25 years since the release of Ron Maxwell’s ‘Gettysburg’
If Ron Maxwell hadn’t become a successful film director he’d probably be just as content as an American History professor.
The Rappahannock resident, who is most famous for writing and directing the Civil War epics Gettysburg (released 25 years ago in October 1993), Gods and Generals in 2003, and Copperhead in 2013, is foremost the history buff.
“What we’re keenly aware of as we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of the release of Gettysburg is that the film lives on and will be seen by generations unborn in media technologies we cannot even imagine,” Maxwell says in an interview, stressing the importance of historically accurate and educational films like those he’s had a hand in developing.
“So the act of making a film, whether the film is good, bad or indifferent,” he continues, “is a transcendent act, because it unites generations across time — generations unborn will know about the generation that lived in the 1860s in the American Civil War because of this film. This film is the link.”
Indeed, here now a quarter century later, members of the public, community and historical groups, local government officials, Civil War historians and reenactors alike are joining forces — in Gettysburg, no less — with the makers of the iconic motion picture that recreates one of America’s bloodiest battles, adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels and starring among other notables Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels and Martin Sheen.
In other words, how many films celebrate anniversaries?
“I think the idea was broached originally more than a year ago by some cast members who realized the anniversary was coming up,” says the film director. “And then, because I’ve been on the advisory board of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground virtually since its inception when I moved here in April of ’03, we discussed it with the new CEO Bill Sellers about a year ago, and they got in touch with the Friends of Gettysburg, and very quickly it was seen as an opportunity to celebrate the film and use the celebration as a way to raise funds for the Gettysburg Foundation and Journey Through Hallowed Ground.”
The making of the film, for that matter, was considered so significant from an historical standpoint that the National Park Service for the first time allowed the motion picture industry to film battle scenes directly on the Gettysburg Battlefield.
“The anniversary of the film is really an opportunity for two things: to revisit the generation that suffered through the Civil War, and also an opportunity for us who made the movie to have a reunion. At last count I heard something like two dozen actors . . . are coming back,” Maxwell says.
The 25th anniversary observance will be a two day event, Oct. 12 and 13, with an already sold-out private dinner Friday evening at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center, featuring remarks by Maxwell and an exclusive one-man performance by acclaimed actor Stephen Lang (Major General George Pickett in the movie) focusing on the trials and turmoil of soldiers of different eras, followed by a discussion with distinguished historian Harold Holzer, scholar of Abraham Lincoln and author of Lincoln and the Power of the Press.
On Saturday evening, following events at the battlefield, the new director’s cut of Gettysburg will screen at the 800-seat Majestic Theater in Gettysburg. A pre-screening Q&A session with Maxwell and special guests will begin at 5 p.m., moderated by renowned Civil War historian James I. “Bud” Robertson, professor emeritus at Virginia Tech. Tickets are $25 and will go fast (visit gettysburgmajestic.org or call 717-337-8200).
“The Majestic is one of the old movie houses, and it’s where we had one of the five [Gettysburg] premieres in 1993,” Maxwell recalls. “The screening of the director’s cut, which is a half-hour longer than the movie, is a new digital version that Warner Brothers released recently. It’s not often people get to see Gettysburg on the big screen like that.”
Civil War reenactors, he adds, are encouraged to come to the anniversary screening “in uniform — there’s going to be a lot of blue and gray in the audience, and big hoop skirts! I wouldn’t want to be a person sitting next to them,” he laughs. “It will be fun, it will be a reunion, it will be a celebration. And I’m really looking forward to seeing actors who I haven’t seen in 25 years since the premieres . . .
“It seems like yesterday that we were filming at Gettysburg — actually it was 26 years ago that we were filming. It took 15 years to make the film, from the time I read the book until the time it was in the theaters.”
Maxwell speaks highly of historical groups that assisted in the making of Gettysburg, including those celebrating its 25th anniversary today, not the least being Journey Through Hallowed Ground, which is dedicated to raising awareness of the “unparalleled” American heritage running from Gettysburg through Maryland and Harpers Ferry, W.V., through Rappahannock County to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville.
“And, of course, we in Rappahannock are centered in the Journey,” he observes. “One can certainly argue that there is more than one cradle of American civilization, but this is certainly one of them. There are so many layers of history here: the Native Americans who were here first, then you have the Colonial era, the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, so many presidents’ homes. And you’ve got the Antebellum era and slavery, and the abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War and the Civil War battlefields, and the Reconstruction era.
“Rappahannock is in the middle of the cooridior. Every historical event we have talked about has crisscrossed this county, their footprints are across this county. Whether it’s armies moving or Native American tribes . . . or the Underground Railroad, you name it, it’s gone through this county.”
And such rich history, he says, should never be forgotten or erased from the landscape.
“What we saw back when Disney wanted to turn Manassas into an amusement park was it raised people’s awarenesses, it was really piqued and it stayed piqued, because if we allow everything to be paved over, and bring development and strip malls, it’s just a crime against humanity.
“We are in an area here which is so rich and diverse in its history, and we have to honor and preserve that, which helps preserve our green spaces and attracts tourists,” he points out. “Or else we become Fairfax, or any other county — one great big area of row-housing and development and strip malls. And then it’s over, and tourism is over. Dead. Killed. Done.”