Robert F. Maxwell's 1993 film Gettysburg is quite an achievement. A massive, sprawling five hour epic of a war film shot pretty much entirely on location using over 13,000 Civil War reenactment aficionados (all of whom recreated the famous battle with as much authenticity as possible), the film took almost fifteen years to make from the time Maxwell started co-writing to the time the film was finished. Rarely does a movie portray an historical event with such a meticulous eye for detail and with such stern focus on realism, but Gettysburg does just that.
As far as the story is concerned, the movie follows Confederate General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) as he and his commanding officers - Lieutenant General James Longstreet (Tom Berenger), Major General Henry Heth (Warren Burton), Major General George Pickett (Stephen Lang), Major General Jeb Stuart (Joseph Fuqua), Major General John Bell Hood (Patrick Gorman), Major General Isaac R. Trimble (Morgan Sheppard), Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell (Tim Scott), Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead (Richard Jordan), Brigadier General Richard B. Garnett (Andrew Prine) and Brigadier General James L. Kemper (Royce D. Applegate) - as they gear up to face the Union troops. The Southerners were quite confident that Gettysburg would be little more than a footnote on their way towards the larger and more populated city of Philadelphia, but Brigadier General John Buford (Sam Elliott) prepared his troops and officers made up of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), Major General George Meade (Richard Anderson), Major General Winfield Scott Hancock (Brian Mallon), Colonel James Clay Rice (Joshua D. Maurer), Major General John F. Reynolds (John Rothman), Colonel William Gamble (Buck Taylor), Colonel Thomas C. Devlin (David Carpenter), Colonel Strong Vincent (Maxwell Caulfield), and Lieutenant Thomas Chamberlain (C. Thomas Howell). So as the Confederate troops approach, the Union troops rally, using the buildings in the town and the surrounding terrain to their strategic advantage and, well, the rest is history.
Very well cast and very well acted by the principal players, Gettysburg is a thorough a film as you could ask for, maybe even too thorough in spots. While the build up to the big finale is granted a whole lot of set up time, as it should be, the pacing does suffer at times and the movie feels just as long as it is. This isn't to say it's bad, because it's not, but don't go into this one expecting a slam bang action fest. The project was originally intended to be a TV miniseries and you can't help but wonder if maybe it would have been better suited for that format where it would have been watched in chunks rather than one long whole, but regardless, problems aside the film is worth seeing if only for the scope and magnitude. The final battles, with literally thousands of men involved, is quite a sight to behold and if Maxwell can't help but romanticize the event and those involved in it, well at least he does so without sacrificing character integrity or intent.
The film makes great use of its cast, with Sheen, Elliott and Daniels really standing out in the bigger roles. Each of the three men fits into his part well and is quite convincing and it's pretty hard to criticize any of the professional actors involved in the production. You can't say the same about some of the men in the smaller parts - the reenactment guys don't always get it quite right - but these complaints are not only minor but few and far between. What matters is that Maxwell's film gives you a feeling for how this battle, which should have been no more than a minor skirmish at best, changed the face of the war and in turn the face of American and world history itself. The characters are given such rich personality and played with such devotion and the battles so elegantly staged that what we walk away from is an appreciation for what both sides went through in Pennsylvania in that first week of July in 1863.
Gettysburg arrives on Blu-ray in a 1.78.1 widescreen AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer that offers a noticeable improvement over the DVD release but there are spots where liberal amounts of edge enhancement have very obviously been applied. Detail is improved over standard definition, as it should be, but more could probably have been done here to clean up the image as there are specs and minor blemishes throughout the feature. Color reproduction is generally very good though there are some spots where contrast wavers a bit and a few scenes where skin tones look just a little bit off. Black levels tend to be okay even if they're not the inky black you might hope for, but there is some crush present in a few spots that's hard not to notice. Warner's decision to put the entire five hour movie on one BD 50 has lead to some minor but noticeable compression artifacts throughout the movie and you can't help but wish they'd split the film up over two discs. Those complains aside, again, this is an improvement in detail, texture and clarity over the film's DVD release - just keep in mind going in that there's been a fair bit of room left for improvement as far as the picture quality is concerned.
