In 1993, Ronald F. Maxwell romanticized the American Civil War with his epic war movie, Gettysburg. A decade later, he returned to the historic conflict with an equally vast prequel, Gods and Generals. To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, both films arrived on Blu-ray last week with special director’s cut editions, featuring an assortment of bonus features, special digibook packaging, and loads of additional footage.
The Battle of Gettysburg arguably is the most known and most infamous conflict of the Civil War, resulting in the war’s largest number of casualties and signaling a turning point for American history. The story is a familiar one to history buffs. Confederate General Robert E. Lee pressed his army north to confront the Union, while the Northern army, lead by Major General George Meade, held its ground. The ensuing battle lasted for three bloody days, ending with the routing of Lee and the eventual downfall of the Confederacy. Maxwell’s first film presents a well researched, exhaustive, and perhaps overly lengthy examination of the three day battle, dramatizing both sides of the conflict.
Gettysburg‘s principal cast includes Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee, Tom Berenger as fellow Confederate General James Longstreet, Richard Anderson as Meade, and Jeff Daniels as Union Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. Though expansive and detailed, Gettysburg suffers from uneven pacing and doesn’t pack the violent and bloody punch you’d expect from a movie about the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Rather, it presents the historical figures as poetically romanticized personages while faithfully mapping their progress and relationships.
Gods and Generals is Maxwell’s prequel to Gettysburg, examining the personal lives and events in the South prior to the Battle of Gettysburg. A major focus of this second film is the life of Stonewall Jackson, one of the most recognized Confederate generals. Avatar‘s Stephen Lang appears in Gettysburg as George Pickett, but he returns to play Jackson in the prequel. Jeff Daniels is back as well, reprising his role as Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. Robert E. Lee figures heavily into the plot of Gods and Generals again, but this time he’s played by Robert Duvall, as the prequel’s shooting conflicted with Martin Sheen’s West Wing schedule. In addition to delving into the lives of the Southern soldiers, Gods and Generals also depicts the Battles of Bulls Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. There’s no denying that this second film treads some uncomfortable territory by turning a modern but unbiased eye on the South in the Civil War, but in the end Lee, Jackson, and their associates are fairly portrayed as humans but not as heroes.
The Gettysburg director’s cut adds about seventeen minutes of footage to the already enormous film, bringing the overall runtime to four and a half hours. Gods and Generals gains substantially more footage in its director’s cut with the additions of both the Battle of Antietam and a subplot about Abraham Lincoln’s future assassin, John Wilkes Booth. The second movie ends up with an overall runtime of more than four and a half hours.
Both movies get gorgeous releases with these new Blu-ray editions, each packaged into special hardback book cases. Each set includes two Blu-rays, one containing the director’s cut version of the movie and the second packing in a bunch of additional features. Between the two discs, the special case includes a 48 page book full of photos and text about the making of the films and including background about the histories. Gettysburg comes with a single audio commentary track and numerous lengthy featurettes, including a making-of special hosted by Martin Sheen. Gods and Generals features a new extended commentary track, as well as a more compact scene-specific commentary option. It also includes behind the scenes featurettes, albeit briefer than the footage included with Gettysburg.