Gettysburg appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-Ray Disc. I found the movie to present a satisfactory but not terrific transfer.
Sharpness was decent much of the time. Some wider shots demonstrated bouts of softness, and the image could be a smidgen blocky on occasion, but it usually showed good clarity and accuracy. No issues with shimmering or jaggies occurred, and only a little light edge enhancement was visible. Source flaws remained absent; the image could be oddly grainy in some shots, but no actual print defects emerged.
Colors favored a subdued natural palette. The movie usually stayed with earthy tones, though of course, the uniforms meant a lot of blues and grays. Hues appeared acceptable; they weren’t exactly strong, but they seemed reasonably full. Blacks were a bit inky, and shadows tended to appear somewhat dense; in particular, nighttime shots looked a little opaque. The image consistently remained watchable but it remained fairly average.
At least the DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack of Gettysburg showed more life, though one shouldn’t expect Saving Private Ryan level auditory mayhem here. Gettysburg hit screens when Dolby Digital and DTS were just entering the market; Dolby Surround was the norm before that.
I don’t know what kind of mix Gettysburg originally boasted, but the soundfield had something of a “Dolby Surround” feel to it. The track used the surrounds in an effective way, though not as actively as one would expect from a newer mix. The back channels added goood reinforcement to the battles but didn’t demonstrate as much unique material as one might anticipate, and split-surround information was infrequent. The surrounds still had a lot to do, however, and they contributed a nice layer of involvement to the warfare.
The forward channels worked well, too. Music demonstrated nice stereo imaging, and the elements of battle spread nicely across the speakers. These combined into a solid package, though again, I suspect a more modern track would’ve created a more compelling presentation; the mix was positive but not excellent.
Audio quality appeared good. Speech was consistently concise and distinctive, without edginess or other issues. Music showed fairly nice range and heft, and effects were positive. Bass could be somewhat boomy and the effects didn’t create an intense impression, but they were clear and acceptably accurate. All of this ended up as a “B” soundtrack.
On Disc One, we get an audio commentary from director/screenwriter Ronald F. Maxwell, cinematographer Kees Van Oostrum, author James McPherson and military historian Craig Symonds. All sit separately for this scene-specific track. They discuss various aspects of shooting the film as well as many historical elements related to the Civil War and the events depicted in the movie.
As I mentioned, this is a scene-specific commentary, which means statements don’t come as a constant companion. The track originally appeared on the film’s DVD, and it’s unclear if it skipped the many gaps or if it forced you to sit through the whole movie to get the sparse comments.
Whatever the case was with the DVD, the Blu-ray definitely makes you watch all 271 minutes of Gettysburg to find those occasional notes. That makes it a poorly executed extra, as it becomes a serious chore to listen to the commentary.
When the speakers provide information, they deliver good notes. We get a smattering of nice insights related to the production, and the historical elements add depth to our understanding of the movie and the real events.
Unfortunately, the acres of dead air will mean that only a few hardy souls will sit through this endurance test. The track provides some weird choices in addition to the blank spaces. On occasion, a speaker will get cut off in mid-sentence and his notes will resume a few minutes later. Why? This makes a slow track even less cohesive. With more efficient presentation, the commentary would’ve satisfied, but the unfortunate decision to force listeners to go through 4 and a half hours of film to hear maybe 90 minutes of commentary makes this a disappointment.
Three featurettes show up on Disc Two, which is a DVD, not a Blu-ray. The Making of Gettysburg goes for 52 minutes, three seconds and offers notes from Maxwell, executive producers Robert Katz and Moctesuma Esparza, filmmaker Ken Burns, historian/novelist Shelby Foote, special effects coordinator Matt Vogel, production designer Cary White, reenactor corps commander Michael Kraus, property master Kelly Farrah, assistant property master Dr. Ray Giron, makeup supervisor Allan Apone, military choreographer Dale Fetzer, historical advisor Brian Pohanka, and actors Jeff Daniels, Stephen Lang, Sam Elliott, Martin Sheen, Tom Berenger, C. Thomas Howell, and Andrew Prine.
Like the commentary, “Making” mixes notes about the production and the historical events that inspired it. Unlike the commentary, it does so in an efficient, pleasing manner. The program inevitably repeats some info from the commentary, but it remains more satisfying since it moves at a good pace and suffers from no real lulls. “Making” delivers a solid recap of both historical and filmmaking areas.
On Location runs five minutes, 31 seconds as it shows what it describes: footage from the set. We get basic images from the shoot without any commentary or additional information. I’d have liked a little perspective, but it’s still interesting to see the documentation of the battle sequences.
Finally, The Battle of Gettysburg fills 29 minutes, 35 seconds. Narrated by Leslie Nielsen, it provides a 1955 Cinemascope recap of the events at Gettysburg. It does so with shots of the territory circa 1955 as well as various artistic elements; no reenactment occurs. This is an interesting archival piece, though unfortunately, it lacks anamorphic enhancement, so the Cinemascope photography gets crammed into a small window.
In addition to the film’s trailer, we find some Battlefield Maps. This feature occupies seven minutes, 36 seconds as it lets us see fairly detailed charts of the territory along with commentary from Symonds that explains the maps. The piece allows us to get a nice overview of the tactics and methods involved in the battles.
Next we find Ron Maxwell’s Invitation to Take the Journey Through Hallowed Ground. It lasts seven minutes, one second, and acts as a pitch for the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership. It really isn’t anything more than a long advertisement.
For this release, the package comes in a hardcover book. It includes an introduction from Maxwell, historical and production notes, cast/character biographies, a Civil War timeline, “Gettysburg By the Numbers” and photos. The book adds a nice finish to the set.
A sprawling, detailed examination of a pivotal moment in American history, Gettysburg brings the battles to life. It mixes warfare with character moments in a satisfying manner to turn into a nice historical drama. The Blu-ray provides average visuals, good audio and a reasonably nice set of supplements marred mainly by poor implementation of an audio commentary. For the most part, the Blu-ray gives us a positive presentation of an involving historical drama.