Saturday, June 25, 2011

Gettysburg – Director’s Cut Blu-ray Review

Gettysburg: Directors Cut is Ronald Maxwell’s acclaimed film about the legendary three day battle that changed the course of the war and available for the first time on Blu-ray, featuring 17 minutes of compelling additional footage in a two-disc, 48-page Blu-ray Book version packaged with photographs, bios, time-line, production notes, maps, and more. Filmed at actual battle locations and full of authentic details, this rousing and soulful movie plunges the viewer into the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil. History comes alive with intense and spirited battles and the dilemmas, motivations and fears of the leaders. Tom Berenger (Inception), Jeff Daniels (Paper Man), Martin Sheen (TV’s “West Wing”) and Stephen Lang (Avatar) star in this gripping film based on Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, “The Killer Angels.”

Film (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Ron Maxwell’s fifteen year odyssey to bring this movie to the big screen was finally realized once Ted Turner agreed to bankroll the film after every other studio turned it down. It’s easy to see that this film is a labor of love for Maxwell and the civil war re-enactors who participated in the making of the film, although in some cases that love almost becomes too self-indulgent. At four and a half hours long, the movie covers the events in detail but could have benefited from some judicious editing which would have made it flow better.

The movie begins by showing the events that led up to the fateful battle at Gettysburg and by introducing the main participants in the upcoming fight. Fighting for the Confederacy, are General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen), General James “Pete” Longstreet (Tom Berenger), Major General George Pickett (Stephen Lang), and Brigadier General Lewis A. “Lo” Armistead (Richard Jordan). At this point of time, the Civil War has been ongoing for two years and Lee wanted to become more aggressive and had moved his army into Northern territory to take the fight to them. Unfortunately for him, his main source of intelligence, J.E.B. Stuart (Jospeh Fuqua) had failed to keep him updated on the Union army’s whereabouts. Despite not having the tactical information he needed, Lee decided to keep moving northward anyway as he was galvanized by his earlier successes and because he believed his army was invincible.

On the Union side, we meet U.S. Brig. Gen. John Buford (Sam Elliot), Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), and his brother Lt. Thomas Chamberlain (C. Thomas Howell). Fortunately for the Union, Buford and his men reached the town of Gettysburg first and he deployed his cavalry along McPherson’s Ridge which offers a good defensive position along a low level ridge northwest of the town. Buford and his men are able to stall the Confederate advance long enough for reinforcements to arrive. What begins as a minor skirmish between the two advance forces eventually becomes the Battle of Gettysburg which after it over, was seen as the major turning point in the Civil War.

The fact that the resulting battle was fought at Gettysburg was due more to all roads leading to it than a deliberate decision, although many felt it was the perfect spot for a battle. Maxwell shows us the decisions that lead up to the battle and also provides ample time for the audience to get to know the men who made them on both sides of the conflict. All of the principal actors are uniformly excellent and offer compelling reasons to like and sympathize with them irregardless of their allegiance. Hard decisions were made on both sides that tested the mettle of the leaders and their men who followed them.

When the actual battle actually starts about two hours into the film, we are well aware of the stakes and the personalities of all involved. Like all battles, so many factors like ego, experience, terrain, and leadership play into the outcome, and this one is no different. With the Union holding the high ground on Little Round Top and Cemetery Hill, the Confederates could only stage desperate attacks on the well defended positions. When Chamberlain and his 20th Maine regiment repel several attacks on Little Round Top and run out of ammo, Chamberlain leads a bayonet charge down the mountain and ends up capturing many prisoners.

By the third day of the battle, in one last desperate gamble, Lee relayed orders to Longstreet to attack the center of the Union defense which became known as Pickett’s Charge and led to deaths of almost all of the 12,500 men who attacked. While the movie does have it’s share of issues such as extras who obviously have no clue what they are supposed to be doing in their scene, it also does a great job showing the scale and the heroism on both sides of the war. The colossal waste of life is terrible to see even with the understanding of the beliefs that these men died for.

