Except for the professional actors, this movie featured over 13,000 volunteer Civil War re-enactors who 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. The re-enactors were in Gettysburg for the 125th anniversary of the battle during July 1-3, 1988. Most of the battle footage was filmed for the CNN news coverage of the re-enactment. The footage not used in the news story was used for the movie.
The scene shortly before Pickett's charge where Lee is cheered by the troops was impromptu. Some of the supporting cast had organized a 'Thank you' for Martin Sheen, and the reenactors ran out cheering for him. When the film of this incident was looked over it was dubbed over with troops yelling 'Lee' rather than 'Sheen' and added to the film.
Original working title was "The Killer Angels," the title of the source novel by Michael Shaara. Test audiences thought the movie was about motorcycle gangs and thus it was changed to the broader, epic title of Gettysburg.
Few of the ground explosions made any real noise when detonated for fear of startling the horses that were all over the set and injuring their riders; most of the sound was added in post-production. The ASPCA later praised the film in their annual report for going out of their way on behalf of the animals.
Sam Elliott is the only principal actor in the film who wears a worn and faded uniform. When he was issued a brand new uniform for the film, he called costume expert Luster Bayless and asked for instructions to properly age his uniform. This process he carried out personally in his motel bathroom.
In scenes involving the 20th Maine you sometimes see the soldiers with a red mark/badge on either the uniforms or on top of their hats. It is the shape of a Maltese Cross and it was the symbol representing the 5th Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac of which the 20th Maine was a part of. Soldiers from different corps would have worn different badges. Within each corps each division was identified by the color of the badge. First division units wore red, second division wore white and third division wore blue.
When Pickett tells Armistead that he cannot order Garnett not to make the charge, he is alluding to the fact that at Kernstown (1862), when the Virginians were still under command of Stonewall Jackson, Garnett had been threatened by Jackson with court martial for cowardice and dereliction of duty and only Jackson's death stopped the court martial. Pickett and Armistead as Virginians and friends of Garnett would have known that, hence Pickett's unwillingness to order Garnett to stay behind.
There were actually 3 Chamberlain brothers at Gettysburg although only two are in the film. Brother John Chamberlain was a Doctor who had come down to visit his brothers Joshua and Thomas. When Lee invaded Pennsylvania John stayed with the 20th Maine to help. He treated the wounded of the 20th Maine on Little Round Top as well as helping afterwards at various field hospitals. The line in the film "Split up, another close one like that and it could be a bad day for mother" was actually said by J L Chamberlain to his brothers John and Tom. A shell had exploded in the trees over their heads as they climbed up Little Round Top together giving them a rather close call.
The final scene of the movie, when Tom and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain are reunited on the battlefield as the sun goes down, was the final scene to be filmed, a rare occurance for a motion picture. It took aprox. one dozen takes to shoot.
Sam Elliott was so in character on the set that a production assistant was sent out ahead of him in between takes to warn the re-enactors being used as extras that he only responded to salutes and would address individuals by their rank.
Martin Sheen was a nearly last-minute replacement to play the role of Gen. Robert E. Lee, after production delays and scheduling complications forced out other actors including Robert Duvall. Director Ron Maxwell said in interviews he was grateful to Sheen not only for accepting the part and doing such a great job, but for being a total gentleman about the situation.
The scene where the 20th Maine reaches the summit was actually filmed on Little Round Top. The actor with the binoculars behind them is playing General Gouverneur Warren, who was not on Little Round Top at the time the 20th Maine moved into position. The man is in the same pose as the famous Warren statue and is blocking the camera from seeing the actual statue which is right behind him. Warren is credited with having seen the Confederates under John Bell Hood massing in the woods across from Little Round Top before the battle started, and sent an officer to find reinforcements. The officer Warren sent for help was Lieutenant Washington Roebling, who later built the Brooklyn Bridge.
Lee usually wore a plain uniform with three stars on the collar because he disliked the heavily braided uniforms worn by most Confederate generals. The three stars in the Confederate army indicated the rank of Colonel (Lee's rank when he resigned from the US Army). Confederate generals wore wreathed stars on their collars and their rank was indicated by the number of stripes in the braid on their sleeve. Notice that Longstreet and others all have the collar stars (1 large and 2 small) but the other generals have varying numbers of stripes in their braiding. In fact, a couple of the Brigadiers only wear the collar tabs. No one knows why Lee insisted on wearing this uniform with the improper rank. He did occasionally wear the proper uniform; most notably when he surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.
Due to the film's running time of four hours and eight minutes, theaters were limited throughout its theatrical run to only two screenings of the show a day, usually at 1pm and 7pm. This makes the fact that the film cracked the weekly Top Ten box office even more impressive (it debuted at Spot #10). In its opening weekend, it made more money in limited release than the #1 film at the box office, Demolition Man (1993) did in wide release.
