Fought in July 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was the decisive point of the American Civil War. For the 130th anniversary, Ted Turner's cable TV network backed an adaptation of Michael Shaara's historical novel The Killer Angels, with an all-star cast in an amazing array of outlandish but historically accurate false whiskers and thousands of extras, now being released in the UK - albeit in two halves, to be watched on consecutive evenings.
With Martin Sheen magisterial as General Robert E. Lee, the film focuses on two representative major figures on either side, Berenger's Confederate General James Longstreet, and Daniels' Union Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. The script gives a balanced hearing to either side that somewhat unrealistically suggests there wasn't a dishonourable, cowardly, venal or stupid soldier in the field. Where the film works best is in the actual battle: the first half reaches its climax with Chamberlain's flanking action, a tense and scrappy series of assaults and charges. The after-the-intermission highlight is Pickett's Charge, the vital and costly advance of a Confederate horde across open ground.
Though there is a real sense of the chaos and the fervour of battle, Gettysburg never takes it place with the great war films. It has the necessary extras and macho men, but lacks real cinematic sweep. It is after all, a TV movie, so there's none of the blood and severed limbs of either Sam Peckinpah or Oliver Stone. Still, an evening (or rather two) of hog heaven for history nuts.