It’s the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, so obsessives should be prepping themselves for a deluge of tributes, History Channel retrospectives and Budweiser-fueled reenactments.
Although lauded documentarian Ken Burns made the definitive movie about the conflict, it took a media mogul like Ted Turner to create the ultimate dramatization of the whole North vs. South thing. Between 1993’s "Gettysburg" and 2003’s "Gods and Generals," the CNN honcho and former Mr. Jane Fonda sunk over $100 million into two massive productions that attempted to humanize both sides and offer some perspective on the nature of a country turned against itself.
"Generals" was a fiasco, but "Gettysburg" (now available on Blu-ray) is a surprisingly potent epic detailing the bloodiest, most significant battle in the Civil War.
Originally intended as a TNT miniseries, the film , which New Line released in theaters, definitely has that made-for-TV vibe; but counters it with excellent performances by Martin Sheen (as Robert E. Lee), Jeff Daniels (as Joshua Chamberlain) and perpetual cowboy Sam Elliott (as John Buford). It jumps back and forth between Confederate and Union sides during the three-day ordeal in July of 1863, the central conflicts being Southern Lt. General James Longstreet's (Tom Berenger) attempts to convince General Lee that the North will have the ground advantage in the fight at Gettysburg, and inexperienced professor-turned-Colonel Chamberlain's leading his hobbled 20th Maine regiment in a valiant defense at Little Round Top.
Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell and filmed on the actual Pennsylvania battle sites, the over four-hour-long "Gettysburg" will be hog heaven for strategy buffs given the constant play-by-play on artillery, supplies and casualties. It also boasts the most outstanding array of fake beards in movie history, with Berenger a clear winner in the battle for fake beard supremacy. We're pretty sure Elliott's famous handlebar is the real deal, though.
The performances are excellent, a particular standout being a pre-"Avatar" Stephen Lang as hellraising, Charles Darwin-hating good ol' boy Major General George Pickett. Jeff Daniels' Chamberlain elicits the most sympathy in his ethical treatment of both soldiers and prisoners, as well as a scene with a runaway slave that's followed by a philosophical musing on the nature of the war. It's best summarized as, "Why with all the fighting?"
Whether or not this film, along with "Gods and Generals," has a pro-Confederate slant is up to you to decide, but it's refreshing in this day and age to see a war fought by gentlemen. There's a level of battlefield chivalry you'd never expect in today's computer-driven engagements. It's a powerful testament to the force of courage and the bonds of brotherhood keeping even the most divided people united in spirit.
Extras! The new Blu-rays of both movies feature commentaries from filmmakers and historical advisors, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson. Bonus-feature DVDs include various featurettes, battlefield maps and a Bob Dylan music video.