NEW YORK — NO one has any reason to doubt media magnate Ted Turner's devotion to Southern history, but if further proof is required it is provided in the new film ``Gettysburg,'' which opens in theaters around the country today. Turner originally made it as a miniseries for his TNT network, but was so pleased with the results that he decided to release it theatrically. This, despite the film's 4-1/2-hour running time.
The film is written and directed by Ronald Maxwell, and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ``Killer Angels'' by Michael Shaara. It is the most exhaustive re-creation of the Civil War ever made on film; for that matter, it is one of the most spectacular depictions of warfare ever committed to celluloid. Filmed on the original locations with thousands of extras playing soldiers, its verisimilitude is positively spooky. Which is not to say that it belongs on the big screen, despite its large budget, lavish production, and 70-mm presentation. The film, in attempting to document every aspect of the conflict, goes into so much detail that dramatic momentum is lost. At times the pacing is so slow that we wish the South had won the war.
``Gettysburg'' is best when it veers away from talkiness (there are several long, philosophical conversations about the meaning of the war) and concentrates on the battles, which it goes into with enough detail to satisfy even the most stringent military historian. Particularly fascinating are the re-creations of the siege of Little Round Top, and of Pickett's Charge, the most legendary battle of the war. In scenes such as these, stirringly filmed, the movie transforms itself from a classroom exercise into gripping drama.
A large cast of notables appears, including Turner himself in a cameo as a Confederate soldier who meets a quick death. Strong performances are provided by Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels, and Sam Elliott as various commanders; Kevin Conway as a spunky soldier continuing to fight despite a number of wounds; and Martin Sheen, who, as Robert E. Lee, effectively portrays decency and dignity. And Richard Jordan, in his last screen appearance, gives one of the best performances of his career.
``Gettysburg'' may not appeal to everyone, but history buffs and the thousands of people who visit the tragic historic site every year (the film may be shown continuously there), will no doubt ensure that it will have a permanent place in the annals of historical films.