I find that Gettysburg is like a favorite book one returns to again and again. It has its flaws to be sure, but there’s something about this film that draws me back in every time. However, the thing that draws me in almost compels me to switch it off about half way through.
Gettysburg is the star-studded story of the pivotal three-day battle in southern Pennsylvania. The problem is that the film cannot decide who is the center of the story: Captain Chamberlain and the soldiers from Maine or the motley cast of commanders on the Confederate side of the battle. For my money it should be Chamberlain. The war-weary yet principled Chamberlain, played by the excellent Jeff Daniels, holds together the narrative of the Union side of the conflict. The structural problem arrises when the most dramatic sequence of the film, the “swinging door” bayonet charge, occurs on day two of the battle. The third day of the battle, and here the third act of the film is saddled with mixed quality dialogue, attempting to explain the inexplicable Pickett’s Charge, and ignoring almost completely Chamberlain and the soldiers from Maine. It is difficult as a viewer to find someone on the Confederate
side to empathize with and, well, root for in the battle. There are too many characters to follow. In a novel, such as Killer Angels by Michael Shaara which Gettysburg draws upon as its source material, the reader has more time to follow multiple characters. Film is the most often the province of a small handful of characters. On looking at the Confederate sequences, we wonder… who’s story is this? The soft-spoken Lee? The wise, but loyal to the point of deference Longstreet? Lo Armistead? Pickett? On the union side there are almost discreet chunks of the plot devoted to a character and his troops. Day one is centered around General Buford, played by the outstanding Sam Elliot, and his cavalry troops. Day two is Chamberlain’s and the men from Maine. Day three? Who has day three?
Gettysburg began life as a miniseries and perhaps its structural flaws can be traced to this origin. However, had the film focused on three people and associated troops (one for each day) the film likely would have been even better. Nevertheless Gettysburg is worth viewing.