Gettysburg (1993)

Gettysburg (1993), directed by Ronald F. Maxwell.

The Blu-ray is a modest upgrade over the DVD but worth having if you are a fan. There is some fair-to-good hi-def content in brightly lit scenes, but darker scenes and interiors are murkier. Good color.

This director's cut is 4.5 hours long, but since the battle covers three days, we found it convenient to split it up over three nights viewing.

If you haven't seen this, it's hard to categorize. Originally a made-for-TV miniseries, edited into a feature film. It's partly drama, partly historical reenactment and history lesson. We have a bunch of (mostly famous) characters on both sides, all sympathetically drawn, but no real story arc for any of them, apart from the inevitable victory and defeat for each.

For the scale they attempt, you can tell they didn't have the budget, but do well with what they have. The battles are done by thousands of Civil War reenactors supplying their own gear, and they look really real.

Historians have argued over the battle since it happened. The slant here supports General Longstreet, who wanted to withdraw the Confederate forces toward Washington, where they would pick their own high ground and make the Union attack them there. This has a lot of appeal: we know that Washington always went a bit hysterical when the enemy came within range. Whether it was possible or would have worked: who knows? Lee decided to stay and fight at Gettysburg.

Tom Berenger is rather fine as Longstreet, laconic but communicating much with his expressions. That was a period of extravagant facial hair and the makeup beards look pretty rudimentary on some of the actors. But they look weird in the original photos, too.

Martin Sheen doesn't look much like Lee but his mannerisms are what I would have expected. He's always bracing up his generals, many of who seem to be made of crooked timber. There is no corresponding strong leader on the Union side; Gen Meade assumed command just days before.

If I could pick out key characters for each day of battle:

Day 1: Calvary General Buford, who kept the high ground for the Union. This is Sam Elliot, chewing the scenery with relish.

Day 2: Colonel Chamberlain, the professor who saved the Union at Little Round Top. It's the best segment in the film, just gripping. Those days when massed lines of soldiers would blast at each other face to face: it's hard to believe. Jeff Daniels is just excellent.

Day 3: Richard Jordan, in his last role, is General Armistead, part of Picket's Charge, praying that his best friend on the other side will survive the battle.