’s Third Corps approaching the town, and choose to stand and fight there.

Heth’s troops engage Buford’s cavalry on July 1, and Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps moves in to flank them. Reynolds brings his corps but is killed by a Confederate sharpshooter. The Union army is pushed out of Gettysburg to Cemetery Ridge, and Lee orders Ewell to take the Union position “if practicable.”

The armies concentrate at their chosen positions for the remainder of the first day. At Confederate headquarters at Seminary Ridge, Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble denounces Ewell’s inaction to Lee.

On the second day, July 2, Col. Strong Vincent’s brigade from the Union V Corps is deployed to Little Round Top, and Vincent places the 20th Maine at the end of the line, warning Chamberlain that he and his regiment are the flank, and that if they retreat, the Confederate army can swing around behind them and rout the Union forces.

Lee orders Longstreet to deploy his two divisions to take Little Round Top and the neighboring Big Round Top. As Longstreet’s corps deploys, Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood protests to Longstreet; the Union holding the high ground, and he would lose half his forces if he attacked. Longstreet, despite his own protests to Lee, orders Hood to attack; Hood is later wounded fighting at Devil’s Den.

At the summit of Little Round Top, Chamberlain and the 20th Maine fight off the advancing Confederates, running out of ammunition. Colonel Vincent is mortally wounded, and none of the other regiments can provide support.

Chamberlain orders to fix bayonets, and charge in a right wheel down the slope against the attacking Confederates. The attack drives the Confederate assault back, and the Union flank holds.

For the third day, July 3, Lee decides to send three divisions—Pickett’s, Trimble’s, and J. Johnston Pettigrew’s—to attack the center of the Union line at Cemetery Ridge. Longstreet holds that the attack will fail, as the movement is over open ground, and that the Union II Corps under Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock is deployed behind a stone wall.

Lee orders the attack to proceed, and Longstreet meets with the three division commanders and details the plan, beginning first with Colonel Edward Porter Alexander’s artillery clearing the Union guns off the ridge, before deploying the men forward.

The Confederate divisions march across the open field, and Hancock is wounded while commanding. One of Pickett’s brigades, commanded by Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead, makes it over the stone wall, but Armistead is wounded and captured by Union troops.

Lee asks Pickett to send his division back out, but he has no division, and Pickett’s Charge ultimately fails. Meeting with Longstreet, Lee finally decides to withdraw.

The film ends with details about the fates of the battle’s major figures.

The canvas of the film is vast, and yet the director managed to find balance between conveying “dry” information about the chronology of battles (through maps and strategies) and the era’s dramatis persona, the major figures who shaped history.

A large ensemble of superb male actors is well cast, including Martin Sheen, Tom Berenger and Sam Waterston, but the most fully realized character is that of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, extremely well played by Jeff Daniels, who delivers an understated yet powerful performance.

Earnest and one-sided (perhaps to a fault), but intelligent, Gettysburg could be used in history classes at primary and high schools. No film can do historical or ideological justice to such tumultuous events.

Tom Berenger as Lieutenant General James Longstreet
Jeff Daniels as Colonel Joshua Chamberlain
Martin Sheen as General Robert E. Lee
Kevin Conway as Sergeant “Buster” Kilrain
C. Thomas Howell as Lieutenant Thomas Chamberlain
Richard Jordan as Brigadier General Lewis A. “Lo” Armistead

End Note:

My essay is based on the theatrical version; I’m told there is a “director’s cut” edition, which runs even longer (271 minutes).