Ron Maxwell is the director of Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. The latter, which appeared in theaters eight years ago, was a four-hour experience (3 hours, 45 minutes plus a 15-minute intermission), unusually long for a movie. Yet, over an hour of film had to be left on the cutting-room floor to trim it to that length. With the release of the extended director’s cut of Gods and Generals now available on DVD and Blu-Ray, viewers can see what had to be left out, including the scenes involving a John Wilkes Booth character. Jay Wertz, a frequent contributor to HistoryNet, recently interviewed Maxwell about the new version and his next project, Copperhead.
Q: The extended director’s cut of Gods and Generals, now available on DVD and Blu-Ray, is premiering eight years after the original release of the film. What’s new in this version, and why should those who saw the film in theaters see it now?
A: We originally filmed a screenplay that was over 200 pages. So we knew when we were filming that we had at least four hours of material. When we got into the post-production, there was a debate that went on many months. Should we release two movies over two years—or should we release just one? Ted Turner [and] the executives at Warner Brothers left it up to me, as the filmmaker. And I struggled with it. Finally, I thought it would not be a good idea to break what I call the Homeric arc of the film’s main character, who was Stonewall Jackson. So in order to retain that dramatic structure of the rise of a relatively obscure professor to become one of the greatest military leaders in history and then to see his death (ironically as the result of friendly fire) metaphorically as the coup de grace—the death of the Confederacy—I thought you needed to see that all in one experience. So once that decision was made we had the task of cutting this five hours of material down to the maximum releasable length for one movie.
We had tests at various theaters across America in the summer and early fall of 2002 and finally locked it down at the length it was released at, approximately 3 hours, 45 minutes plus a 15-minute intermission. So it was still a four-hour experience for the moviegoer. As a result, we left at least an hour to an hour-and-a-half’s worth of material on the cutting-room floor. This had two negative consequences for our theatrical release: No. 1, because we had to take so much out, I must confess the story-telling became disjointed in a way that we just couldn’t completely fix. The second thing that it did—it was still a four-hour experience for the moviegoer—so it still depressed the turnout and we ended up falling between two stools. We had a film that was not as good as the film we had filmed dramatically in a storytelling fashion, and we depressed the turnout because of its length. In retrospect, I would have gone with the suggestion made by Warner Brothers studio executives who were 100% correct to release the full film, the full five hours as two movies over two years.
The good news is that eight years after the theatrical release we have now restored the complete film, so the dramatic problems and continuity which were inherit in the theatrical version are addressed. The film is more coherent, and a lot of what we added back not only makes more sense in terms of the storytelling but a lot of the character and character development. You get to know Tom and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Colonel Ames better. You get to know all of Jackson’s aides de camp better. You have more time with Jim Lewis and another Afro-Virginian who was completely cut out of the theatrical version, which gives more insight into the conditions and the aspects of Afro-Virginians who were drawn into the Confederate war willy-nilly by the circumstances of their lives, not because they necessarily wanted to be in it. All of this enriches the story in a very personal way, which makes you care more about all the characters. Also, there’s more of the civilians in it; there’s more of Fanny Chamberlain; there’s more of Jane Beal and Anna Jackson.
That hour that went back in which also includes the brief foray into the Battle of Antietam. None of these battles do we pretend this is the Battle of Fredericksburg or this is the Battle of Antietam because you would need entire movies to do that. We only see them through the eyes of our leading characters as it affects them, and to that extent we try to be as historically accurate as possible. Finally, the last piece that was completely removed from the theatrical version is the fascinating subplot with John Wilkes Booth, where we have re-created all of his authentic theatrical performances. We put him on the stage, in the play, in the role he was playing, on the date he was playing it, and that serves as a powerful commentary by the greatest poet of the English language, William Shakespeare, who seems to comment [on the film’s storyline] through the parts that John Wilkes Booth is playing. It serves as a kind of Elizabethan Greek Chorus on the events of the Civil War.
So it’s not simply that the director’s cut is an hour longer than the theatrical film. It’s an entirely different animal. The entire film has been restored to its original concept and also technically [improved]. We re-mixed it. We added a lot of score that no one heard before. We re-colorized it. It’s in every way a different, and I think a far superior product, than the theatrical feature film which was released in 2003.
