Tuesday, April 15, 2014



In my quest to raise my profile with the film goers of America, Madame Rose, my publicist, has suggested a major romance with someone of equal celebrity. Our courtship can be featured in such fine publications as People, US, Entertainment Weekly, and Infomercial Today. Of course, I am such a major star that I need to find a romantic partner who can even begin to live up to my level of celebrity and that narrows the field somewhat. As a first step, I headed down to the bar at Chateau Marmont last night for celebrity singles night. Joseph, my agent, told me that anyone who is anyone would be there.

I must admit there were a number of attractive gentlemen lined up at the bar when I arrived and it didn't take long for me to begin chatting with some likely prospects. Nicolas Cage seemed awfully enthused but I really don't like dating on the rebound and besides, we look a little too much alike and it needs to be clear, in any relationship, that I'm the pretty one. Pat Kingsley sidled up to me, offering to trade me Tom Cruise's phone number for my signature on a twenty-three page non-disclosure contract. I found that a bit excessive but told her she could submit it to Fajer and Hellmann, my attorneys, but that as I am the bigger star, my pre-dating contract would likely be larger and more detailed. I did have a lovely conversation with Wes Bentley, who really does seem my type, but his box office really isn't up to my standards.

After all the usual pleasantries, I returned home, dateless, but hardly desperate and decided to settle in with a film. As I had been in a coterie of male companionship, I looked for a film about men and settled on Ronald Maxwell's epic Gettysburg, which was made for television in 1993. Ted Turner, then lord of the Turner broadcasting empire (before its merger with Time-Warner), had read and fallen in love with Michael Shaara's non-fiction novel, The Killer Angels about the famous battle and commissioned a major film adaptation for his TNT network. Permission was obtained to film on the actual battlefield (and nearby farm lands where the battlefield with its monuments would not suffice) and thousands of Civil War re-enactors were engaged to play the opposing armies.

The film, like the book, is a detailed account of the three days of battle at Gettysburg that changed the course of the Civil War and, therefore, American history. The Confederate army, under General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen), has invaded the north in a desperate attempt to engage the Union army and, if possible, destroy it, leaving the road open for a march on Washington DC. The film is told mainly from the point of view of the Confederates as they maneuver their forces, trying to contain the Union until Lee orders the fateful frontal assault under George Pickett (Stephen Lang) that pretty much lost the battle, wiping out most of Pickett's division.

The recreation of the battle scenes, with thousands of extras, is exact in its details and great care was taken to make sure the troops move and fire exactly as they would have in 1863. This documentary realism, however, is not especially cinematic. Director Maxwell favors long shots and sweeping vistas of charging men and it's very difficult to tell who's doing what to whom half the time. Eventually, one charge is very like another and, as there are several dozen over the film's four hour running time, it starts to feel like four score and seven hours. Careful attention was paid to costuming and properties, but the make-up department must have been shortchanged. The film features a bewildering array of badly fitting fake period facial hair pieces. The idiotic muttonchops and droopy moustaches look so thoroughly glued on, that it detracts from nearly every close up.

Much of the visual look of the film was taken from period photographs and famous paintings of the era and a number of shots are picture perfect recreations of iconic images. It's fun recognizing them but they smack a bit of lazy director who could not find a more original visual language in which to couch his narrative. The script, also by Maxwell, incorporates a large number of actual quotes from the historical figures involved. Unfortunately, rather than delivering these in any sort of naturalistic manner, the actors pose and declaim as if a herd of reporters were right behind taking them down for posterity.

For the most part, the performances are uninspired. Sheen's Robert E. Lee seems to be channeling Marlon Brando circa The Island of Dr. Moreau and he seems more bewildered than confident in his marshalling of his army. Tom Berenger, as his top aide, General Longstreet, hidden behind a fake beard that looks like a demented beaver, proceeds through his scenes at glacial pace. On the other side, Jeff Daniels, as Colonel Chamberlin, the savior of Little Round Top, tries to inject some humanity into his part but suffers from playing most of his scenes opposite C. Thomas Howell as his brother. Mr. Howell's thespian talents are, shall we say, limited. The film only crackles to life when Sam Elliott turns up as the Union General Brigadier John Buford, who first confronts the Confederates from the high ground around the seminary.

While the film succeeds as a history lesson, it fails as a drama. I give it a tepid recommendation, at best, as I suppose it's the next best thing to actually having been there and the visualization is such that one can guess as to what the battle must actually have been like. Ken Burns, in his PBS documentary The Civil War, was able to inject the same events with much more life using only old stills, maps, a plaintive musical score and some narration.

Old Irish campaigner. Mutinous Maine regiment. Gratuitous British Army observer. Mortally wounded generals. Charges up hills. Charges over walls. Charges over fences. Gratuitous actor spy.

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