Composer Randy Edelman was initially not interested in the project because of the massive amount of music he would have to write for the film's original six hour length (when it was meant to be a mini-series). However, says Edelman, "I saw the faces of these officers, at the beginning of it, and it completely turned me on. I knew I was going to have to do it."
In a rare departure from his rigid authentic style, director Ron Maxwell had the Col. Fremantle character wear a bright red uniform and carry a cup of tea. He did this so the audience wouldn't be confused; Fremantle's actual British uniform would have been dark blue and similar to that of a Union officer. The real Fremantle never wore a uniform during his American trip; he was dressed in the civilian clothes the character wears during the poker game on the first night.
The scene where Tom Chamberlain converses with the Confederate POWs is adapted from the painting "Prisoners at the Front" by Winslow Homer, a sepia-toned shot of which is also included in the opening credits, although the Union officer depicted in the painting is actually Brig. Gen. Francis C. Barlow.
Towards the end of the intermission during its theatrical run, theaters had the lights half-dimmed and the track "Killer Angels" from the score played. This was conceived by the filmmakers as a way to help bring the audience back to the film's atmosphere.
Tom Berenger formed his own production company, First Corps Endeavors, with producer William MacDonald (it operated from 1995 to 1997). It was named as a tribute to Gen. Longstreet's command, a role Berenger often cites as closest to his heart.
One re-enactor died during the filming of the movie. He suffered a mild heart attack during the shooting of Pickett's Charge, and was brought to a local hospital. When he sufficiently recovered, Ted Turner brought him back to the set in his personal limo to watch shooting of the film. Sadly, the man died several days later.
Martin Sheen's role in the movie as General Lee was at one time slated for William Hurt, who bailed on the project when the studio financing the film at the time went broke. Tommy Lee Jones was approached, but could not take it because his schedule was filled. Robert Duvall was the next most likely candidate, having approached the producers and done research on the role, Virginia accent and all, until Martin Sheen signed on a sudden last-minute deal.
The screenplay and shooting script have an additional scene at the end, but this scene was never filmed. Following the Chamberlain brother's embrace, Harrison stands on Seminary Ridge surveying the destruction left from Pickett's Charge and quotes a line from William Shakespeare's play The Tempest: "We are such stuff as dreams are made of. And our little life is rounded with the sleep." Harrison then mounts his horse and rides off into the night. From there, the final titles began.
Conceived and filmed as a TV miniseries for Ted Turner cable network, TNT. Turner, upon viewing portions of the film in post-production, realized he had something bigger than a TV series and made the decision to release it theatrically before editing was completed. New Line Cinema became the distributor.
The film's US television debut on TNT in June 1994 attracted the largest viewership ever for a movie broadcast on basic cable: more than 23 million people watched part or all of the two-night broadcast.
At the September 1993 press (and other invitees) screening for the film in NYC, a real-life incident recalling Citizen Kane (1941) occurred: at the end of the film the audience was silent, until after nearly a minute Martin Sheen began applauding all by himself, with other attendees gradually joining in - just like Charles Foster Kane attempted to do for his hapless opera singer protégée Susan Alexander Kane (played by Dorothy Comingore) in the classic film.
Joss Whedon has named this telling of the Gettysburg history as a primary influence for his short-lived television series Firefly (2002), a science fiction metaphor of the American Civil War taking place on other planets.
Just before the Little Round Top battle, there is a scene of a Catholic priest performing a blessing of the troops. General Hancock and staff is seen entering just before it's end. This was a famous incident where the Irish Brigade receiving absolution from the Priest William Corby just before going into what would be the second day of the Gettysburg battle.
The scene where soldiers from the 14th Brooklyn (the red-legged infantrymen) gather over the corpse of Gen. Reynolds came about mostly thanks to director of photography Kees Van Oostrum. Having grown weary of shooting so much "blue and gray", he was attracted to the unit of soldiers decked out in richer colors.
The scenes in the cupola of the Lutheran Theological Seminary with Buford and his staff were mostly filmed on ground level. It was actually serving as a gazebo in a nearby resident's yard when it was spotted by the film's set design/props department. They rented it, adjusted it to a nearly identical carbon copy of the real cupola (which still sits atop the real Lutheran Theological Seminary) and returned it to the family upon completion of filming.
