Robert Duvall Acts Civil

By Aimee Agresti
Photo by Van Redin

When director Ronald F. Maxwell arrives in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, odds are that war will break out almost immediately. For Gods and Generals, the prequel to his 1993 Civil War epic Gettysburg, Maxwell is transforming the picturesque riverside tourist town into the gritty urban battle zone of Fredericksburg, Virginia - circa 1862 - to tell the story of the rise and fall of legendary war hero Stonewall Jackson. And once the 19th-century facades of homes and shops have been built, the dirt has been laid in the streets, and the 300 Civil War reenactors have suited up in their blue and gray, Maxwell will send his actors - including Robert Duvall as General Robert E. Lee and Stephen Lang as fellow Confederate General Jackson - into one fierce battle.

"The other day we filmed a scene where Jackson rides through the town to see the devastation that's been wrought," Lang (Gettysburg) says. "It's a scene of absolute sadness and carnage: smoke and broken furniture and fires in the street, feather beds chopped up, butchered civilians - the real horror of war. How pertinent is that these days?" However, he adds, the film, which also features Mira Sorvino, Jeff Daniels, and C. Thomas Howell (the latter two reprise their Gettysburg roles), "is not about flag-waving to me. It's a part of the ongoing discussion as to what constitutes a democracy. Any process that welcomes dissent, well, sometimes that dissent can reach the level of a street brawl."

For Maxwell, Gods and Generals marks 15 years that he's devoted himself to the war. "The more I read about it, the more I find it an unfathomable subject,"says the director, who hopes to finish off the trilogy with an adaptation of The Last Full Measure, by author Jeff Shaara, who also wrote the book Gods and Generals. "Every generation of filmmakers will make movies about it." But not all of them will be lucky enough to have Ted Turner Pictures pony up $54 million. The donation might have helped secure Ted Turner a cameo (along with senators George Allen, Phil Gramm, and Robert Byrd), and it has made it possible to shoot much of the film close to the sites where the actual events occurred.

Some of those locations were especially familiar for Duvall, who felt unnaturally at home in Lee's shoes. "I'm related to the guy way back on my mother's side, and my father's side of the family lived in northern Virginia, where Lee was reared," the actor says. "So that's something I could identify with. It's just part of my bloodline."

Premiere, March 2002