It’s still shocking to note, that more American lives were lost during the Civil War than World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, The Korean War, the Iraq War, and in Afghanistan. With around 50,000 deaths from this battle alone, both sides suffered catastrophic losses and this proved to be the last time the South went on the offensive. The Civil War would continue on for another two years until the Confederacy surrendered. This battle also resulted in one of the most famous speeches ever made, when Abraham Lincoln gave his historic Gettysburg Address at the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

Video (3 out of 5 stars)

The film’s 1080p (1.78:1) transfer is adequate but has it’s share of issues. Edge enhancement is visible and there are specs and minor blemishes throughout the picture. Night time shots look especially muddled and flesh-tones aren’t consistent, as they sometimes are too warm and reddish. Black levels are acceptable but not as deep and dark as I would have liked. Detail is improved over the previous DVD release and close up shots offer a lot more clarity than earlier releases. Colors are decent but a little washed out and this long of a presentation could have benefited from being split up between two discs. As it is, the movie is compressed and not as sharp as it could be but it is still a step up from the previous releases.

Audio (3 out of 5 stars)

The biggest disappointment for me was Gettysburg’s DTS-HS Master Audio 5.1 mix. I expected this track to thoroughly test my sound system, and was sad to see that it was content to just go through the paces. For a battle of this magnitude, I thought I would hear a cacophony of rifles, cannons, bugles, and men charging, but while there was a lot of that included, it just didn’t have the kick it should have. There’s hardly any real use of the rear speakers and there’s little to no ambiance or cross panning across the channels. Maybe I’ve just gotten spoiled by the likes of Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific when it comes to war on Blu-ray, but the end result was that I wasn’t impressed by this mix at all. It’s better than the DVD release and the dialogue is clear and well balanced with the music and effects, but this should have been a lot better than this.

Special Features (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

For this 150th commemoration of the Civil War, this set does offer some very nice extras that I really enjoyed. The extras are in standard definition, but still worth watching.
  • Commentary by Ronald F. Maxwell, Kees Van Oostrum, James M. McPherson, and Craig Symonds – While the commentary is very dry and has many gaps of no commentary whenever something interesting is happening onscreen, it is interesting and informative.
  • The Making of Gettysburg, Narrated by Martin Sheen – At almost an hour long, this behind the scenes look does a good job showing the effort it took to make the movie with comments from the cast and crew involved.
  • The Battle of Gettysburg (1955 documentary), Narrated by Leslie Nielson – With no actors or re-enactments involved, this mini documentary does a great job showing the course of the battle through the use of landmarks, statues, and locations along with no nonsense narration from Leslie Nielson.
  • On Location – A short look at the filming of the battle scenes on location. While interesting, it’s presented without any context, so unless you’ve just seen the film, you probably won’t have any idea of what’s going on.
  • Maps of the Battlefield – I thought this was just going to be a map of the battlefield but it turned out to be much more than that since it also shows the progression and strategies employed during the battle.
  • Ron Maxwell’s Invitation to Take the Journey Through Hallowed Ground – Maxwell invites the viewers to look into a preservation society’s efforts to maintain the swath of Civil War battlefields and landmarks from Gettysburg to Monticello.
  • 48-page Blu-ray Book – An excellent quality mini book that offers cast and historical information as well as timelines, and more.
  • Theatrical trailer

Final Thoughts (3 out of 5 stars)

This movie was a massive undertaking and Ron Maxwell should be lauded for his efforts to show the war as it happened. It’s a shame that his efforts were undermined by some distracting extras, but the excellent acting by the principal actors goes a long way to helping those problems be overlooked. This could have been edited better but I did like that the film tried to present both sides of the conflict equally and this wasn’t just a one sided affair. All in all, this was a very impressive achievement that is still being shown in schools today.

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