Can’t believe this movie is 20 years old already!
Anyway, last fall I splurged and got the 150th Anniversary collector’s set with director’s cuts of both Gettysburg and Gods and Generals but waited until this week – the actual 150th anniversary – to watch Gettysburg.
If you have seen Gettysburg, is it worth the upgrade?
If you haven’t seen this movie (which may have flopped at the box office in the Nineties but has gone on to rule the home entertainment market and is also popular in classrooms), is it worthwhile to watch the director’s cut instead of the theatrical version?
The answer to both questions is an unqualified yes and here’s why.
You Are There
As Jeff Shaara recently noted when discussing his father’s book The Killer Angels, on which Gettysburg is based, the point is not to give a history lesson – it’s to get you inside the heads of the main decision makers at this important 1863 battle.
The extra 17 minutes in the director’s cut make this happen more easily.
Too, there is the added thrill of watching some 13,000 reenactors who, as IMDb notes “paid their own way, provided their own props and uniforms and fought the battles presented on screen using the same tactics as were current at the time.”
If you haven’t seen Gettysburg, watch it the first time for the action. The reenactors in their camps and on the battlefield, together with the score and direction, will take your breath away. Also, it’s not very gory, though it does show the horrors of war in a general way. The most graphic scene is in the Confederate field hospital, but it’s shot from a distance – just to show you how bad things were – and not very long. There are no Matthew Brady-style images of corpses, etc.
It’s awesome no matter how many times you’ve seen this. Repeat viewers should know that there aren’t any additional action scenes in the director’s cut, although it did seem to me that that the Little Round Top sequence was a bit more in depth (it was near perfect to begin with, of course). There may also be a few more explosions seen in the US line during the last Confederate bombardment before the charge, too. I’m not sure.
Many additional scenes are extended conversations. If you’re new to all this, these will actually help you to better understand what’s going on (remember – you’re now in the character’s heads).
An exception is one additional scene with Garnett where he thanks Longstreet – that won’t make any sense unless you know that the previous year General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (who recently died at Chancellorsville during the winter) had arrested Garnett for making an unauthorized retreat during the Valley campaign – this is Civil War nerd trivia and will not affect your enjoyment of the movie.
Some new scenes were probably okay to cut, given the long playing time, although they’re still very enjoyable. I’m thinking in particular of Tom Chamberlain explaining bugle calls to the new recruit – we now also learn that Dan Butterfield wrote “Taps.” This one is also fun because the subtle “I’m the colonel’s brother”/”yes, you are” undertones as the two men talk are more noticeable in the extra time.
Nothing was really lost either, I suppose, by skipping the conversation between Generals Buford and Reynolds down in front of the seminary after Reynolds’ arrival. However, Sam Elliott (Buford) and John Rothman (Reynolds) in that particular conversation are so authentic sounding to me, they actually seem a little anachronistic.
Perhaps that’s why the scene ended up on the cutting room floor, but it’s a superb performance by both actors. It would also have been worth including just as a historical note.
The interactions between Buford and his cavalry with the citizens of Gettysburg are also a treat to watch (see below), though, again, not absolutely necessary.
Understanding Lee and Longstreet
With all that said, I don’t know why they cut some scenes with Lee and with Longstreet.
The cut released in theaters sort of passes along the “received wisdom” that Lee got carried away, sort of, and that Longstreet was “gloomy.”
The deleted scenes present a much more complex picture.
If you’ve seen this before, perhaps you remember General Trimble? (This may ring a bell – “I said, ‘General Ewell, give me one brigade and I will take that hill.’ I was becoming disturbed, sir.”)
In the theatrical version, we don’t get Ewell’s version, Here, we do, as well as accounts from the other generals on the scene, including A. P. Hill, and it opens up a whole world of questions.
Did Ewell really just try to follow Lee’s earlier orders (remember, Lee changed his mind and later in the day ordered an attack) or are Ewell and the other generals just covering themselves in front of their commanding officer? Should Lee have stuck to his earlier order, despite the promising way things went that day on the battlefield?
We just don’t know, and neither does Lee.
There is no real black-and-white explanation today of why things happened as they did at Gettysburg. You had to be there, and this movie, particularly the director’s cut, puts you there in a way no other film has to date.
We also learn that Longstreet had lost his children to illness during the past year and he’s never been the same since. In addition, he has a few extended conversations with secondary characters that make the trap he is in (the very one that Buford predicted for US forces) much more clear to the viewer.
There is also an extended talk with Harrison outside the field hospital where we, very briefly, get a glimpse of Longstreet the man, not the general.
When you make a film like this, many people are going to point out small errors, real or otherwise. That’s pretty entertaining reading in itself.
I actually noticed the contrail for the first time in this movie, though it’s in the theatrical cut, too. It didn’t take me out of the moment, though – that’s how powerfully Gettysburg grabs you.
I noticed for the first time that at certain points Longstreet and Chamberlain get teary. Did they edit the tears out in the theatrical version, I wonder, or did I just not notice them before?
There is a continuity problem in the director’s cut. An extra scene has General Pickett ragging on General Longstreet to be moved up in line. It’s really good. However, a little while later, Longstreet calls Pickett away from the poker game and gives him orders to get his men ready (this one is in the theatrical cut). You can have one scene or the other, but the two together really don’t work.
So, in summary … wait. What?
General Trimble, I’m trying to wrap this up … no, of course, you’re in the middle of a battle and wounded, but …
Sir, please! I just … Oh, all right.
The director’s cut of Gettysburg is absolutely the best version, whether you’re new to the film or have already seen it – get it and enjoy!
Categories: Reviews of old movies