FILM / Heroes don't wear beards: Gettysburg (PG); City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold (12); Faust; Abraham Valley (PG)

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The Independent Culture
RONALD F MAXWELL'S Gettysburg (PG) is a Big Film about a Big Issue: the massacre in the wheat fields of Pennsylvania that halted the advance of the southern Rebel army three years into the American Civil War. Liberty triumphed; a modern nation state was born. More than 150,000 men trudged into battle and tens of thousands perished. The film fakes it with 5,000 re-enaction freaks, who occasionally look at the camera but kept the budget down by bringing their own fancy dress.

We're talking epic - according to Maxwell, 'the largest-scale period motion-picture sequences filmed in North America since D W Griffith's Birth of a Nation'. The emotions are jumbo-sized, too: courage, self-sacrifice, honour - and that's just the audience.

Strangely, all this went down rather badly in America, where Gettysburg grossed only dollars 14m (it cost dollars 20m). Length was probably a factor: Gettysburg runs four hours 19 minutes (though here it's released in two parts), longer even than Dances with Wolves.

Another disincentive, I suspect, was the period detail. Martin Sheen, who plays Confederate commander-in-chief Robert E Lee, sports all-over facial hair. Tom Berenger, as Confederate general James Longstreet, has a foot-long beard. Sheen looks like Zeus, Berenger like ZZ Top. Jeff Daniels, as the Yankee hero Lawrence Chamberlain, has an enormous droopy moustache. All three are unrecognisable as the guys from Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Something Wild. American heroes don't wear beards.

The other problem is the bad guys: there aren't any. As the poster puts it: 'Same land. Same God. Different dreams.' Gettysburg enacts the two sides of the American psyche (not to mention movie demographics): the personal liberty traditionally valued in the South versus the philosophical freedoms of the North. Some moral juggling is required to achieve this effect, notably by skating over the unpleasant issue of slavery. And, of course, the Yankees won the war, so Jeff Daniels gets most of the stirring speeches about justice and freedom: 'We are an army out to set others free.'

British audiences, I hope, won't be so easily put off. Because, for all the moral Vaseline, all the crying and speechifying and male bonding before the two big battles, Gettysburg is a visceral, panoramic evocation of the horror of war. A generation of men trudged blankly (and often barefoot) through the countryside. Then, roused by their commanders, they half- ran in rows, into cannon fire, rifles and, finally, muskets. There are no Oscar-winning slo-mo symbolic deaths (see Willem Dafoe in Platoon) but bloody groaning and flapping and crawling in the mud.

A slightly less real masculine experience is what the post-yuppie trio in City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold (12) are after. Billy Crystal is 40 and suffocating in domesticity. His friend, Daniel Stern, is on the verge of a menopausal crisis. And his brother, Jon Lovitz, is a bum who can't hold down a job. If they were ageing British pop stars they'd find a trophy wife; here, they settle for the American option of going Out West to look for gold.

There is one joke in City Slickers II, summarised when Crystal's mobile phone goes off in the middle of a stampede, and when he finally gives up trying to converse with a couple of hillbillies: 'Gays in the military. Your thoughts?' Yes, we're back to bi-polar America, the clash between Yankee yuppies and rural Rebels. It's not so much a straight fight (though the hillbillies are after the gold, too) as another search for lost masculinity, personified by iconic cowboy Jack Palance. Robert Bly's drummers can be heard in the background.

This is Hollywood at its fluffiest and most digestible (slickly cloned by British ad director Paul Weiland). And I'm all for candyfloss once in a while.

Faust, written and directed by Czech puppeteer and animator Jan Svankmajer, is altogether more substantial. The film starts dourly East European: a lugubrious middle-aged man (Petr Cepek) toils home from the subway to a lonely meal in his grimy flat. Within minutes, however, Svankmajer the magician and surrealist is at play: an egg appears in a loaf of bread; a baby grows from a lump of clay.

Then a mysterious map directs the man to a broken-down puppet theatre, where he finds an ancient copy of Goethe's Faust (voice by Andrew Sachs), summons the devil and gets involved in a play about himself.

All very intertextual. Meanwhile, Svankmajer's statement accompanying the press notes asks: 'Is our Age so decadent that all we can manage is a genuflectory protest?' What this has to do with Faust is not clear. My advice is to leave grand questions of interpretation at home and enjoy the visual jokes: the dancing brooms that fake the smoke of hell; the stage doorman who tries to put out the fire. Only Monty Python could make damnation funnier.

Manoel de Oliveira's Abraham Valley (PG) is three hours of codswallop masquerading as meaning. The heroine is Portugal's answer to Madame Bovary: cold, beautiful and unhappily married. She limps about the house, breaks her lovers' hearts and dies (not soon enough) after tripping on a lakeside jetty. The film-maker is 86; well past the age he should have retired.

Cinema details: Review, page 58.

Quentin Curtis returns next week.