Ironically, despite the valiant counterattack by Brigadier General James Kemper's troops to rescue him as Union troops were taking him prisoner after being wounded during Pickett's Charge, and carrying him back to the Confederate lines, he was too badly wounded to be moved when the Confederates retreated from Gettysburg the next day and was left behind to be recaptured. Despite the doctors' prognoses that the wound was mortal, Kemper recovered and went on to become Governor of Virginia in the 1870s. Major General Isaac Trimble (whose injury was shown only in the Director's Cut version of the movie), was likewise too wounded to be moved and left behind to be captured.
An exterior model of the Lutheran Theological Seminary had to be built by the film's construction crew due to the modern buildings surrounding the real one. This "fake" one is seen in the wide-range shots, and cost about $40,000 to build. The actual Lutheran Theological Seminary is only seen in one, very carefully angled shot, when Buford is writing the message to General Reynolds the night before the battle.
Many scenes were filmed, or were in the daily shooting script, but not used in the final print: among them, there is a scene after General Reynolds death where his body is carried by stretcher through the Union lines by his staff. They pass by a stunned General Buford on horseback who pauses to watch it go by, before turning his attention back to the raging front line. This was filmed but eventually deleted. The raw footage can be found on the DVD version.
Most of the interior tent scenes that were supposed to be taking place at night were actually shot during the day - the tents were set up under specially built aluminum structures that blocked out the sun and allowed easy access to outlets and generators.
Ron Maxwell tried for nearly 15 years to get this film made. By the time he had succeeded, author Michael Shaara had died. Maxwell met with his son Jeff Shaara during production and convinced him to carry on his father's work, which he did by writing a prequel, Gods and Generals, and a sequel, The Last Full Measure. The former was actually turned into the film Gods and Generals (2003) by Maxwell. The younger Shaara has also used his father's historical fiction approach to the American Revolution, the Mexican-American War, and both World Wars.
Nearly all of the battle sequences of the First Day (Heth's men deploying into line, exchanging fire only yards in front of Buford's troopers, the artillery explosions, etc.) were filmed entirely by the movie's Second Unit. The First Unit and much of the production staff were several miles away filming the Little Round Top sequences.
All bugle calls heard on the soundtrack were played by Sergeant First Class Duncan C. MacQueen of the New Jersey Army National Guard, who also played General Buford's bugler. At the time of filming, SFC MacQueen was a member of both the Civil War reenactment group for the 1st New Jersey Cavalry and the actual NJARNG unit (at the time, designated the 102nd Armor).
Richard Jordan's (Lewis A. Armistead) distant cousin, William S. Jordan, was a sergeant in the 2nd Maine Regiment and one of the mutineers who was sent to the 20th Maine under Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. William S. Jordan was mortally wounded in the defense of Little Round Top, a pivotal scene in the film.
When General Buford enters the HQ of General Hancock you briefly see a one-armed Major General on Hancocks right. This man, though not credited specifically, is most likely meant to be the historical person Major General Oliver O. Howard, commander of the 11th Corps, Army of the Potomac which was present at the Battle of Gettysburg. General Howard had lost his arm due to wounds received at the Battle of Seven Pines in 1862. (also known as Battle of Fair Oaks)
The film's producers have gone on record saying this movie was going to be produced and aired by ABC as a TV movie back in 1991; when the lousy ratings for the Custer epic Son of the Morning Star (1991) came in, a skittish ABC promptly pulled the plug on the initial deal.
All three of the lead actors have played U.S. Presidents. Tom Berenger played Theodore Roosevelt, Martin Sheen played John F. Kennedy, and Jeff Daniels played George Washington. George Washington's step-granddaughter, Martha Custis, was Robert E. Lee's wife.
The priest blessing the troops of the Irish Brigade was their chaplain, Father William Corby, who had left the University of Notre Dame in 1861 to join the 88th New York Regiment. A copy of the battlefield statue stands in front of Corby Hall at Notre Dame.
Tom Chamberlain (C. Thomas Howell) mentions that General Meade has his own son as an aide-de-camp. That son was George Gordon Meade, Jr, (1843-1897). He was a Captain at the time of the Gettysburg battle and he remained his fathers aide-de-camp for the duration of the war.
There is only one line in the entire 261 minute film spoken by a female. "I thought the war was in Virginia", was said by the director Ron Maxwell's daughter Olivia, who appeared as a young Marylander beside the road as the Army of the Potomac marched towards Gettysburg. The taunting of the marching troops reflects the fact that pro-Confederate sentiment was strong in Maryland and the state remained in the Union only because President Abraham Lincoln placed it under virtual military occupation and suspended habeas corpus. Had Maryland seceded, Washington D.C. would have been completely surrounded by Confederate territory.
Emile O. Schmidt:
The actor who played General Gibbon (who speaks to General Buford outdoors at dusk following the first day of battle) was a professor and head of the theatre department at nearby Gettysburg College.