It was a dark time in our nation’s history; a period of despair, desperation and desolation. Two factions of the United States — who had long been enemies for quite some time — had finally threw all caution to the wind and declared war on each other: Regular TV and Cable TV. In the past, Regular TV had vied for the affection and attention of the American public against its rivals. Miniseries such as Shogun and V were produced and aired on network television in order to yank folks out of theaters, which was plagued with various adventure and science fiction epics at the time.
Generally, the whole miniseries concept was a no-brainer for the audiences they were aimed at. No longer did they have to dress up and shell out their hard-earned money at the cinemas: they could just sit comfortably at home in their underwear and watch a sprawling marathon spread itself out across the airwaves (the miniseries notion also worked well for the network execs that produced them, as you can well imagine). The downside for some viewers, though, was that these television serials were unable to display a lot of the violence moviegoers were growing accustomed to (to say nothing of the copious amounts of sex and language that were frequent in theatrical flicks).
When Cable TV reared its ugly kisser about, however, there was suddenly a new rival for Regular TV to contend against. Now, people could just sit at home in their underwear and take in all the violence (as well as sex and violence) they wanted to see. In the early ‘90s, several producers pitched the idea of a miniseries based on the Civil War to ABC. They were denied. But, as anyone who has ever witnessed a group of slightly-daunting grown men in uniforms whilst running around in rural fields and shooting at each other knows, there are Civil War buffs everywhere. Salvation for the aforementioned group of producers eventually materialized in the guise of Ted Turner.
In addition to his then-current obsessions of baseball, broadcasting and bastardizing black-and-white movies by adding a whole heap of pastel colors to them, media magnate Turner was also a huge fan of the Civil War. He had to be, after all: he was from the South. And, as we all know, people generally labeled as being “Southern” — whether they’re of actual Southern descent, belong to any number of strange and decidedly un-Christian-like church groups, or are simply just good ol’ fashioned trailer trash from the wrong side of the tracks — seem to have a big problem with acknowledging the fact that the Confederacy lost. Hence, we see them out in fields recreating battles that took place over two-hundred-and-fifty-years ago.
With Ted Turner’s anxious approval in play, the producers of Gettysburg (1993) set about bringing their epic television costume piece — based on the novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara — to life for the small screen. The story, which relayed a dramatized version of the Battle of Gettysburg, afforded many a struggling actor with the enviable opportunity to don ridiculously large, phony facial hair appliances. In addition to allowing the actors with the chance to ward off small children, members of the opposite sex and several types of dangerous predators from the animal kingdom on account of the massively-sheer goofiness dynamic alone, these superfluous and extraneous coats of fuzz also added a touch of realism to the characters their host organisms were portraying.
They also kept ‘em damn warm during those cold Pennsylvania nights during location shooting. Yup, they even shot on location for this one: something many miniseries usually skipped on doing due to budgetary restraints. But, in the case of Gettysburg, budgetary restraints were not an issue. Turner is said to have invested a whopping twenty-five million Yankee dollars into the project: something quite unheard of for a miniseries. He even distributed the completed project (which ran well over 4 hours altogether) as a theatrical film in a couple hundred cinemas across the United States under his then-new company, Turner Pictures.
Told from several different perspectives of officers from both sides of the fold, our story here tells of the fateful events that plagued the good city of Gettysberg, Pennsylvania in July of 1863. General Robert E. Lee (portrayed by Martin Sheen) has great expectations with his upcoming second invasion of the North. Unfortunately for his personal dreams of victory, the Yanks — led by Lieutenant General James Longstreet (as played by top-billed Tom Berenger) — are also in the area. Over the course of the next three days, both sides will lose a total of well over 46,000 soldiers in battle, as a seemingly-innocent rest stop for thousands of worn-out warriors engage in a three-day battle of epic proportions; one that had a great impact on the outcome of the Civil War as a whole.
Among its cast of notable faces (though many of them are hidden behind heaps of hair), Gettysburg also casts Jeff Daniels, C. Thomas Howell (remember him?), Stephen Lang, Sam Elliott (it wouldn’t be a miniseries without him!), and cult movie icon Andrew Prine. Cameos abound by the likes of the project’s own screenwriter/director Robert F. Maxwell, Ted Turner, documentarian Ken Burns, and even former James Bond actor George Lazenby. The miniseries/movie is essentially required viewing for any Civil War buff or American history student (not to mention those of you who appreciate a good ol’ war drama period), and Warner Home Video’s new Blu-ray presentation of Gettysburg: Director’s Cut presents the lengthy title in an even longer 271-minute long incarnation.
While some have said it was pretty-damn extensive to begin with, this new Director’s Cut definitely had me focusing at the ceiling on more than one occasion. The lead performers here do a damn fine job and all, and the battle scenes are as thrilling today as they were when Gettysburg was first shown in 1993, but honestly, some of the moments here seem like padding more than anything.