Q: A major aspect of the story of Gods and Generals is the belief systems of the four main characters, Robert E. Lee, Joshua Chamberlain, Winfield Scott Hancock and, of course most importantly, Thomas J. Jackson. How does their portrayal in the film reveal these belief systems and their impact?
A: I could have made Gods and Generals with much less reference to the belief systems of the protagonists, and that would have been a valid choice and I would not criticize a filmmaker who took that choice. I chose to do otherwise because in doing my own research I found that especially in the case of Jackson his faith permeated his daily existence and it influenced his character to such an extent that to not bring it into the story would have indeed created an incomplete if not an altogether erroneous picture of who Jackson was.One can safely assume based on the historical record that most Americans at the time of the Civil War were believing, practicing Christians. Of course there were other faiths in America at the time but the overwhelming religious ethos in America in the middle of the 19th century was Christian and people variously had different commitments to it and expressed it differently. It’s not my job as the filmmaker to sit in judgment [of their commitment to their faith], anymore than it’s my job to sit in judgment of the motivations of the soldiers who wore blue or the soldiers who wore gray. I am trying to present all the characters in their full view to give them their full-throated reasons for being in the war. After this study and after this considerable consideration, I decided that Jackson’s Christian faith needed to be articulated at appropriate times. Some critics found this off-putting. They found the film too preachy. The film doesn’t preach. It would be unfair and judgmental to either put Jackson on a pedestal or to try to make him look silly. I tried to present it as he really was to the best of my ability. This is my personal interpretation, articulated by the wonderful actor Steven Lang, of an idea, a presentation that we hope is valid of who Jackson is. His faith, I think, is accurately portrayed, as is Lee’s faith, as is Joshua Chamberlain’s. All of those characters make references to their faith through the film, but the one who was most upfront about it was Thomas Jonathan Jackson.
Jackson personally abhorred slavery. As we know by the historical record he set up a school to teach Afro-Virginian slaves to read and write, which technically in Virginia at the time was illegal. He didn’t consider himself superior to black people or that white people were superior to black people. In that sense he was liberated. He had also accepted that things would be changed in God’s time. Now when we look back in the view of hindsight of 150 years later that might seem cold and callous to us. How could any humane person not want slaves to be liberated instantly and to do everything in their power to change that condition instantly today, not to leave it to some abstract future date? But as a filmmaker I have to put myself in the context of the time and the place and that’s how Jackson and Lee and many other God-fearing highly ethical, highly moral people thought—that through the institutions of law and the legislative process this egregious institution of slavery would be cured in time.
On the other side, you have Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who is also a believing Christian but who sees his Christian role in a different light. He, like Wilburforce in England, understood Christianity to be a liberating force. If you believe in a just God, you have to become a tool of his justice to correct wrongs and grievous sins and to change things in this world. Therefore part of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s motivation—although he was an abolitionist and even though he started the war like most soldiers in blue as a crusade to save the Union—after the Emancipation Proclamation he, like many soldiers in blue, added a second reason to fight the war against the Confederacy. So his Christianity affected him and many other Northerners and it became a crusade to liberate the black man. So in this sense both these different views of Christianity are woven through the characters and the motivations of the film.
Q: How in the film and through the eyes of the characters does each side justify the cause for which they are fighting?
A: [For] anyone who has seen Gettysburg or Gods and Generals or hopefully this longer version—the director’s cut of Gods and Generals—it should be obvious that a deep concern of mine is to try to understand why people were fighting. The first thing you see when you read your first book about the Civil War or see your first film, whether you’re 8 years old or 50, is you’re struck by the horrific destruction and slaughter. It is so immensely sad. It is such a huge tragedy that the first question in your mind is what were they thinking? So it was a big challenge for me to address that question. I am not interested as a filmmaker to explore the motivations of the opportunists, the war profiteers and the sadists. I was interested in why did the good people get involved. Why did the people of honor, of high ethical standard, of selflessness, of courage, the people who had a sense of duty, the people who had a great sense of humanity, why did they so readily take part in the killing and the destruction and the warfare that went on for more than four years? Why did no one say, “Stop?” It was a fight to the death, and it only ended when to continue it for another day it would have changed from warfare to just murder.It was a high priority for me to give every character in the film a chance to explore why they were in the war. I was rewarded for asking that question by a torrent of insults and personal attacks by the mainstream motion picture critics who don’t think there is any honorable, honest reason why any Confederate fought in the war. I found it to be revealing of the pervasive ignorance as well as the high-minded self-righteousness of so many people in powerful media positions who think they understand the Civil War but really don’t have a clue. So, yes, it was very important for me to give all the main characters whether they were blue or whether they were gray to try to wrestle onscreen in different scenes with why they were fighting the war, to challenge themselves and to challenge the people who they were with in those scenes, why they were fighting. Now it’s up to the viewer to watch the films and say, “I disagree with that reason. I think they were wrong.” Fine. But I think, what’s the point of making a film on the Civil War unless we try to go there to where those people lived and try to understand what made those people tick; try to illuminate their condition because they can no longer hear us? But if we listen very, very carefully and make a real big effort to open our hearts and our minds, we can hear them. And that is the rationale for both of my Civil War films.
