- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

At the rate he is adding Confederate generals to his acting resume, Stephen Lang, a lean-faced New Yorker, may one day qualify to be majority leader of the U.S. Senate. He had a subsidiary, but flamboyant, role as Maj. Gen. George Pickett in "Gettysburg" in 1993, and he portrays the principal character, Maj. Gen. Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson in "Gods and Generals," a follow-up Civil War epic from the same producer, Ted Turner, and writer-director, Ronald F. Maxwell.
Jeff Daniels is another conspicuous holdover from the "Gettysburg" cast. As Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, he finally acquired a certain heroic gravity after playing a succession of reptiles, lightweights and imbeciles in "Terms of Endearment," "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and "Dumb and Dumber" (the role from which his bank account acquired a certain gravity). Chamberlain's depleted regiment achieved martial glory by holding Little Round Top against repeated Southern assaults.
Mr. Daniels, born in Georgia but raised in Michigan, resumes the role of Chamberlain in "Gods and Generals." This time, a slightly younger and still obscure Chamberlain leaves the faculty of Bowdoin College in 1861 to enlist in the 20th Maine Regiment and experiences a crushing battlefield defeat at Fredericksburg in 1862.
During the recent Washington press junket for "Gods and Generals," Mr. Lang and Mr. Daniels talk about the ways in which Civil War depiction has elevated their careers. Mr. Lang chuckles at the notion that he might claim demigod status in the South. "I don't think I'm close to achieving the iconic position that Pickett and Jackson earned," he says, "but I now have a lot of friends among their admirers."
Mr. Lang initially feared that after "Gettysburg," he might have become too identified with the character of Pickett. "I was a little stunned when Ron and Ted asked me to play Jackson," he says. "I had the feeling that the Civil War re-enactors, who have been so important to both movies, kind of knew and loved my Pickett. I wasn't sure they'd accept me as Stonewall Jackson, but they've been remarkably generous."
Before "Gettysburg," Mr. Lang had enough lead time to grow a mustache and goatee that duplicated Pickett's own. The formidable Jackson beard, however, would have required another six months to achieve authenticity. Mr. Lang had to settle for a two-month foundation that was elaborated with extensions.
"I was very proud of the Pickett beard," the actor recalls, "It was all mine. There were some who considered the beards a problem in 'Gettysburg.' If you look at the film, you'll see why. But I resented the fact that mine got lumped into the condemnations.
"On this [film], I had to trust a really accomplished hair and makeup department. The weave was really extraordinary, and it was applied on a daily basis. … I spent a lot of time in the makeup chair every morning, but that turned out to be a good thing. It confirmed something Fellini had said years ago: that the most important time for an actor is that preparation period in makeup. I found there was a lot of truth in that. It really enhanced my concentration."
Asked about the emphasis on Southern military leaders in "Gods and Generals," Mr. Lang answers that the years 1861 through 1863 pretty much dictate it. "It is hard to do a film about the Virginia theater of war at that time," he argues, "without having Jackson as the focal point. … He was one of the most famous men in the world. … Northern mothers used him as a boogeyman to admonish their children. Lee didn't provoke that sort of reaction. Jackson was instrumental in victory after victory. During the campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, he acquired this mystical quality of appearing and disappearing."
Warming to the subject, Mr. Lang reflects, "This particular time frame was the high-water mark for the Confederacy. Just look at the generals who commanded the Union Army. Would you make a movie about McClellan? Or Hooker or Meade or Burnside? Seriously.
"Don't forget, there's still one more book. If Ron gets the chance to film 'The Last Full Measure,' the Jeff Shaara book that deals with the final years of the war, the focus will shift back to the Union side. That's where Grant and Sherman enter the picture. And there's the sustaining figure of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Jeff's character. If you take the trilogy as a whole, he'll be the unifying figure."
Jeff Daniels says he hopes a finished movie trilogy can be realized, but he doubts he'll be qualified to play Chamberlain if there's another interval of a decade between installments. He was fairly close to the age of the historical Chamberlain when "Gettysburg" was shot. Now he's 47 and plays a slightly younger Chamberlain in the second film.
"We're OK for a while," Mr. Daniels muses. "The beauty of making movies over 20, 25 years, is that you get to age in front of America and the world.
"We'll know soon if we're going to be able to do a third film. If 'Gods and Generals' doesn't do well in theaters, Ted may not be able to finance 'Last Full Measure.' But I want it to happen, because it's my favorite among the books. I know the first one, by Jeff's dad [Michael Shaara] won the Pulitzer Prize, and it's very revered, but I think Jeff's writing really improves in the third book. It becomes so rich and detailed and textured.
"The horror of the war gets even worse during those years, and yet the armies keep on. You have this overwhelming sense of men who believe there are causes that justify going to the limit, beyond apparent endurance. We're dealing with the same issues now to some extent, post 9/11. Are the freedoms we enjoy worth hanging onto? If not, well, let's not bother defending them aggressively. If they are, here's an example from history of what people were willing to sacrifice."
Asked about the potential risks of marketing a four-hour movie, Mr. Daniels replies: "I would hope that people wouldn't let the length itself bother them, but it's reasonable to assume that some may, so you've got a tougher sell. It may be similar to what happened with 'Gettysburg.' The people fascinated by the subject matter weren't deterred, and there is an intermission with 'Gods and Generals.' I think the home-video versions of 'Gettysburg' have built up a loyal fan base that might be looking forward to the new movie."


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