Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Driving past the grassy battlefields of Gettysburg, Pa., on a moonlit night, Robert J. Monahan Jr. heard the faint drumbeat of 1,000 boots, the boom of cannonballs and bullets whizzing past his ears.

He wasn’t delirious. He just had a dream. Now, several years later and $7 million poorer, the Gucci-loafered, pinstripe-suit-wearing real estate developer and Washington resident has realized his goal: a stunningly visual, hauntingly realistic 30-minute high-tech film called “Fields of Freedom,” which he hopes will do for Gettysburg what the “Field of Dreams” baseball diamond did for an Iowa cornfield.

If you film it, they will come.

“Fields of Freedom,” shot on a 500-acre farm in Hagerstown, Md., with young, little-known actors in authentic Civil War uniforms, debuts tonight at a reception at the National Archives Building. The film opens April 19, when it will be shown on a 3-story screen to tourists visiting Mr. Monahan’s new Gateway Gettysburg complex adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park. The development eventually will include four hotels, a conference center, movie theaters, shops and restaurants.

“We couldn’t do a lot of blood and guts,” the 52-year-old Gettysburg native said recently while screening the film in his Northwest Washington home, which he shares with wife Laurie, three daughters and two dogs. “With school groups, we didn’t want too much violence.”

Still, the film depicts the defining battle of the Civil War in digital technology and Dolby 6 sound, and the result is an incredible trip back in time. The score was done by Trevor Jones and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, and the film ends with a recitation of the Gettysburg Address narrated by former President George Bush. “He was thrilled to do it,” said Mr. Monahan.

The script was based on diaries of Union and Confederate soldiers.

“I’m very patriotic. I love history. … There were 175,000 troops involved in a three-day battle. There were 51,000 casualties. This helps bring the Battle of Gettysburg to life,” the executive producer said. “We have to experience what they fought for.”

Mr. Monahan, in conjunction with Greystone Films, began the project in October 2004 and had a finished product by last December. Gettysburg — just over an hour’s drive from Washington — attracts more than 2 million tourists a year.

“This will be a big draw,” Mr. Monahan said. “I want people to walk out of there with a lump in their throat and a tear in their eye.”

He grew up playing on the battlefields and said Gettysburg is more than T-shirt shops and ice cream cones.

“There is a power there, not like any other place,” Mr. Monahan said.

But that hasn’t stopped him from selling a 42-acre lot to another developer, who wants to put a slot machine casino on the property. The developer is facing stiff opposition from some Gettysburg residents.

“A small but vocal group is opposed to it,” Mr. Monahan said. “They say it brings crime and violence. But it doesn’t impact the battlefield. The more I understood it, the more I thought it would have a positive impact.”

Gambling, after all, is not a 20th-century invention.

“I was talking to a friend the other day who had a pretty good point. He said, ‘Don’t you think all those soldiers at Gettysburg were staying up late and playing cards?’”

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