Based on Michael Shaara’s award winning novel, The Killer Angels, the film Gettysburg vividly depicts the epic three day battle of Gettysburg. Much like the novel, the films main focus is on the experiences of Gen. Robert E. Lee, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, Col. Joshua Chamberlain and Brig. Gen. John Buford.
The film opens with narration and the image of a map displayed, the narrator begins to explain the location on the map, and how the Union and Confederate armies meet at Gettysburg. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia led by Gen. Robert E. Lee is pushing north taking an offensive position throughout Pennsylvania hoping to entice the Union Army of the Potomac back on to northern soil for an end all battle to bring the war to a close. The narrator tells the audience that Confederate President Jefferson Davis has written a letter of peace to be delivered to President Abraham Lincoln once the Army of the Potomac has been destroyed on northern soil.
The film then moves into a spy spotting Union cavalry, then a division of Union infantry. Immediately he rides off, crosses a Confederate picket line and demands to be brought to Lt. Gen. James Longstreet to warn of the close proximity of Union troops. Meanwhile, Union Brig. Gen. John Buford and his cavalry unit arrive in Gettysburg to do reconnaissance. Buford realizes if Lee’s army makes it to Gettysburg, they could easily take a defensive position given the high ground and put an end to the Army of the Potomac. Buford decides to stay, and places his unit along Seminary Ridge to stop any Confederate troops getting in from the west. Miles from Gettysburg, Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Regiment is informed that his unit will be taking on 120 wayward members from another Maine regiment, with the orders to shoot anyone who causes problems. After Chamberlain displays heartfelt hospitality and delivers a moving speech, he wins over 114 of the bedraggled men.
On the first day of battle Gen. Buford’s cavalry is involved in a skirmish with two Confederate units heading into Gettysburg looking to get shoes for their barefoot troops. The Union forces in Gettysburg at the time are out manned and forced to pull back as more Confederate forces arrive. Confederate victory is threatened when Lt. Gen. Ewell fails to occupy Cemetery Hill.
The second day of battle begins when Lee orders an attack on the Union left flank. The scenes of the second day focus primarily on the terrain of Devil’s Den and Little Round Top and the 20th Maine regiment who is ordered to hold the left flank on Little Round Top. After numerous Confederate attacks, Chamberlain’s men start to run out of ammunition, in a fit of courage, Chamberlain orders his men to ready their bayonets and charge the Confederate forces, causing them to retreat.
Pickett’s Charge is the main focal point for the third and final day of combat. Lee has devised a plan to attack the Union center and split it. Lt. Gen. Longstreet disagrees with Lee and argues that he rethink his plan. Lee puts Longstreet in command of the attack, Longstreet doubting the attack will be successful orders more artillery. The Confederate forces do not realize that they have mis-aimed and their cannons are overshooting the Union center doing minimal damage. As Pickett’s men charge across a wide open field towards the Union center they immediately fall under long distance Union fire and begin dropping off. Those that make it to the Union line are met by musket fire, Confederate forces retreat.
A disturbed Gen. Lee rides valiantly towards his retreating army professing that everything was his fault, his men still love him and argue that he is wrong. He then orders a devastated Maj. Gen. Pickett to restore his unit as if to prepare for another attack, with tears in his eyes, Pickett tells Lee there is nothing left to restore. As cannon and musket fire die down the last day of battle draws to a close with a Union victory. The Union not only won on the third day, they won the Battle of Gettysburg. The final scenes of the film show Col. Chamberlain in an emotional embrace with his brother as they have both survived the battle and illustrate Lee’s plan to fall back into Virginia the next day, being the 4th of July he feels that Union forces would not attack on that day.
Gettysburg. Directed by Ronald Maxwell. 1993.