Gods and Moguls
After the events of September 11, even historical fiction takes on new meaning. Just ask Ted Turner
Even standing nose-to-nose, Ted Turner addresses you as if you’re in the next county. "It’s a silly thing for young men and old men to kill each other," he trumpets, with his odd inflections. "You don’t see many women doing it. They’re too smart." His snowy mustache quivers. "That’s why I like women better than men." Then, a raucous cackle. "Ha ha ha. That’s one of the reasons."
Over the pop-pop-pop of crackling muskets across a cornfield where 500 Civil War reenactors play out the Battle of Fredericksburg and special effects machines send up clouds of puffy white smoke, Turner’s voice booms. And on the rural Maryland set of his testosterone-charged $54 million Civil War epic, Gods and Generals, the founder of CNN and Ted Turner Pictures, which is bankrolling the movie, seems to tower over director Ron Maxwell, actors Robert Duvall (as Robert E. Lee) and Stephen Lang (as "Stonewall" Jackson).
Everything about Turner (net worth: $6 billion) is oversize. His knee-high boots, his trailer, his $20 million, 68-foot "long-range" business jet parked nearby. "It’s a Challenger," his companion Frederique D’arragon offers. (She’s not big, but she has a big French accent and plump auburn curls caressing the lush fur collar of her black jacket.) Even the gold-handled tasseled sword hanging from the side of Turner’s scratchy gray wool jacket seems bigger than the other actors’, as if it came from the prop closet marked "gods," not "generals."
Turner’s part, however, is tiny. (His character, Col. Waller Patton, has only one line of dialogue.) Before taking his place on the set, he kisses Frederique on the lips. "Good-bye," he says to her. "Wait for me. I’m off to the front."
"Rolling...Action," yells director Maxwell through a battery-charged megaphone.
"Cell phones off, please," the director bellows. "And no flash cameras." (The accessory du jour of the appropriately whiskered reenactors is not a circa 1862 canteen, cartridge box or ten-pound Enfield musket rifle but palm-size point-and-shoot cameras.)
The scene is an exterior of the Confederate Army’s winter quarters, where battle-weary soldiers are enjoying a musical revue put on by a minstrel band, made up of members of the Texas brigade, on a makeshift stage. There’s a banjo, a few guitars and a comely wench in a hoopskirt who leads the troops in singing "Bonny Blue Flag." Turner delivers his line with gusto: "We owe your Texas boys a debt of gratitude for putting on these shows." The reenactors hoot and holler. Turner claps high and hard, as if he’s watching an Atlanta Braves game.
Slated for a fall 2002 release, Gods and Generals follows on the success of Gettysburg, a feature movie and a four-hour TNT television miniseries also directed by Maxwell (based on the late Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Killer Angels). After Shaara died in May 1988, the director suggested that Shaara’s son Jeff, then a rare-coin dealer, continue his father’s story. Jeff had never thought of himself as a writer, but Maxwell convinced him to give it a try after reading a moving letter from him. Today, Shaara is costumed for his cameo as a major in the Texas brigade. Robert E. Lee IV is also visiting today, though he is not one of the many celebrity walk-ons in the film. These include Senators Phil Gramm, George Allen and Robert Byrd, who plays an adjutant to Lee and who celebrated his 84th birthday on the set.
More than 7,500 reenactors applied—many via e-mail to the film’s Web site—to re-create the battles of Manassas I, Antietam, Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, the largest in the film, which in actuality saw 12,000 casualties.
"If you’re looking for heroes," Turner says, eyeing the gray and blue figures, "there’s plenty of them here." The crew was on location on a farm south of Staunton, Virginia, when they heard the grim news of September 11. Shooting was suspended. A minister was brought to the set, and later some of the cast and crew attended church services, the reenactors’ faces still caked with stage blood and jackets torn by bullet holes. "Every speech rings true, even more after September 11," says actor Jeff Daniels, who portrays Col. Joshua Chamberlain. "It speaks to what we’re defending. These guys were defending it 100 years after Washington made it happen."
"We have a lot of scenes of loved ones parting," says actor Bruce Box-leitner (Gen. James Longstreet). "[The Civil War] was an era when America was ripped apart by the most horrendous situation, and yet we put ourselves back together and were stronger. The message is: no matter what we face, we can get through it."
"When I was a kid, patriotism was very out of vogue," says Jeff Shaara, 49, who was 4-F during the Vietnam War. "Now there’s an obvious resurgence, and it’s not mindless. It’s a sense of 'Who are we?' People want to feel good about the country again. For a long time, people of our generation didn’t. My grandfather had an 'America: Love It or Leave It' bumper sticker. I was mortified."
"It’s about partings and farewells, and reunions and the real nitty-gritty elemental stuff of life," says Maxwell, 55, a conscientious objector during Vietnam. "We filmed scenes like that when all this was happening across America. Husbands and wives going off to Afghanistan. It was doubly emotional for us. Doubly poignant. This love of country has always been there. It’s either been latent, repressed or denied. And the proof was September 11. You cannot create something that was not in people’s hearts to begin with."
With the White House and Hollywood joining forces to promote patriotic entertainment, Gods and Generals seems well-positioned to succeed at the box office. Of course, as screenwriter William Goldman famously observed about Hollywood: "Nobody knows anything." That includes Turner. "What am I, a soothsayer? I don’t know what the mood of the country is going to be." Then, for the first time all day his voice quiets. "We’re making a war movie to try and get people not to like war," he says, walking to his trailer.