Turner Pictures' $20-million "Gettysburg," which opened at theaters nationwide yesterday, is as close to moguldom as Ted Turner can get. For now, at least.
It's his "Birth of a Nation" meets "Ran": a four-hour plus adaptation of "The Killer Angels," the 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Shaara about the men behind one of the bloodiest battles in U.S. history. It has an all-star, all-guy cast that includes Martin Sheen (Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee), Tom Berenger (Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet), Jeff Daniels (Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain) and Sam Elliott (Union Brig. Gen. John Buford).
The movie also features about 5,000 extras. There's also Mr. Turner himself. He plays an anonymous Reb who squawks out a single line, "Let's go!" before dropping dead during Pickett's famously doomed charge. ("It took about four takes," he says of his blink-and-you'll-miss-it part. "When I fell, I just didn't want to drop my sword on someone.")
"Gettysburg" is a sweeping, relentless thing. It doesn't mess with the usual Hollywood conventions of love interests or fretting loved ones back home. Instead, it concentrates on the nobly tortured souls of those leading both sides of the war -- as well as, seemingly, every single one of the Battle of Gettysburg's roughly 50,000 casualties, all dropping to the sounds of a booming musical score. Civil War buffs especially will love it. Originally planned as a miniseries for Mr. Turner's TNT network, the movie was soon viewed as too big for the small screen.
Mr. Turner, who seems never to have met an idea that wasn't the grandest thing to come down the pike, already is calling it an Oscar winner.
He rattles off the film's numbers as though he were quoting batting averages: biggest cast in North American history ("there have been more in Europe and North Africa"), longest American movie ever made (" 'Cleopatra' was four hours and three minutes. I wanted it to be the longest. It makes a statement. Says it's important.") Press materials list Mr. Turner's film at four hours and eight minutes long.
For those involved in actually making the movie, "Gettysburg" was a different kind of experience from what they're used to. Few of the actors were from the South and had little attachment to the Civil War. But many of them quickly found themselves consumed in researching the era and their parts.
Mr. Daniels recalls walking the grounds at Gettysburg, where much of the movie was shot, and standing alone one morning at the spot on Little Round Top where the Union officer he portrays conducted one of the war's great defenses.
"There were ghosts," he says. "Could you hear them or see them? No. But you could feel them."
He also was initially unnerved by that peculiar creature known as the Civil War re-enactor. Mr. Daniels says that during the filming, none of them ever referred to him as anything but "Colonel Chamberlain," often saluting him as they passed. "You're sitting there in a T-shirt, jeans, drinking a Diet Coke, and they're walking by saluting and saying, 'Sir.' The first time, you want to say, 'Get a life.' But then it keeps happening, and you realize the importance of the war, of Gettysburg, to them, and you realize this ain't just a job to them."
After filming the impassioned speech Buford gave his men before ordering them to charge the enemy, Mr. Daniels says, the re-enactors in front of him were crying. "It was like a Broadway play," he says. "They were right there. You had to reach down and pull out these big heroic emotions. It was different than being the hero in 'Die Hard.' "
Mr. Sheen originally turned down the role of Lee. He says that not being from the South, he couldn't imagine breathing life into Dixie's ultimate icon. But Mr. Berenger, a Southerner, faxed him tons of material, and convinced Mr. Sheen he could play Lee. He, too, soon found himself referred to as "General Lee" and "Massa Bobby" by the re-enactors.
He says the eeriest moment came one afternoon when he rode on a horse by the Confederate re-enactors as they waited to film Pickett's Charge. With no cameras rolling, the phony Rebs suddenly rushed out of the woods, surrounded him and his horse, reached out to touch him and chanted Lee's name. Director Ron Maxwell (an Emmy nominee for 1978's "Verna: nTC U.S.O. Girl") was so moved by the weird moment he had Mr. Sheen ride past the re-enactors again to catch it on film. The scene, one of the film's most moving, was not in the script.
For Mr. Maxwell, who also wrote the screenplay, "Gettysburg" is the end of a 15-year ordeal. Since reading "Killer Angels," he became obsessed with wanting to turn it into a film. He lugged his screenplay all over the place, but nobody would touch it. He eventually sold his house in New York and borrowed money from friends to keep the project alive. Then Mr. Turner came along.
"If it wasn't for him, I'd still be flogging this script in Hollywood," Mr. Maxwell says. "He's like the studio heads were back in the '30s and '40s, when there was one guy with a passion and enthusiasm calling the shots. He's like the old impresarios.
"It's an exorcism," he adds of getting the movie made. "I feel
Mr. Turner, meanwhile, says he feels like he always feels: on top of the world.
"I told Jane [Fonda], 'What do I do for an encore?' " he says. "This was like hitting five homers in a game. It's a lifetime achievement. If I die tomorrow, I'll be grateful: I did green light a movie, against the strong advice from a lot of quarters. Now I want to make as many great films as possible."