For all the battle scenes bulging with 5,000 extras,Gettysburg will probably go down in history for its fake facial hair, the worst in movie memory. It’s difficult to take actors seriously when it looks like their beards might fall off and you can’t tell Tom Berenger from Stephen Lang under all that lush growth.
Verisimilitude is both the pride and the curse of this mammoth, four-hour-and-eight-minute Civil War saga. Based on Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 novel,The Killer Angels,the film devotes scrupulous attention to how soldiers looked, talked and moved during those three days in July of 1863, when the Union and the Confederacy fought for supremacy in the bloodiest battle of the war. Director Robert Maxwell was even permitted to film on Gettysburg’s hallowed ground. You appreciate the effort but feel mired by the plodding execution.
The film was intended as a miniseries for TNT, Ted Turner’s cable channel, and will air there next year in a six-hour version. TV seems the right venue for this earnest but surprisingly low-octane dramatization. It’s odd and then some for a film that allows for much stilted speechifying – especially from Martin Sheen’s florid Robert E. Lee – to find no time for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
But there are performances that should not go unnoticed in the melee. Berenger is outstanding as Lee’s Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, as is the late Richard Jordan as Confederate Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead. Best of all is Jeff Daniels, who finds the humanism and scrappy wit in the Union Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. It’s only Daniels’ whiskers that go down in defeat.