For Actor Brian Mallon, the landmark film on the war’s bloodiest battle still holds up 25 years later
The Civil War community was introduced to Brian Mallon as Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock in the 1993 film Gettysburg and its 2003 successor Gods and Generals, both directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, and as the narrator of the 2011 Smithsonian Channel documentary The Fighting Irish of the Civil War. Mallon’s bona fides include the role of Pronsias Reilly in The Informant (1997) and his portrayal of the famed Welsh actor Richard Burton in Mark Jenkins’ stage play Playing Burton. Maxwell was considering Mallon for another role in Gettysburg before giving him the part of Hancock. The 66-year-old Mallon, a Detroit native of Irish descent who now lives in Dublin, recently wrote a novel about a subject close to his heart: Shane O’Neill: “The Grand Disturber” of Elizabethan Ireland (Redbranch Press, 2015).
1 Did you know much about Hancock or the Civil War before agreeing to portray him?
Very little about Hancock, but a fair bit about the war. Strangely enough, in the 1970s, I met a young fellow named Armistead in New York. He told me all about his ancestor, [Confederate] General Lewis Armistead, including the dear friendship Armistead and Hancock had. (The fellow was a direct descendant of the first wife.)
2 How did you get the role in the film?
I was doing an Irish play in Hollywood, which won seven awards, and [Gettysburg director] Ron Maxwell came to see it. He returned with his producers, and then said he wanted to meet me about an acting job. I didn’t know what the project was. I sat down with Ron in the Café Beckett, where I’d been singing, to have this chat. We’d just begun, when an Apache fellow I knew—I can’t think of his name just now—came by wearing a Union general’s hat. Ron said, ‘Nice hat!’ My friend then put the hat on my head. Ron laughed, because I didn’t know that he was about to offer me a role in The Killer Angels, as the movie was then called. Ron was going to offer me the part of Buster Kilrain, but maybe my Apache friend knew something he didn’t. He wouldn’t take the hat back. I still have it.
3 How did you prepare for the role?
Reading and more reading. I got right on it and read several biographies. Sam Elliott [who played Union Brig. Gen. John Buford] had someone doing his research and was nice enough to give me all pertaining to Hancock. On a set full of reenactors who know their stuff, you wouldn’t want to be unprepared!
4 Any fond memories or favorite scenes?
Of my own scenes, I particularly liked the one with Sam Elliott. Knowing that at the time of the war, California was a fairly new state, I chose to use an archaic pronunciation of it in my scene. Sam loved that, and I got a kick out of his response. Of the film as a whole, I’d say Little Round Top. At the time, I wondered if it would play, five charges up the same hill, but it certainly did! As for favorite memories, in fairness I’d have to say the nights in the Farnsworth House Tavern in Gettysburg. Several Irish actor friends were on the film, and a lot of fun was had. Sam Elliott was often with us, and we were referred to as “The Irish Brigade.” I enjoyed working with him. Such a great guy, and lots of fun.
5 Did your views on the war change after shooting either film?
I wouldn’t say my views per se, but I came away with a deeper understanding of the tragedy of the war itself. Both sides were fighting for what they believed was right. For the North, the Union, and for the South, perhaps a loyalty to their locality and birthplace.
6 How do you feel about Gettysburg 25 years later?
I couldn’t be prouder of it. It holds up all these years later; moves and informs new generations. So many fine actors and performances, and master work by Ron Maxwell.
7 When did you decide you wanted to write a book?
In 1983. I was reading about Shane O’Neill, a hero of Ireland in Elizabethan times. I realized that no one had ever told his real story. The two novels I found were so completely fictional, and the history book version was just contemporary propaganda that was taken as fact by virtue of repetition. But to begin at the beginning, my father died when I was 13, and I turned to my grandfather, who was immersed in Irish history. That year I stole a book from the downtown library in Detroit called Teach Yourself Irish. I knew I couldn’t learn it in the two weeks allotted to borrow it. I became fluent in Gaelic and it has driven much of my life since. I sent the book back some years later.
8 Why did you choose to write about Shane O’Neill?
Well, my father’s family was from Tyrone, O’Neill’s country in the North. The Mallons were among his principal liegemen. We were the keepers of the Bell of St. Patrick, which had to be rung to inaugurate him, and was often carried in battle to assure victory. It was put into our keeping by St. Columbkille in the 6th century, and today resides in the National Museum here in Dublin.
9 How long did it take you?
(Laughs). A long time. I started the research in ’83 and began writing it as a stage play. As I went along, I had a huge box of my notes from research. I’d get going on it, and then get cast in a play, and immersed in that for many months, so it kept going on hold. When I’d go back to it, I’d have to go through all the notes again, so it was something that hung over me for decades. When I played Richard Burton in Playing Burton, it hit me the great regret of his life was that he’d never written his book. This put a fire under me, and I finally finished it. As a play. As a script it was well received by the Abbey [the Irish National Theater in Dublin], and a few other theaters, but due to the epic nature of the piece, it would have been too costly to stage. They all told me that it needs to be a novel. So I went back to the drawing board. Six years later, I had my novel. And no more “unfinished business” hanging over my head.
10 How did you go about researching it?
All through those years I’d comb major libraries in the various cities I was in: London, New York, Dublin, even the Vatican Archives. I found so much untold history that it drove me on. Thankfully the story continued to fascinate me, and that’s what drove me to finish it.