Sunday, March 16, 2008


1993, US, directed by Ron Maxwell
With its emphatic title (in contrast to director Ron Maxwell's subsequent Gods and Generals), expansive running time, actual location shoot and impeccable attention to period detail, Gettysburg first appears as an attempt to provide an authentic account of the great Civil War battle. As an actual historical account, however, the film makes extensive use of the techniques of fiction rather than of the documentary, particularly in its use of subsidiary characters who act as a means to enter the story; this is especially true on the Confederate side, where an actor-turned-spy and a British observer have a disproportionate amount of screen time,
functioning as tools to enable the key Southern military leaders to explain the action to the viewer (they are sometimes assigned speeches which seem unlikely to have been delivered in such measured tones in the realities of battle). In telling the story from the Northern side's perspective, Maxwell relies instead on the more genuinely central figure of Joshua Chamberlain, a colonel who led a particularly brave action using many soldiers who had previously been prisoners; his inspirational leadership makes him a natural choice for one of the film's narrative threads.

Such choices are necessary to try to capture the humanity of individual people involved in the battle, though Maxwell generally chooses to focus on men with a clearly defined role: either senior officers or a spy, with only one NCO getting a prominent role (it seems almost predictable, then, that he's a salt-of-the-earth, no-nonsense type: the class distinctions seem to belong as much to British as to American life, though in 1863 the distance between the two may have been that much narrower, and certainly the officers hint at their shared gentlemanly background, across the political divide). The ordinary soldiers are rarely seen as anything more than a churning mass, either stalking across open fields or engaged in pitched battles. Even so, the film succeeds well in conveying the idea that the battle was experienced as a series of often unconnected engagements from the perspective of those involved: they had little sense of what was going on elsewhere in the field, at least not until after the fact.

Although released on the big screen, the film still feels as though it belongs on television: there are long, discrete sequences that were clearly conceived as individual episodes of a mini-series, and which have not been radically restitched for the four-hour cinema version. The events often have a small-scale feel, and on the rare occasions when Maxwell indulges a flourish such as the use of a helicopter shot to run down a line of marching soldiers, he draws attention to what is otherwise a very restricted field of vision, with little of the expansive visual sense of American filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, who makes full use of the big-screen canvas when shooting battle sequences in a film like Saving Private Ryan. There's nothing wrong with a work conceived for television in and of itself, but the decision to release Gettysburg in this format perhaps ultimately does the material a disservice.

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