FILM / Battle with a glossy sheen: Adam Mars-Jones on 'the outstandingly prosaic' Gettysburg, a treat for lovers of big battles and big hair. Plus (left) Sheila Johnston on the week's other new releases

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The Independent Culture
No film with a PG certificate can be about the realities of war, and Ronald F Maxwell's four-hour-plus labour of love, Gettysburg, hardly even tries. It's a film about the making and unmaking of heroes with a relatively scrupulous background - subtitles telling us names of places, or the distance of forces from the action - and a relatively unscrupulous sanitising of horror. When a general is shot by a sniper, he dies without apparently realising it, and a tableau of grieving comrades instantly forms around him, a military version of a religious painting, and an awkward touch of poetry in an outstandingly prosaic film. Randy Edelman's music goes into pathos overdrive.

Edelman's score is astonishing both for its sheer quantity and its banality. A virtually continuous bombardment of heroic Muzak. It endlessly paraphrases folk tunes in orchestrations of tragic grandeur, and every time you think he is out of ammunition he brings up a banjo or a plangent Spanish guitar from the rear. For a textbook example of the perversely anaesthetising effects of music on a soundtrack you could hardly do better than the sequence of the cannonade before Pickett's Charge on the third day of the battle. The guns at Gettysburg could be heard in Baltimore, 60 miles away, and before the music intervenes you get a sense of what that must have been like, the numbing endlessness of it. Then the orchestra starts in with its poignant treacle, and conveys the audience into a different state of numbness, an eerie distance from the events that have been so carefully reconstructed.

Gettysburg boasts the grandest staging of history in American cinema since The Birth of a Nation, and made use of 5,000 Civil War re-enactors, or living 'historians' as some of them prefer to be known. These extras were apparently meticulous in their attention to details of dress and kit, but they bring an inauthenticity of a different sort to the film. The people for whom war is a hobby, and who have the means to invest in uniforms and paraphernalia, are necessarily older than those who did the original fighting. Both armies in the film are seasoned, even grizzled, and there is a striking absence of the young who have always fed the cannons. The director's standard special-effects shot to show the impact of cannon fire or cannister-shot (that is, shrapnel) on human bodies is of people flying forward through the air. The reasons for this are perfectly understandable - extras are not in fact cannon-fodder and stunt people don't wish to land on their backs - but the effect is nevertheless so stylised as to make nonsense of the film's claims to historical accuracy.

Gettysburg is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Shaara called The Killer Angels, and could profitably be shorn of its set- piece discussions of philosophies of war, starting with the idea that gave the book its title: each man as both angel and killer. The film sets out to show that everyone has his reasons. There is a remarkable shortage of bitterness in this Civil War, and a total absence of blood lust. Understatement is the rule, even in combat: 'Can you hold, John?', 'Reckon I can.' Robert E Lee gives a maverick general a dressing down of grotesque gentleness: 'Things tend to get out of hand. That's why we have orders.'

Opposing soldiers greet each other almost fondly: 'See you in hell, Billy Yank', 'See you in hell, Johnny Reb.' Generals Armistead and Hancock, fighting on opposite sides, have a passionate past attachment to each other, which the film takes at face value, though the male friendships of the last century look schmaltzy or euphemistic nowadays.

This conscious refusal of hindsight and muting of irony is typical of the film. The contradictions of the Civil War, its combination of high rhetoric and mechanised carnage, are thoroughly damped down. Admittedly we learn that this was a war where a Confederate Scout learned that there was a new commander-in-chief of the Union forces by the sly ruse of reading the Yankee newspapers. But the futility of war is too modern an idea to get any purchase on Gettysburg. The most nearly cynical of the characters in the film, who declines to see a divine spark in any of the combatants, still concludes: 'What matters is justice. That's why I'm here.'

Gettysburg has so much the trudging feel of a mini-series that it's easy to miss the bits of architecture that Maxwell, screenwriter as well as director, has put into it. The first half shows the making of a hero of the Union, how Colonel Lawrence Chamberlain, a college professor who applied for a sabbatical so as to enlist, held the day at Little Round Top. Everything has been set up to make Chamberlain a sort of New Man in uniform: his humane treatment of mutineers leads directly to the saving, by a reformed renegade, of his brother's life in the thick of the battle. Jeff Daniels as Chamberlain sports one of the loveliest facial hair styles in a film that is full of them. His moustache looks like the tail of a bird of blonde fur that has just flown up his nose. The effect is to allow this actor to escape from the fresh-faced weak sincerity that has been his trademark.

The second half of the film concentrates on a tragic figure of the Confederacy, General James Longstreet (Tom Berenger), whose solid advice on tactics was ignored by Robert E Lee (Martin Sheen), a man with a genius for raising morale who could not see that morale was not enough. Longstreet is the man who must pass on orders that he knows will produce disaster.

The symmetry of the two stories is shown by the use of names: Chamberlain's brother learns to call him Sir and not Lawrence, while Lee in defeat finally breaks down and calls Longstreet Pete. War can raise men up or bring them down.

It would take more than this piece of literary patterning to save the film from being simultaneously pat and lumbering. Gettysburg is less a war film than a colossal club sandwich, made up of alternating layers of lavishly staged combat, gruff male bonding and campfire discussions of personal philosophies, all held together by the toothpicks of Edelman's music and served with a child's portion of ketchup.

(Photograph omitted)