I mean that sincerely: Gettysburg is a genuine epic. Take the sheer size of the cast, for instance. It features dozens of speaking roles including a dignified Martin Sheen as Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Jeff Daniels as professor turned Union officer Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Tom Berenger as Confederate GeneralJames Longstreet, Sam Elliot as Union cavalry officer John Buford, and even a bearded George Lazenby as a Confederate general. And those are just a few of the highlights from the cast which also includes appearances by any number of familiar faces. Keeping track of everyone can be easier said than done at times, especially when the battles come down, and that's something that rewards those willing to sit through the film on more than one occasion.
Beyond the cast, Gettysburg lives up to the word epic in both scope and length. It benefits, for example, from its filming taking place in and around the actual battlefield with what certainly seems to be thousands of reenactors taking part which gives it a further air of authenticity. Their presence can be felt in sequences such as Pickett's Charge which gives the impression of what it might just have looked like on that hot July day. To tell the story of this climactic clash of the Civil War, the film dedicates roughly an hour to each day that it features, portraying events from both sides and the decisions that led to them. Then there's the added addition od Randy Edelman's score built around a rousing main title theme that's put to great effect at the narrative highpoints. The resulting work is a film that feels grand in both artistic intention and presentation.
Is it a perfect film, though? Probably not. The script from director Maxwell gets oddly preachy at times, a little too caught up in speeches delivered by its characters on both sides of the conflict. Whether that's down to the source material, Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels, I can't be certain of those others have spoken to the film's faithfulness to it elsewhere. Those talks are all something that definitely adds to the running time, once causing Martin Sheen to quip in an interview that the film lasted longer than the actual battle. That being said, it's something that doesn't hurt the film too much either as their wonderfully by the likes of Daniels, Sheen, and Richard Jordan in his last ever film role.
Perhaps as a result of all that, from the cast and production to the sheer scope of the narrative the film recounts, Gettysburg may remain the last great film made about this defining American conflict. Unquestionably, Maxwell's follow-up prequel film Gods & Generals didn't recapture the lightning in bottle greatness of this film despite its own lengthy running time. But, even now, watching those opening credits or the 20th Maine swinging their way down Little Round Top or Lee being cheered on by his men still sends a shiver up my spine. That speaks to the power of filmmaking and to the lasting legacy of Gettysburg as a film.