Q: How can films such as Gods and Generals and Gettysburg and related commemorative events help modern understanding of what happened 150 years ago?
A: The Civil War belongs to our American heritage, but it also belongs to world heritage, because while it’s very particular and specific to our culture and our history it’s also an example of the human condition. It’s important as members of the American family but also as members of the human race to try to understand how we get into wars, why we get into wars, and what happens to us when the wars are unleashed. Making films about the war, writing books about the war, having commemorative events of the war, all these are expressions of trying to get to this understanding. As we go into these questions, these almost imponderable questions, along the way we discover these extraordinary characters, some of them are heroic, some of them are despicable, but they are all human and we are met by these extraordinary characters. We are fascinated by them. We want to know more about them, and we want to know about their stories. In terms of our national story, the Civil War is a very, very rich place to explore these stories, and I hasten to add that these films also play to wide audiences around the world; so, even people who may not know the particulars about American history find these stories engaging because they understand the core element in the American Civil War, which is the story of fratricide. That’s the story they recognize, they understand and sympathize with. I think we will always visit the Civil War. It raises so many questions, that the answers to these questions are limitless.
Q: In an industry dominated by fantasy and comic book characters, the challenges of bringing a historical drama to the screen and bringing an audience to the product are very great. What are you and Warner Brothers Home Video doing to handle these challenges and to promote the new version of Gods and Generals?
A: The premiere [was] on July 22, , which was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Manassas. We had that premiere not far from the battlefield itself, at the beautiful new theater on the George Mason campus. It’s rare that director’s cuts get premieres like that, so Warner Brothers did a uniquely fabulous opening for the film. They flew in a dozen cast-members from around the country. The initial feedback that I get is that the [home video] sales have been very strong and I’ve noticed a very, very positive response from viewers who post, who write the reviews at IMDB and other places, so it’s been deeply satisfying for me to see how this version has been almost universally embraced by the public.
The plan is to do a special screening to coincide with the 150th anniversaries of [each of] the four battles of the director’s cut. So we did First Manassas. The next one coming up will be the fall of , the Battle of Antietam, then December of the same year will be the Battle of Fredericksburg and then in May of the following year the Battle of Chancellorsville. I’m sure we’ll try to find suitable theaters in towns close to those battlefields. They will be publicized well so that fans of the film and the general public will know about them well in advance.
Q: You’re starting a new historical film, Copperhead. Our readers will be very excited to know anything we can about this upcoming project.
A: We’re going to be filming Copperhead this spring. The original screenplay is by Bill Kauffman, based on the 19th-century novel by Harold Frederic, and I am the producer/director. (Copperhead was originally serialized in Scribner’s Magazine, July–November 1893, before being published in book form; it is sometimes called a novella.—Editor) It’s a very dramatically intense story set in New York State in 1862 and 1863 and it’s about the price of dissent, the cost of dissent. As the title indicates, “Copperhead” was the extremely derisive term used to insult those Northerners who were opposed to the war. It was a big movement in the North. They wanted to end the war, and this film explores the anti-war movement in the North through the conflict of one family in one town. It’s a work of fiction, but it’s based on real events. I think it will explore ground that has not been explored at all in cinema (even though there have been movies about pacifists in the Civil War) these people were politically opposed to war, so I think we are moving into new ground here. That’s interesting for me because I wanted to be challenged in an area in which I had not worked before. I think it will be new ground for the audience. We’re very excited about this. We expect to have it in theaters either late 2012 or early 2013.