Someone has blundered. "Gettysburg," the four-hour plu re-creation of the battle of Gettysburg, is more like the invasion of Grenada: a huge, sprawling mess in which nobody is on the same radio frequency or has the same maps. But, like Grenada, it is redeemed now and then by grace notes of courage and sacrifice so piercing they can make your heart break.
To get to the good news first: The movie reaches the pitch of great war poetry in its evocation of the defense of Little Round Top, a nubby runt of rock at the end of the Federal line, where a unit of Maine infantry whose commanding officer is no less than a professor of rhetoric stood up to a day of continual frontal assault. This brief passage is an American Iliad on a pile of Pennsylvania granite with a Hector in a walrus mustache and a voice that keeps cracking. Jeff Daniels as Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain offers what is certainly the movie's best performance: a compassionate amateur suddenly in the fight of his life who discovers a natural gift -- but never a glee -- for leading men in battle. We watch his physical courage as it swells in his breast but never quite becomes bravado and is always tempered by mortal qualms; and we watch his mind work as he comes up with desperate improvisations as his men run low on ammo and the long day wears onward.
The fight takes place on a 45-degree angle, under tree cover, in a relatively small area and it is unbelievably intense and desperate. For the only time in the film, the spatial relationships intensify rather than dissipate the drama. We feel the claustrophobia of the overhanging leaves, the shadows of the forest, the sleet of bullets come pecking through the dust, and the utter fragility of the situation -- that at any moment, the Union lines can crack and it's all over. Only here does "Gettysburg" acquire something of the force of the one authentic masterpiece in the relatively tiny genre of great 19th-century battle movies, Cy Endfield's "Zulu."
It's worth noting that this sequence works so well because it offers us men, not history. This is exactly what's lacking in the rest of the film. Far too often the battle scenes seem remote and distant, like ants assaulting a cake amid puffs of Flit.
And while I understand that the film could not exist on such a scale without the thousands of re-enactors who pitched in with time, effort and muskets, one soon begins to feel the absence of professional movie extras. Extras, at least, have the capacity to imitate spontaneity, animation, engagement, life its own self; the re-enactors try hard, but they seem naturally to assume postures of stiffness, that is, when they are not noticing the nice movie camera that is filming them.
But, despite the presence of their thousands, the story is mainly a study of command, and even more a study of Southern command, and still more, at least implicitly, an endorsement of the theory of history that finds generals more interesting than privates. It tracks the complex relations between Gen. Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) and his Lt. Gen. James Longstreet (Tom Berenger) and some brigade commanders, Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead (Richard Jordan) and Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett (Stephen Lang), as they maneuver their way to what was perhaps the single most ridiculous (yet tragic) moment in the history of American arms, "Pickett's Charge" of 15,000 Confederates toward the Union center over a mile of open ground in the face of massed rifle and artillery fire. This butcher's folly is sentimentalized until it becomes a bloodless pageant of sacrifice. At least the movie hews to Michael Shaara's thesis from the source novel, "The Killer Angels," that it was Lee's idea ++ while the more sensible Longstreet preached a flanking move around well-entrenched troops.
Berenger's performance pretty much anchors the movie: He's stable, solid, professional to his spit-shine and the only pragmatist among a gaggle of dreamers and emotional midgets. Yet he's continually undercut by one of the worst beards ever seen in a movie. It looks as if the lower part of his face is being devoured by a rabid Chia dog on steroids. And when he and another bad beard, Richard Jordan, have an emotional chat in a tent one night, you feel as if you're in the presence of the Smith brothers and you begin to yearn for a cherry cough drop.
Sheen's Lee looks better but at the performance level seems somewhat more problematical: Sheen gives him an almost hysterical edge, until at last he seems too goofy for the love being beamed at him, and, after the battle, he acquires the brittleness of a madman, a dithering, featherheaded fool.
All along director-writer Ronald Maxwell makes questionable decisions or loses track of where he is. He introduces characters and then abandons them. Altogether, there are too many generals and colonels and not enough sergeants and privates.
And he wastes entirely too much time on a Damon-and-Pythias routine between Confederate and Union generals Armistead and Hancock, to the point where each man seems wacko. Thousands of their own men lie dying about them, and each is weeping piteously for his fallen friend.
Finally, there's the speechifying. It is fair to observe that the 19th was a more rhetorical century than our own, and that its men took passionate pleasure in the Latinate elegance of their language. Yet it is also fair to note that the century's rhetorical masterpiece was less than 300 words long, delivered on that site but a few short months afterward. Brevity is still the soul of eloquence, though poor Maxwell doesn't realize it: Thus at least half the movie seems to be given over to dead moments of oratory, with the music welling tearily. The most absurd of these occurs just before Pickett's charge, where Jordan expounds on the glories of Virginia to such enthusiasm that he seems about to break into song, as if in a musical!
No matter if the American empire lasts for a thousand years, men will look back and say, "This was not their finest movie."
Starring Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen and Jeff Daniels
Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell
Released by New Line/Turner