Director conjures ghosts of Longstreet, Lee at Gettysburg

AMONG THE ANGELS

August 12, 1992|By Patrick McGuire | Patrick McGuire,Staff Writer

Gettysburg, Pa. -- In a sun-drenched, tree-lined meadow on a corner of the battlefield here, director Ron Maxwell talked quietly of ghosts. "It all starts with ghosts," said the man who is filming "The Killer Angels," a Turner Network Television movie based on Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the three-day battle fought here in 1863.

Mr. Shaara, who died four years ago, once told Mr. Maxwell that he wrote his novel because Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet spoke to him from the grave. "Mike's here with us," said Mr. Maxwell, glancing around the meadow. "He's one of the ghosts."

Indeed, sprawled beneath shade trees on the edge of the meadow, several of the hundreds of ragged rebel re-enacters who have trekked from as far away as California to be part of this film told vivid stories of seeing ghosts at their campsites the past few nights. Even TNT's Nick Lombardo, describing himself as "the ultimate, jaded Hollywood executive," said he felt something.

"When Ron insisted on filming this movie here on the battlefield, I thought 'Oh God.' I sent some people out to scout the site and they came back and said 'Nick, it can't be done anywhere else.' So I came out and I found myself getting goose bumps while I was here. Whatever it is, this thing is catching."

Of course, those who dismissed such talk had only to wait until Mr. Maxwell returned to the cameras trained on that meadow. At the commands "Rolling! Action!" a dappled gray horse bearing a courtly old man in a blue-gray coat and a plain, unadorned gray hat rode across the ground.

"General Longstreet!" called the old man. A few yards ahead, the Confederate army -- they hardly seemed like re-enacters now -- with their bayonets fixed, their faces grim and bloodied, marched slowly down the road. A middle-aged officer with a flowing brown beard sat in their midst, astride a chestnut horse. A much bigger man -- although, somehow, not nearly as commanding -- he turned and registered surprise.

"General Lee," he said in a soft drawl, removing his wide-brimmed brown hat and sweeping it down across his saddle with a flourish.

Then, Robert E. Lee -- or was it the actor, Martin Sheen? -- caught up with Longstreet -- could it possibly have been only the actor Tom Berenger? -- and the two rode on, speaking softly of the battle unfolding around them.

Nick Lombardo was right: goose bumps.

"You have to look at things in a spiritual context," said Mr. Maxwell. "Something moved me when I read this book in 1978. It got hold of me. I spent my life savings, I sold my house, I've been trying to get this movie made for 14 years. There is a spiritual element that can't be denied. Lee and Longstreet are talking to us. They have said, 'We want to live again.' "

Assuming Mr. Maxwell completes his 10-week shooting schedule September, Lee and Longstreet will come to life on cable TV screens over three nights sometime next May or June. At $12 million, the project is about three times that of a typical cable TV movie. "We start getting nosebleeds at the $10 million height," said Mr. Lombardo. "This film will be a loss leader for us, but we wanted to do some special things to stand out from the crowd. And Ted [Turner, president of TNT] is a big fan of history."

In fact, Mr. Turner will play an extra in the Pickett's charge scene to be filmed next week, partially on the battlefield and partly in a nearby farm. Maxwell's crew originally asked the National Parks Service for permission to spend 60 days on the battlefield, but strict federal regulations ruled out any scenes showing opposing fire or combat. He eventually pared down the scenes on the actual battlefield to only eight days' worth of shooting.

"I looked all over Europe, and all over the Eastern seaboard, but the topography here is totally unique," he said. "You have open fields, the Round Tops, the Devils Den area. It's just the best place to do it. It was also an equidistant point for re-enacters to come to."

BThe movie will use more volunteer re-enacters -- a breed of living historian obsessed with the accuracy of their uniforms and gear -- than any other Civil War film to date. Mr. Maxwell plans to use about 3,000 of them in his re-creation of Pickett's charge -- most of which will be shot on private farmland. While some of the filming has been visible to tourists visiting the battlefield, the sets are officially closed and the public is not encouraged to come to Gettysburg just to see the movie, said assistant park superintendent Robert Davidson.

Mr. Maxwell, whose previous movies have included teen-oriented films such as "Little Darlings" and "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia," bought the rights to "The Killer Angels" in 1980 but found it hard to convince a studio to back a period picture. Not until Ken Burns' documentary on the Civil War aired did the project win backing -- although when he sought permission to film on the battlefield, several preservation groups protested.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.