American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Most war movies use battle as a backdrop to little human dramas. We learn of the private lives of the soldiers, their loves and fears. Personalities are sketched, weaknesses revealed, rivalries established that will all be settled under fire. Then we get the action scenes. "Gettysburg" avoids all of those war movie cliches. This is a film, pure and simple, about the Battle of Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, about the strategies, calculations, mistakes and heroism that turned the tide of the Civil War decisively against the South.
The movie is some four hours long and every minute is devoted to either battle itself, or the planning and preparation for battle. Typical eve-of-battle romance is so far from the minds of the filmmakers that there is not a single woman in the cast.
The movie was made at great cost by Turner Pictures, which after releasing it theatrically through its New Line subsidiary will broadcast it on the TNT cable channel. It should really be seen on a large screen. The movie was shot on the actual locations, in Gettysburg National Park, and it deployed thousands of Civil War re-enactment buffs, in costumes authentic down to the last button, to reproduce the actions of the two sides on those three bloody days when 158,000 men went into battle and 43,000 were killed.
Of the several set pieces in the film, none is more harrowing than an early defense of a crucial wooded ridge by Union troops from Maine, under the command of Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels). His men control the heights, but are badly outnumbered and low on ammunition. Yet they repel repeated charges, taking deep casualties, in sequences so desperate, bloody and protracted that for once we sense the sheer physical exhaustion of combat, the combination of fear, fatigue and determination.