Numbers-monstrous, staggering numbers-have always been at the core of the mystique of the Battle of Gettysburg. There were 53,000 casualties in the three days of July 1 through July 3, 1863, according to Gettysburg-that’s an average of about 12 people killed or wounded every minute.
The triumph of the film is in its dramatizing just how this mini-holocaust could have happened. By staying true to military history, the 4-hour-22-minute film depicts a carnage that was strategically planned and widely accepted at the time. With more than 5,000 ersatz troops arrayed in horizon-busting ranks, for once the proverbial cast of thousands is a cast of thousands. This quality sparks the film from its first moments, as Confederate and Union officers jockey their troops for tactical advantage; as a surprised Gen. John Buford (Sam Elliott) improvises a defense on the battle’s first morning; and, one day later, as Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) leads a successful defense of the Union’s vulnerable left flank.
Unfortunately, the occasional dialogue scene intrudes, and here Gettysburg shows its roots as a TV miniseries that was detoured to the big screen. Especially in the scenes between Gen. Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) and Lieut. Gen. James Longstreet (Tom Berenger), Gettysburg’s conversations have a trivializing, now-hear-this quality familiar to students of the John Jakes School of History Lite. Those who want their Gettysburg straight can turn to Smithsonian’s Great Battles of the Civil War, Vol. IV, which features dynamic graphics that track Union and Confederate positions during each of the three days’ skirmishes, Civil War historians offering lively commentary, battle reenactors playing out the action, and familiar voices (Burt Reynolds, Dennis Weaver) reading combatants’ reminiscences. It is a history book brought stirringly to life. Gettysburg: B+ Great Battles: A