Gettysburg Australian DVD Cover

Gettysburg Australian DVD Cover

Gettysburg is a massive film[1] at 254 minutes[2] covering the bloodiest battle in U.S history. Based on the excellent novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara it is also fairly historically accurate[3].

Where Gettysburg truly excels is in the characterisations of the men fighting the battle, and in portraying the horror of war.

The film covers the three days of the battle from the initial engagements of Buford’s cavalry on the first day, the 20th Maine at Little Round Top on the second day, and Pickett’s charge on the third day.

Even at the length, significant elements of the battle had to be omitted. For example the fighting at Culp’s Hill and the rest of the right flank is mostly ignored entirely. I think the Peach Orchard and Devil’s Den are shown, but not really named, which contributes to the fog of war atmosphere of the film.

The Preliminaries

The movie actually starts the day before the battle with a confederate spy Harrison[4] reporting sightings of the federal army to General Longstreet[5], and reacting to this information is what starts General Lee[6] moving the Confederate army towards Gettysburg.

The First Day: 1 July 1863

It may well be exaggerated but Gettysburg places a huge amount of importance on the early efforts of Brigadier General John Buford[7]’s federal cavalry to take and hold the high ground as the Confederate army stumbled towards Gettysburg.

One of the recurring themes from early Civil War histories is the sluggishness of the Army of the Potomac[8], and the steep butcher’s bill that Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia made them pay for those mistakes. Buford is presented as one of the federal officers who knew the truth of this, and damned his superiors for it. He knew the price for failure and went to the limit to prevent it happening.

To preserve this as a dramatic theme the chaotic withdrawal from the initial lines set by Buford to the fishhook centred on Cemetery Hill is largely elided. However Ewell’s failure to take Cemetery Hill after that retreat is duly acknowledged.

Much of the first day section of the film is spent, wisely I think, on the incident of the forced transfer of the 2nd Maine remnants into Chamberlain’s 20th Maine.

I don’t know how historically accurate this is[9], and I certainly don’t know if the way Colonel Lawrence Joshua Chamberlain[10] is shown as handling it is correct. However it always feels right.

Chamberlain is almost a legendary figure in U.S. history, and this extends beyond his successes in battle. In both Gettysburg and The Killer Angels the scenes with the men from the 2nd Maine show some of Chamberlain’s hidden depths. Just as important in this sense are Chamberlain’s discussions with the Irish sergeant Buster Kilrain[11]

 The Second Day: 2 July 1863

For the second day Gettysburg mostly deals with the attacks on the Union left flank. Although there are scenes covering the Peach Orchard and Devil’s Den, these feel deliberately unfocussed. These are intentionally chaotic scenes and focus does not return until the 20th Maine take centre stage on Little Round Top.

The sequence at Little Round Top is brilliantly filmed, and is the personal highlight of the film for me. As I mentioned earlier Chamberlain is an almost legendary figure, and you can feel it in these scenes.

Also included on the second day is the return of the errant Jeb Stuart who had gotten Lee into this mess by leaving him blind.

The Third Day: 3 July 1863

The focus of the third day is, naturally, Pickett[12]’s charge. George Pickett emerges from this as a fairly tragic figure, set an impossible task for which he never forgave Robert E. Lee.

The footage for Pickett’s charge is epic, and brings the unfolding tragedy of Armistead and Hancock to its inevitable end.

The sweeping cinematography over so many real men and real cannon that, combined with the epic soundtrack of awesome, brings a feel that I don’t believe that CGI can match even today. Gettysburg is a 21 year old film, but there are few that match the spectacular footage that accompanies the doomed charge of Pickett’s Division.

Possibly the most poignant moment of the film is after the battle is over and General Lee tells Pickett that he must look to his division only for Pickett to reply:

“General Lee, I have no division.”

This is always the line that resonates with truth and pain at the end as the Army of North Virgina limps away and the Army of the Potomac is once again too slow to follow.


Anyone with the slightest interest in U.S. history should see Gettysburg and/or read The Killer Angels, and preferably both. If I can find my copy of The Killer Angels I may review that soonish.

There is also an inferior prequel Gods and Generals which suffers from trying to cover the entire Civil War from Fort Sumter to Gettysburg. I’ve seen that once and may take another look at it this year.

Finally, Gettysburg was a box office failure redeemed by the home video market. I’m glad it was, as it is a truly fabulous film.

[1] How big? So big it took me a week to write the review.

[2] There is apparently a directors at 271 minutes but I’ve never had that in my possession.

[3] As in: I’m sure there are errors but not any that my amateur interest in the period can detect.

[4] I originally thought that Harrison was a fictional character but Wikipedia says he existed. Played by Cooper Huckabee.

[5] Tom Berenger

[6] Martin Sheen, and it was very hard now not to see President Bartlett instead.

[7] Sam Elliott

[8] Something that wasn’t corrected until Grant assumed overall command.

[9] Although there is a passing mention of it on the Wikipedia page for the 2nd Maine.

[10] Jeff Daniels

[11] Who is the only fictional character in The Killer Angels, although he may have been based on a historical character. Played by Kevin Conway

[12] Stephen Lang