He’s starred unforgettably as menacing colonels in Broadway and in screen. But actor Stephen Lang has A Few Good Men Avatar on the big on long preferred directing the full power of his military bearing, elastic voice, no-nonsense toughness and intuitive sense of command to interpreting and re-imagining the American Civil War in all media. And in person. Between upcoming shoots in such remote locations as Australia, Southeast Asia and Scandinavia, Lang recently found time to circle back to the site of America’s most convulsive battle and help thousands of visitors to remember it afresh. No one who knows him was surprised to see him there.
From July 1-3, Lang modestly held center stage at Gettysburg. He seemed to be everywhere, ultimately spending more time in town than Lee and Meade did in 1863. Arriving early and staying late, he performed his riveting one-man theatrical piece about a returning Gettysburg veteran and introduced both a new animated film adaptation and an all-new battle documentary. He autographed posters, DVDs and audio CDs, sat in on scholarly lectures, hung out at town landmarks and even took up temporary residence at a bullet-scarred historic home near the Peach Orchard. Other actors have dived in and out of Civil War roles, but Lang has made its history part of his art and life.
At Gettysburg, Lang obligingly posed for pictures and signatures at the National Park Service Visitor Center and attended—and took audience questions—at repeated Majestic Theater screenings of Jake Boritt’s new PBS documentary on the battle. Lang narrates the film, and though he typically tells fans he wouldn’t mind taking another crack at it, he praises Boritt’s novel use of “drone” photography to capture the Gettysburg landscape with new urgency and raves about the young documentarian’s spare but moving script. To anyone who experiences the film, it is Lang’s recognizable voice—or, rather, voices (we hear him not only as the narrator but as Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet and Abraham Lincoln, among others)—that soars.
Boritt, son of Gettysburg College Civil War historian Gabor Boritt, leaves no doubt that it matters much how his words are spoken—and by whom. “I used cutting-edge filmmaking technology, but what makes the difference is that an actor of ‘Slang’s’ stature”—employing the nickname Lang’s friends often use—“would participate in the project. He really cares.” Enough so that a few years ago, Lang also provided the voice for a best-selling auto tour of the battlefield, scripted by the younger Boritt based on Gabor Boritt’s works.
On June 30 at Gettysburg National Military Park, Lang served as the major attraction at a climactic, sold-out fundraiser, “The Salute to the States.” He performed the soliloquy he wrote in tribute to Pennsylvania Captain James Jackson Purman, who earned a Congressional Medal of Honor for carrying a fallen comrade to safety during the heat of action at the Wheatfield. To audiences packed into the main auditorium as well as an overflow theater nearby, it mattered little that a power outage had delayed the presentation by nearly two hours and roasted the premises to the climate of an Amazon rain forest. Lang sweated patiently through the blackout, and then delivered a socko reading that reduced attendees— including Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett—to tears. Afterward, Lang introduced a new animated short film adaptation, The Wheatfield, directed by twin brothers Alexander and Adrian Smith, who joined Lang on stage after the preview.
Lang’s own Civil War experiences go back at least 20 years. He played General George E. Pickett in Gettysburg, Robert Maxwell’s film adaptation of Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, then returned for Maxwell’s prequel, Gods and Generals, in the role of “Stonewall” Jackson. He brought his customary intensity to both of these characters, but also a serious exploration of the historical sources.
“I read everything I could about Pickett, though it starts and ends with Killer Angels,” Lang reminisced. “The real clue to Pickett is in the portraits— he had the saddest eyes ever. Pickett epitomizes a romantic, cavalier, what-the-hell quality. Even on a battlefield filled with myths, Pickett occupies his own shining space.
“It wasn’t a particularly difficult role. It was all in the details: his curls, his horsemanship, his devotion to Longstreet. Pickett’s misunderstanding of the true situation on the third day of Gettysburg is based on his total belief in Lee and Longstreet, and that is helpful in understanding him. He presents all the innocent and, let’s face it, ignorant young fellas who put their faith in their commanders. He makes Armistead smarter, makes Kemper more cynical, makes Longstreet more dour, and of course makes Lee more godlike. The pathetic sadness of the eternal adolescent gives Pickett a wash of tarnish along with the shine and sparkle.”
Slang is currently on the road with a one-man show about Medal of Honor recipients past and present. One senses that if they gave medals of honor for keeping history alive and well, he would be at the top of the list. And also that, even after the dust settles on the Gettysburg battlefield following its 150th, he will be back.
Historian Harold Holzer is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation. His latest book is The History of the Civil War in 50 Objects from the New-York Historical Society.
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.