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In Gods and Generals, the epic prequel to the epic Gettysburg, its writer, producer and director Ronald F. Maxwell, deals not only with the American Civil War and two of its great battles, but with the profound effect the war had on the lives of those who weren’t at the front. He also got media mogul Ted Turner to play a part. Andrew L. Urban reports.

The setting:
In 1861, Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) declines the President’s offer to lead the Union Army, but elects to protect his home state of Virginia. General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson (Stephen Lang) prepares the troops for battle in the South, while in the North, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) heads to war alongside his brother Lt Thomas Chamberlain (C. Thomas Howell). Jackson takes great comfort in his faith in God as he leaves his wife Anna (Kali Rocha) behind, and Chamberlain farewells his wife Fanny (Mira Sorvino). Over the course of the following two years, the armies fight and suffer on the battlefields and their families live in dread as the American Civil War drags on . . .

“In Gettysburg, we were focused strictly on the fighting men on the front lines,” says Ronald F. Maxwell. “One of the big differences in this film is that because of characters like Anna Jackson, Jane Beale and Fanny Chamberlain, we have the perspective of a civilian life thrown into chaos, of the literal and figurative invasion of the home front.”

"I was looking for firsthand accounts of what was going on at the home front"

The war had profound effects on both Northern society and, to a greater extent, Southern society, as the war was fought in and around Southern territory. Maxwell needed to understand the point of view of civilians caught between the clashing armies. “I was looking for firsthand accounts of what was going on at the home front, because the war came home during the Battle of Fredericksburg.” 

In his research, Maxwell came upon Jane Beale’s diary, a record of her experiences living in Fredericksburg through the war years. Mia Dillon plays Beale, a woman who found herself and her family in the midst of battle when the war came to her front door. In the diary, Beale describes her grief at the loss of her son, who was killed fighting near Williamsburg (Virginia) in May of 1862, and her anger towards the Union army encroaching upon her home. “It is painfully humiliating to feel one’s self a captive, but all sorrow for self is now lost in the deeper feeling of anxiety for our army….”

“One of the things that popular culture has not shown us,” says Maxwell, “is that the Confederate Army (fighting for the pro-slave South) moved on the backs of African Americans. The Army could not have functioned without them – they were the teamsters and the laborers and the cooks and the quartermaster corps.” 

While the majority of white males were off at war, African Americans were instrumental in keeping the South moving domestically, labouring in factories that provided necessary materials to outfit the army, and working on plantations and in homes. In Gods and Generals, the part of Martha, a slave who worked as a domestic servant for Jane Beale in Fredericksburg, is played by Donzaleigh Abernathy, daughter of Civil Rights leader Ralph Abernathy and author of the upcoming book Partners to History: Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy and the American Civil Rights Movement. 

Abernathy had a powerful personal motivation to take on the role. “I wanted to honour the memory of my great grandfather George Abernathy, who was born a slave, and my other ancestors who were trapped in the evil oppression of two hundred and forty-four years of slavery. They were beautiful, elegant, dignified human beings and not savages. I want everyone to know who they were, how they felt and that the Civil War gave us our freedom.”

“These African American characters have to be put into the context of their time, into the dilemma that they confronted at the time,” Maxwell cautions. “There are conflicting loyalties – there’s a loyalty to one’s people, people that were held in bondage, and there’s also a loyalty to place. There’s a loyalty to neighbour, and there was a loyalty to whites that the blacks were living with. It was much more complicated than meets the eye. And we try to get into these complex layers in this film.”

"it’s as close to perfect as any motion picture can possibly be"

In order to do justice to the stories of those who lived and fought during the Civil War years, Maxwell wanted to assure the highest possible level of historical accuracy on the film. To this end, he called upon a number of relationships with Civil War authorities he had established while working on Gettysburg, sending the screenplay to over a dozen of these historians. “I can certainly say the script was vetted,” says Maxwell. “All of this extra research and input from the historians doesn’t mean Gods and Generals is historically perfect, but it means it’s as close to perfect as any motion picture can possibly be.” 

Also largely contributing to the film’s authenticity are more than 7,500 Civil War “re-enactors,” men and women with a strong interest in the history of the Civil War who dress in the style of the period, both as soldiers and civilians, and exactingly re-enact battles in order to educate by bringing the era to life. Dedicated re-enactors bring a level of accuracy to the film that could not be achieved with the standard “extras” who are usually employed to fill out crowds in movies. 

“No re-enactors, no movie,” stresses Maxwell. “The re-enactors are not just people filling out the background of a scene; not only do they look right in terms of their costumes and their weaponry, but they project the right attitude. I can include them in big close-ups and it looks realistic, because they’re into the moment the way an actor is into the moment.”

(Maxwell is no stranger to epic movies. His directorial career was launched when he was serving as an assistant to Charlton Heston during the filming of the 1973 film Antony & Cleopatra, when Heston gave him the opportunity to direct a scene with the second unit. He has subsequently produced and/or directed tv dramas, movies and documentaries.)

Media mogul/filmmaker/executive producer Ted Turner, reprises his Gettysburg role as Waller Tazewell Patton, Confederate Colonel and great uncle of legendary World War II General George S. Patton. Turner took part in scenes with Robert Duvall in which Lee enjoys a United Service Organizations (USO)-style camp show with his officers and troops at his headquarters near Moss Neck, Virginia. 

Turner (who admits to saving his costume from Gettysburg) worked a full day on the Maryland location, singing along to a robust rendition of the pro-South song The Bonnie Blue Flag and delivering a line of dialogue commending General Hood, played by Patrick Gorman: “We owe you Texas boys a debt of gratitude for putting on these shows.” As the head of Ted Turner Pictures, which fully financed Gods and Generals, it should be noted that Turner received union scale pay for his appearance – US$636.

"By watching movies and studying history, maybe we can avoid some of the mistakes of the past"

Turner was happy to throw his support behind the film. “I thought this movie needed to be made,” he says. “Young men and old men fighting and dying l00 years ago, just as they do today, is a great tragedy. By watching movies and studying history, maybe we can avoid some of the mistakes of the past.”

Another cameo part went to Maxwell himself. “When I directed Gettysburg, I thought I’d do the ‘Hitchcock’ trick of appearing in the film,” he says. “However, the beards and makeup covered me so well, no could find me on screen, so I decided to try again.” 

On the final day of principal photography, Maxwell left his director’s chair, bearded but recognisable, and crossed to the other side of the camera to play a Union officer among Colonel Chamberlain’s weary 20th Maine Regiment as they retreat to the north bank of the Rappahannock River.

Thus he has played two historic roles simultaneously: one as a soldier in the Civil War, the other as a documentarian of that war.

Published October 2, 2003

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Ronald F. Maxwell


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