Ken Burns says he was inspired to make his landmark documentary The Civil War by Michael Shaara's 1974 historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels. After Shaara died in 1988, his son, Jeff, wrote a prequel, Gods and Generals, about the first two years of the bloody conflict.
Director Ron Maxwell made both into films, and Warner Home Video is releasing extended Blu-ray versions with a multitude of extras.
Gettysburg (1993) was shot on some locations at the Pennsylvania battlefield, now a national park. Thousands of Civil War buffs re-enacted the fight, in which 43,000 soldiers were killed out of 158,000 who fought.
One of the key stories told in Gettysburg is that of Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels). On the second day of the three-day fight, his Union troops from Maine held the heights at Little Round Top, preventing the Southern forces from outflanking the Northern army, and with little ammunition, they counterattacked and drove the Southern rebels off the hill. Lawrence was awarded the Medal of Honor and in all likelihood saved the Union.
That loss spurred Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to try the ultimately flawed and fatal decision of sending troops across an open field toward superior Union forces fortified with cannon. Pickett's Charge, as it became known, sounded the death knell for the South.
These pivotal moments in our history are told in a clear and straightforward manner, bringing history to life without sacrificing accuracy.
Maxwell's Gods and Generals (2003) isn't as successful, as it doesn't focus on one battle and, for the most part, uncomfortably skirts the main issue of the war: slavery. Dealing with that stain on this country was not Michael Shaara's or the director's aim, but it's difficult to see Confederate Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang) tell one of his slaves that the South will free him and not think: hypocrite.
The new editions' extras include commentary and documentaries about the battles and figures. Both films are relatively sanitized, with PG-13 ratings.
Gettysburg: Director's Cut retails for $34.99 on Blu-ray; Gods and Generals: Extended Director's Cut retails for $29.95 and $34.99 on Blu-ray.