Martin Sheen as General Robert E Lee
I hope the War and Peacers out there aren’t going to be beat up on me for blogging about other things, but I’ve had a few topics floating around in my head for the last few weeks, and I do really need to get them out of my head.
This is the first one. A few weeks ago, I took advantage of having the house to myself on a public holiday to invite some friends around to watch a movie that really did change my life back at the age of 15. That movie is a little-watched, but massively epic film called Gettysburg.
The film tells the story of the soldiers who fought for three days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War in 1863. It was the first “serious” movie I ever took myself to see at the cinemas, and despite its 4 1/2 hour running time, I saw it three times in a month, waited for what seemed like ages for it to come out on video at the video store, waited an extraordinarily long time to buy it on home video and was so happy when it finally arrived on DVD.
It’s always a bit daunting watching it with friends, because a 4 1/2 hour movie is a big ask of anyone. If it was only a 2 hour movie, it’s not so bad. If they don’t like it, then they haven’t lost that much time. But 4 1/2 hours is a commitment.
It’s a big leap from liking a movie to calling it your favourite. I’m trying to think exactly why it is my favourite. I don’t know if I can explain exactly, but here are some of the things I really like about this film.
1. The music. Music is usually going to be the first thing that grabs me about a film, and I think that’s what did it with Gettysburg. It’s sound a little dated now (too much synthesizer where they could have used an orchestra), but Gettysburg was very much in the tradition of Star Wars, Dances With Wolves and other epic films where there were themes. Melodies. Music that people could remember so that when they heard it at some other time, they’d say, “Hey, that’s off that movie.”
Gettysburg especially had an interesting (but perhaps not subtle) system of having a handful of main themes that when you slowed them down, created a sad atmosphere to the more intimate moments. When you speeded them up and added drum beats, they give a real oomph to the battle scenes – but at the same time, infuse those battle scenes with sadness. (This is quite different from typical Hollywood battle scenes, where the music is like a bit action film, designed to get you in a “rah rah” mood.)
2. “Men of Honour”. The one thing you come out of this film noticing is that these characters believed in things, and were willing to die for those beliefs. The beliefs may not have been right, and maybe it was downright stupid to choose death for them – but the convictions were that firm, that nothing was going to stop them. (This is especially so for the Southern Confederate Army in the mass suicidal charge that ends the film.)
It inspired me back then to watch characters like these, and it inspires me now still today. Maybe because I find it harder and harder to be like this. How many people do you know with the strenght of their convictions? How many who hold unswervignly to a course? How many who forgo the easy path to do what they think is right?
Certainly, I think it’s stupid to get caught up in something just because it’s a craze. But how many people do you know nowadays who don’t seem to stand for anything?
3. The spectacle. Gettysburg was really the last of the old-school war movies where they rolled out a whole bunch of real extras and shot the thing for real. Actually, that’s not quite true, there was Braveheart the next year, which re-invigorated the big battle film (it’s a much more pro-war film, though, compared with Gettysburg‘s rather tragic take on warfare), which I think did its battle scenes without CGI. But Gettysburg is a heck of a lot larger scale, and the 5,000 extras they rolled out to film it, really do bring a sense of hugeness to the ending. No matter how many times I see it, the last hour of this film always amazes me.
4. Martin Sheen. I would agree that President Bartlett of The West Wing is probably his best role – certainly, he’s given a lot of material to work with in that series, and he gets to demonstrate a huge dramatic range. But, for me, Martin Sheen’s role that I will always remember him for is General Robert E Lee. He makes a tragic miscalculation (I know, I know – all you Southerners out there think the movie is wrong on this point – I’ve read your stuff, okay?) and is privately haunted by what is going on. And yet, as we watch him interact with his generals and staff, Sheen easily conveys why this General was respected as one of the greatest men in American history.
4. 70 mm. Sadly, one thing you miss on the DVD presentation is that this film was screened in 70mm at the cinemas. There’s not many occasions where you get to see something in 70mm any more, which for those less technical, means that instead of seeing a 35mm film that is stretched on the screen, you’re seeing a negative that is wide to start with. It also means that the picture image is crystal clear and better than normal cinema quality.
You don’t really see that on the Gettysburg DVD because they haven’t cleaned it up that much and also the 70mm cinema version took the actual film and cropped the top and bottom off to create a 2.2:1 aspect ratio. Whereas on the DVD, the cropped bits have been returned (so you’re seeing more), but in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, you lose that epic widescreen feel that it had at the cinema.
Anyway, it was great to come back to it again, because I hadn’t watched it for a couple of years, and this time for me (possibly my 15th or 16th time through) was even more powerful than ever before. I’ll definitely be pulling it out again. If only they’d release the Director’s Cut on DVD (it’s half an hour longer again).