The primary audio mix on this release is an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, though Spanish, German and Portuguese tracks are provided in Dolby Digital Mono. Subtitles are offered in English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese and German. You were probably hoping to read that the 5.1 mix here really puts you in the middle of the action and that we've got a reference quality track, the kind that really immerses you in the movie. Sadly, that's not the case. There is some noticeable rear channel action when the movie calls for it but this is a fairly front heavy mix. Levels are well balanced and dialogue is easy enough to understand throughout the film but the lower end of the mix lacks the punch you'd want it to. Examples? Canon fire doesn't explode as powerfully as it could have and gunshots sound a bit weak. For a movie fast approaching its twentieth birthday it doesn't sound bad, but this is a movie that could have really benefited from a more impressive surround sound mix than the one we've been given.
The only extra on the first disc, aside from menus and chapter selection, is an audio commentary from writer-director Ronald Maxwell, cinematographer Kees Van Oostrum, author James McPherson and historian Craig Symonds. With four participants you'd think this would be a track packed with information but it seems that these guys just couldn't hit their stride. There's certainly some interesting information here and Symonds does a good job of elaborating on historical accuracy and providing context for what we see on screen, but the track is plagued with bits of dead air throughout. The good does outweigh the bad here, however, as we are given quite a bit of information on Maxwell's creative process, his writing technique, McPherson's thoughts on the film and more. We learn about casting, locations, effects sequences, staging the battles scenes and more - it's just a shame that the pacing on this otherwise interesting discussion is so erratic, though in the group's defense, they had to cover almost five hours worth of screen time, which couldn't have been easy.
The second disc in the set, which is a standard definition DVD and not a Blu-ray disc, starts off with a fifty-two minute documentary entitled The Making Of Gettysburg which is, as you could probably guess from the title, an examination of what went into making the film. Martin Sheen narrates this piece, which is quite an extensive look at putting the film together and which covers pretty much everything you'd want it to. All of the principal cast and crew members are interviewed here and get a chance to discuss their work on the picture while the wealth of behind the scenes bits and pieces helps to fill in the gaps. This is a very well put together documentary that really helps you get an appreciation for the effort that went into recreating such an important part of American history.
Also included on the second disc, and absolutely worth watching, is a half hour documentary hosted by the late, great Leslie Nielson called The Battle Of Gettysburg which was shot in the Gettysburg National Park in Pennsylvania and which uses a wealth of archival photographs and documents to tell the true story of the epic battle that took place there. This works much more effectively than a reenactment piece would have, and Nielson's narration is classy and well written. A few shorter featurettes are also found on this disc, such as a seven minute piece called The Journey Through Hallowed Ground that details preservationist movements to protect the various battlefields and locations, the six minute On Location which is an interesting if brief look at the reenactments that were staged for the film, and the eight minute Maps Of The Battlefield which explains how transportation and terrain played such a big part in deciding who would win the battle.
Rounding out the second disc is the film's original theatrical trailer and some classy menus. Both discs are housed inside some nice digibook packaging that contains forty-eight full color pages of cast biographies, essays and information on the film.
Gettysburg is, as many will agree, far longer than it needed to be or should have been but it's so well acted and so beautifully put together at times that you can't help but appreciate it as the epic war film that it is. That said, Warner's Blu-ray could have been better than it is. We definitely get an upgrade over the standard definition release but the transfer doesn't impress the way most fans are going to want it to. That said, the upgrade is noticeable that fans of the film will appreciate things here, and the nice packaging doesn't hurt either. If you haven't seen the movie yet, rent it first to make sure it's your cup of tea. If you know it and appreciate it already, consider this release casually recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.