"Gettysburg" is based on Michael Shaara's novel "The Killer Angels," and both works focus on this crucial battle on July 1-3, 1863 through from the perspective of five key figures: The first day of the battle is dominated by Union Calvary General John Buford (Sam Elliot), who slowed the Confederate advance to preserve the precious high ground for the Federal army. The second day comes down to the efforts of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) and the 20th Maine, who hold the extreme left end of the Army of the Potomac at a crucial moment in the battle. The third day focuses on the clash of wills between General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) and his veteran commander James "Pete" Longstreet (Tom Berenger), who have been arguing offense versus defense throughout the battle, climaxing in the fatal finality of Pickett's Charge. The focal figure of the Charge is Confederate General Lowell Armistead (Richard Jordan), who must attack the position defended by his best friend Winfield Scott Hancock, made all the more poignant by the fact that this was Jordan's final role; he died from a brain tumor the same year this film was released.
However, it is the character of Chamberlain who emerges as the hero from this film. Chamberlain was featured as well in the celebrated PBS documentary "The Civil War," and the result is that he has become the idealized citizen-soldier or gallant knight of the Union army. The result of his military and political career is almost as fascinating as his defense of Little Round Top, for which he received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Jeff Daniel's performance is certainly the finest of his career to date, and he gets to give an eloquent speech on the Civil War as a fight to make other men free. His interplays with veteran Sergeant "Buster" Kilrain (Kevin Conway) deal with the war on a philosophical level, which is not surprising because the man is a college professor. But in the heat of battle he proves himself, and while we cannot imagine ourselves being Robert E. Lee, we can identify with Chamberlain. The end result is that the best part of the film comes not at the end, but before the intermission.
Every year I watch "Gettysburg" on the four days covered in the film, June 30 and July 1-3 (then on the 4th of July I watch "1776"). Only "Glory" is on this level in terms of depicting Civil War battles. This film touches me with the opening credits, where the photographs of these real soldiers are replaced with those of the actors playing them. This is quite evocative, especially when Randy Edleman's evocative score swells as we see the face and name of George Pickett. Even if you have never seen this movie you have undoubtedly heard Edleman's score, which has been used to advertise several films and for the closing credits of the Olympics broadcast. It should have been nominated for an Oscar.