Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, Gettysburg tells the story of four hot days in the summer of 1863, that changed the tide of the Civil War. A densely packed 271-minutes, and featuring over 13,000 volunteer Civil War re-enactors, Gettysburg is a true epic.

GettysburgThe Battle of Gettysburg claimed more lives than any American engagement before or since (some 47,000 casualties in just three days), halted the Confederate Army’s northward trajectory and, four months later, inspired one of the most celebrated presidential speeches in American history: the Gettysburg Address.

While director Ronald F. Maxwell doesn’t take sides, he does focus on some of the most colorful participants in the battle. General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) is the brilliant and beloved general who would make a disastrous decision on the third day of the battle that would give the Union forces victory and eventually change the outcome of the war. James Longstreet (Tom Berenger) is the Confederate Lieutenant General who realized that his beloved commander had made a fatal decision. We are also introduced to Joshua L. Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), the inexperienced Union Colonel who was to become one of the heroes of the war; and John Buford (Sam Elliott), the Brigadier General who managed to hold off Confederate assaults until General George Meade’s (Richard Anderson) forces arrived in Gettysburg.

The 271-minute runtime allows Maxwell to show the day-to-day skirmishes that caused General Lee to order to order a 12,500-man infantry charge on the Union’s center line; an attack that would end in a mass slaughter and a frantic retreat. Obviously, the defeat shocked the South. Just two days earlier, on July 1, 1863, Lee and his commanders—Lieutenant General Longstreet, Major Generals George Pickett (Stephen Lang), Isaac R. Trimble (Morgan Sheppard), Henry Heth (Warren Burton), J.E.B. Stuart (Joseph Fuqua) and John Bell Hood (Patrick Gorman), Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell (Tim Scott), and Brigadier Generals Lewis A. Armistead (Richard Jordan), James L. Kemper (Royce D. Applegate), and Richard B. Garnett (Andrew Prine), among others were confident of an easy victory. The defeat at Gettysburg was a huge blow to morale, and hastened the fall of the confederacy.

As one might expect, the Union’s victory was not without great sacrifice. Suffering more deaths than Lee’s army, more than 23,000 men lay dead as the Confederates retreated. It would have been more, if not for the dedicated efforts of Brigadier General John Buford (Sam Elliott), and Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. Buford and his cavalry bravely face Heth’s forces, while Chamberlain holds back several advances at Little Round Top despite leading a patchwork division against overwhelming odds. Major Generals Winfield Scott Hancock (Brian Mallon), George Meade, John F. Reynolds (John Rothman), Colonels James Clay Rice (Joshua D. Maurer), William Gamble (Buck Taylor), Thomas C. Devlin (David Carpenter) and Strong Vincent (Maxwell Caulfield), and others fought tirelessly to defend their land.

There are a lot of people to keep track of here, but Maxwell sets up a hierarchy that makes them easier to follow—not by military rank, but by contributions and perspectives. This also allows viewers to get to know the characters better. For those interested in epics and historical docu-dramas, Gettysburg is an absolute must see. A true labor of love fpr director Maxwell, this is a history lesson brought to life.

Gettysburg comes to blu-ray in 1080p, and approximates the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio by filling the entire 16:9 frame. The transfer itself is a bit of a mixed bag. At its worst the image is soft and oversaturated, with muddy black levels and weak contrast. At its best, the color has depth, sharpness (though not without some edge halos), and a beautifully film-like quality. The variability suggests most of the issues are inherent to the source elements, meaning this is probably the best the film can look short of spreading it across two discs.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix provides generally clear dialogue. However, there are occasions when bits of dialogue can get buried in the midst of gunfire. Surrounds offer light support for the score and the occasional directional and atmospheric effect, but on the whole it’s front-loaded mix that also has a reasonably wide and balanced sound stage. Bass activity is particularly aggressive during the final act, but frequencies never troll down to the LFE ranges, making for a solid, but not earth shattering experience.

The 2-disc Blu-ray edition of Gettysburg comes packaged in a 48-page Digibook case, features the 271-minute Director’s Cut of the film, and offers a number of special features including an audio commentary, an hour-long documentary and more.

  • Audio Commentary (Disc 1): Writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell, cinematographer Kees Van Oostrum, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson and military historian Craig Symonds deliver an informative but spare commentary that, despite several long stretches of silence, covers quite a bit.
  • The Making of Gettysburg (Disc 2, SD, 52 minutes): Actor Martin Sheen narrates this sprawling, smartly constructed behind-the-scenes documentary, and nearly every notable member of the cast and crew turns out to discuss the authentic history woven throughout the film, the genesis of the project, the filmmakers’ early struggles to bring it to the screen, Maxwell’s adaptation of Michael Shaara’s novel, his casting and his actors’ performances, the challenges faced while recreating Civil War-era America, the particulars of costuming and production design, and virtually every other aspect of Gettysburg worth exploring.
  • The Battle of Gettysburg (Disc 2, SD, 30 minutes): The late Leslie Nielsen narrates this 1955 documentary, shot in its entirety at the Gettysburg National Military Park. The film relies on stirring photography, period music, sound effects and a reading of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to tell the tale of the battle.
  • On Location (Disc 2, SD, 6 minutes): Go on location in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania as the cast, crew and legions of reenactors shoot scenes for the film.
  • Maps of the Battlefield (Disc 2, SD, 8 minutes): An analysis of the terrain, road access, tactics, division deployments, choke points, troop movements, line positions, charges, victories, defeats, and other mitigating factors that contributed to the turning of the tide that was the Battle of Gettysburg.
  • The Journey Through Hallowed Ground (Disc 2, SD, 7 minutes): Director Maxwell issues a personal invitation to support the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Civil War sites and providing tours of the battlefields, monuments, parks and communities associated with them.
  • Theatrical Trailer (Disc 2, SD, 3 minutes)