- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 10, 2002

Anticipation over the upcoming Civil War epic "Gods and Generals" is spreading after a special 5-hour "director's cut" of the film drew rave reviews at a recent invitation-only screening in Fairfax County, Va. "Unbelievable fabulous," said one of the viewers.

It is an "event film," said publicist Victor Heutschy, noting that the final version of the movie will be about three hours long. Expected to get general release in January, the movie directed by Ron Maxwell who previously directed 1993's "Gettysburg" covers the Virginia theater of the Civil War from its opening clashes through the death of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson in the 1863 battle of Chancellorsville.

With Oscar-winner Robert Duvall starring as Robert E. Lee, "Gods and Generals" was shot on location last year in Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia, using a cast of hundreds of Civil War re-enactors.

The film focuses on four central characters Jackson, Lee, Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain and Union Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock and four main battles: First Manassas/Bull Run, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

The new movie "is a much more broadly focused film than 'Gettysburg,'" Mr. Maxwell said in a telephone interview.

Whereas the director's earlier Civil War movie focused exclusively on three days of military action in one battle, "Gods and Generals" covers a two-year period, touches on the private lives of the leading characters, and features battles in a variety of environments, from the street fighting at Fredericksburg to the tangled springtime forest at Chancellorsville.

"It's a very, very emotional film," Mr. Maxwell said.

Veteran Broadway actor Stephen Lang plays Stonewall Jackson, one of the most enigmatic figures in American history, a devoutly religious soldier who credited his victories to "the blessings of Providence."

The campus of the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington is featured in key scenes. The film begins with Jackson as a mathematics professor at VMI, where his eccentric ways and blue-eyed stare earned him the nickname "Old Blue Light" from students who, like some of his Civil War subordinates, thought Jackson was at least half-crazy.

"We have the whole scene when Jackson and the cadets are leaving VMI with all the people in Lexington cheering them on," Mr. Maxwell said. "Then we have the scene at the end of the movie, where his casket is returned to VMI."

Portraying Jackson is the biggest-ever film role for Mr. Lang, 39, who appeared as Gen. James Pickett in "Gettysburg."

"Lang certainly fulfilled, and maybe exceeded, my expectations which were very high, I can tell you," Mr. Maxwell said. "I could say the same for Jeff Daniels [who reprises his 'Gettysburg' role as Chamberlain] and Robert Duvall."

Playing well-known historical characters is "very demanding for an actor," Mr. Maxwell said. "You can't play an icon, you've got to play a living flesh-and-blood character."

Ask to name his favorite scenes from the film, Mr. Maxwell cites the "stirring" scene where Jackson, promoted to division command, says farewell to the First Brigade.

"Another [favorite] scene I would say is the scene where Chamberlain tells his wife, Fanny, that he's going to enlist Jeff Daniels and Mira Sorvino," the director said. "One of the reasons it was exceptionally poignant, because we know that that scene is being played out all over American today, with men and women saying farewell to their spouses to go off and fight our war against terrorism."

History buffs, however, may most enjoy the combat scenes at Fredericksburg. In that December 1862 battle, Gen. Ambrose Burnside's Union Army staged an amphibious assault across the Rappahannock River and lost thousands of men in repeated charges against a Confederate position anchored by a stone wall.

"The entire battle of Fredericksburg I think Civil War enthusiasts are going to have an out-of-body experience when they see this," the director said of the nearly hourlong sequence.

The movie is now in the "postproduction" stage. Mr. Maxwell is traveling to England, where the London Symphony Orchestra will record the soundtrack music. Legendary folk-rock singer Bob Dylan also has been commissioned to write and perform a song for the soundtrack, Mr. Heutschy said.

Media mogul Ted Turner who has a brief cameo appearance in "Gods and Generals," produced by his Ted Turner Pictures studio arranged a June 25 Hollywood screening of a three-hour version of the movie for Warner Bros. executives.

A final release date has not been set, although Mr. Heutschy said "Gods and Generals" may get a limited December release to qualify for the Academy Awards before hitting theaters nationwide in January.

Mr. Maxwell said that while the screening last month in Virginia was not a true "test screening" his 5½-hour director's cut will not be seen by the general public until a DVD version is released in late 2003 the audience was very enthusiastic.

"There was an ovation at the end," he said. "Imagine, after 5½ hours, to get an ovation from an audience."

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