Despite the aforementioned length, a few anachronisms, and being somewhat fictionalized for the sake of a flowing story (to say nothing of those beards!), Gettysburg nevertheless succeeded in being a major achievement in the great Regular TV vs. Cable TV war. Over 23 million people tuned in to see the two-night event as it first aired, and subsequent showings (as well as VHS and DVD sales) proved hugely triumphant as well.
The popularity of Gettysburg also helped spawn a number of other Civil War-based miniseries, such as a prequel entitled Gods And Generals. Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Shaara’s son, Jeff, Gods And Generals does not take place on the battlefield as much as its predecessor, nor does it give us multiple Confederate and Union viewpoints as before. Instead, the 2003-made epic focuses more on Robert E. Lee — played this time ‘round by Lee descendent Robert Duvall (the actor was originally set to portray the famous Confederate general in Gettysburg, but was forced to drop out due to scheduling conflicts) — and Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Stephen Lang, returning from the first film, albeit in an entirely different role).
Gods And Generals features a number of returning actors from Gettysburg, including Jeff Daniels, C. Thomas Howell, Kevin Conway, and Andrew Prine. It also casts a few new faces in roles previously filled by other performers — such as William Sanderson (who, sadly, is not accompanied by Tony Papenfuss and John Voldstad) and Bruce Boxleitner — as well as a few other newcomers.
Since Gods And Generals was actually produced by Turner (with a budget estimated to be somewhere in the vicinity of $65 million) with the silver screen in mind, it raises the bar from the previous entry — giving cinematographer Kees Van Oostrum a chance to use his masterful eye via cinemascope. Hell, they even got Bob Dylan to write and record a brand-new song specifically for the film (“Cross The Green Mountain”). The battle scenes (this time depicting the encounters of Chancellorsville, First Bull Run, Battle of Antietam and Fredericksburg) are once again impressive, but several moments utilizing CGI ultimately take away from the realism.
Once again, writer/director Robert F. Maxwell’s screenplay takes a few liberties with history. He also tends to leave his camera on his actors and step out for a break every now and then. Actually, he does it a lot. The lead actors once again are amazing, but there are probably way too many lengthy bits in this Gods And Generals: Extended Director’s Cut to keep its audience glued to the screen for its whole 4-hour, 40-minute runtime. That’s right, this particular release is the “Extended Director’s Cut” — not just a regular “Director’s Cut” — which throws in a whole ‘nother hour of footage not seen in the original theatrical release.
If you think that’s long, keep in mind that the first cut of the film was over six hours in length!
But hey, at least the beards are more convincing in this one.
In order to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War (or perhaps exploit the people who celebrate such an event), Warner Home Video has released both Gettysburg: Director’s Cut and Gods And Generals: Extended Director’s Cut in brand-new DigiBook releases. Gettysburg’s 1080p/AVC 1.85:1 transfer looks pretty good, but isn’t as grandiose as you’d expect for a High-Def release. It’s lovely for the most part, with lifelike colors, deep black levels, and a fine amount of detail, but there’s some serious edge enhancement goin’ on which can diminish things for those of you with observant eyes. With Gods And Generals, the color scheme for this 1080p/AVC 2.40:1 release is pretty plush — as are the black levels and contrast — and detail is considerably better.
Both titles include newly-mixed 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio English soundtracks, which are big improvements over what we’ve heard in the past. Gods And Generals has the best soundtrack of all, delivering a full surround sound experience. Additional audio options are included for both releases in Spanish and German (Dolby Digital Mono for Gettysburg, DD 5.1 on Gods And Generals); and Gettysburg has an additional Portuguese DD 2.0 track. Optional subtitles are available in English (SDH), German (SDH), French, Spanish (both titles), Portuguese (Gettysburg only), and Danish, Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian (on Gods And Generals only).
In addition to the DigiBook booklets that are housed within the packaging, both titles include a plethora of Special Features, most of which have been carried over from previous (SD-DVD) releases and are located on a separate DVD disc. In fact, it could be argued that these are the same discs, but with new menus and artwork. Included on them are several featurettes, ranging from audio commentaries, behind-the-scenes stuff and interviews to mini-documentaries, interactive battlefield maps and theatrical trailers. The only new, notable bonus materials (apart from the booklets) are on Gods And Generals: Extended Director’s Cut, and consist of an HD intro from Ted Turner and Robert F. Maxwell, and an audio commentary by Maxwell, and history gurus Keith Gibson and James Robertson.
In conclusion: despite being a bit too long for some of us, this is a great pair of Civil War dramas. But, before you run out to pick ‘em up, please note that a limited edition collector’s set with both titles is being released July 4, 2011 on both Blu-ray and DVD.