by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Before I start to turn negative, I want to establish that there are things I like very much about Gettysburg. Despite its length (more than four hours), I watched it through in a straight shot except for pauses to read Wikipedia, and I am not known as a patient man, so you know it has an interesting running narrative.

I especially liked the middle third of the film, which features Jeff Daniels delivering the performance of his lifetime as Col. Joshua Chamberlain, the classics teacher who volunteered for the Union army because he was an idealist who believed in the Northern cause. Chamberlain and his Maine volunteers pulled off an almost unbelievable defense of the Union's left flank at Little Round Top, capped by a remarkable and improbably successful bayonet charge which they made out of desperation when they ran out of ammunition. This surprise tactic was a hell of a piece of soldiering, both courageous and brilliant, and it came from a professor of rhetoric and religion, not a West Point grad.

I liked many other things about the film as well. I appreciate that it was played out on the actual Gettysburg battle site, which has been preserved in virtually its original condition, and I appreciate that the film was made by consulting with many scholars, and that all of the extras were played by experienced Civil War re-enactors, who provided authentic clothing and weaponry.

There are flaws as well. Since I'm not a Civil War buff, I would have appreciated more graphics to show me precisely how the tactics were intended to work, and I would have really appreciated it if some of the fictional speechifyin' had been toned down. Despite those quibbles, I can say that Gettysburg is a stirring and realistic film. The Chamberlain third, if considered on its own, would be an unqualified masterpiece.

But there is a great flaw in the center of it, and that is an important one: Martin Sheen plays Robert E. Lee as a dotty, diminutive, illogical old fool who rode his tiny horse clumsily and  never found a hat that fit him properly.

It is true that Lee made an incomprehensibly poor tactical decision in ordering Pickett's Charge on the final day of battle. He sent 13-15,000 men to march uphill into an open field in the face of Union artillery and sharpshooters who not only held the high ground, but were protected by entrenched positions. Furthermore, he ordered that assault after his right hand man, Longstreet, told him it was a suicide mission, using these words:

"General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position."

The results demonstrated that Longstreet was right. More than half of the Confederate troops were shot or captured, and just about all of the generals and colonels were lost. But Lee knew it would be an extremely difficult task and there were good reasons why he ordered it anyway. It's worthwhile to remember that if Lee had followed Longstreet's advice, he would have gained significant short-term advantages, but would almost certainly have lost the war anyway. Unlike General Longstreet, Lee was focused not on tactical gain, but on long-term strategic and political objectives. He knew that a decisive Rebel victory at Gettysburg could well prompt European intervention, and might well cause the Union to sue for peace, and if he could soundly defeat the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, he was prepared to march directly to a virtually undefended Washington, not with an assault, but with peace offered from strength.

Lee knew that a series of tactical victories would not bring about peace, but would only prolong war. He was not a fool. He knew of the Northern advantages in industrial output and manpower, and he knew that a loss at Gettysburg, or even an inconclusive victory, would mean a long and drawn-out war that he was probably bound to lose. He wanted and needed a crushing victory at Gettysburg to secure his overall objectives, and the only way to get that was to split the Northern army, which would have allowed him to win in a rout. He felt that Pickett's Charge was his one chance to do that, so he opted for a high risk strategy with a potential high reward. He had pulled off similar upsets in the past, and in fact the entire assault on Pennsylvania was based on a comparable gamble. Like Joshua Chamberlain at Little Round Top, Lee knew what he had to do, stayed focused on it, and rolled the dice when he felt there was no other good option. The only difference between the two surprising strategies is that one worked and the other failed.

The film doesn't really capture the essence or the magnitude of Lee's pragmatic calculation. Instead it portrays Lee as some kind of a mystic who thought that Pickett's Charge would surely have to succeed because he had an unjustified faith in his troops, whose subsequent defeat turned him into a doddering, blubbering senile coot.

That portrayal spoils the film for me.


Widescreen. Running time: 261 minutes.

Behind-the-Scenes Documentary,  The Making of Gettysburg, narrated by Martin Sheen

Vintage Oscar Nominated Documentary, The Battle of Gettysburg, narrated by Leslie Nielsen

Battlefield Maps

Source book Prequel (DVD)


4 James Berardinelli (of 4 stars)
3 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
86 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)


7.6 IMDB summary (of 10)


Box Office Mojo. It never appeared in more than 248 theaters, but grossed a solid $10 million. That's not unimpressive for a dry, historical, four hour movie.


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Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


Gettysburg is a must-see film if you are interested in the Civil War. If you are not a history buff, you'll find it very long and drawn-out. I found the Joshua Chamberlain section to be stirring and dramatic, but the rest of the film is more like a documentary interrupted by speeches, and I was not pleased with the portrayal of General Lee.