Interview is a series of discussions with renowned Pennsylvanians - artists, athletes, authors, historians, musicians, politicians, scholars, television celebrities and others - that have appeared occasionally as features in Pennsylvania Heritage.

Writing about the Civil War in Specimen Days, poet Walt Whitman prophesied that the “real war will never get in the books.” Essentially, he issued a bold challenge to following generations of writers to capture the essence of battle – that cacophony of drama, death, smoke, stench, dauntless battle cries, and soldiers rising – in many cases, vainly – to fight again and again. To chronicle the Civil War, or one of its more significant battles, in either historical or fictional terms, remains one of the most trying challenges for the historian, novelist, and filmmaker. It demands critical attention to detail, intensive research, documentation, painstaking interpretation and, above all, dedication to not only re­telling what happened, but also pursuing what is, perhaps, the ultimate ques­tion: What was it really like?

At this juncture, historical novelists and filmmakers part company with historians, but only in the sense of how a story is told. Employing historians’ compilations of the facts, the historical novelist or filmmaker then commences­ – indeed, dares to begin – to tell what it was like.

In undertaking this challenge of communicating how it felt on a certain battlefield, or how it might have felt, historical novelists and filmmakers utilize characters and dialogue to capture feelings. Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel The Killer Angels offers a spellbinding glimpse of the four frenzied days of battle at Gettysburg in July 1863. In his Pulitzer Prize­-winning work, Shaara skillfully weaves stories of the battlefield leaders commanding both the Union and the Confederate forces. Using the well-documented history of the battle of Gettysburg, Shaara adroitly guides his readers into the minds of these leaders in a way rarely attempted by others. Shaara’s words and dia­logue bring these characters vividly to life.

As happens with many fine historical novels, The Killer Angels has been adapted into a motion picture for television, scheduled to be aired as Gettysburg later this year. Film and television director Ronald F. Maxwell has interpreted Shaara’s novel for Turner Network Television (TNT) in a movie starring Tom Berenger as Confederate Gen. James Longstreet, Jeff Daniels as Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Sam Elliott as Union Cavalry Maj. General John Buford, and Martin Sheen as Gen. Robert E. Lee. Gettysburg also features Kevin Conway as Chamberlain’s aide Buster Kilrain, C. Thomas Howell as Union lieutenant Tom Chamberlain, Richard Jordan as Confederate Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead, and Stephen Lang as Confederate Maj. Gen. George Pickett. In directing the film, Maxwell has undertaken a challenge in the medium of filmmaking that is, in its own right, as herculean as Shaara’s original effort to recount the story of the battle of Gettysburg through the novel.

Ronald Maxwell was born in Tripoli, Libya, to an American Air Force lieutenant and his French war bride. When he was six months old, the family settled in Allentown, Lehigh County, where the Maxwells lived until he was four. The family relocated in Clifton, New Jersey, where Maxwell showed an early interest in the theater, writing, directing, and acting by the age of seven. In junior high school he organized a theatrical group, the Garden State Players, for which he wrote two historical dramas. He later received a scholarship to New York University, where he majored in theater and minored in music and French. While a student at the university he was a member of the Hall of Fame Players and the Green Room Honor Society. He completed his first feature­-length film at New York University, The Guest, based on a story by French novelist Albert Camus. Maxwell graduated from New York University’s Institute of Film and Television (now the Tisch School of the Arts) in 1970.

After college Maxwell traveled to England as per­sonal assistant to actor Charlton Heston, who was working on the film Anthony and Cleopatra, which was to be made in Spain. After receiving his draft notice, he returned to the United States, where he served for two years as a conscientious objector for the Ameri­can Bible Society, making informational films.

Maxwell was subsequently associated with public television for four years, during which he wrote, produced, and directed Hal Holbrook’s introductions to the Theatre in America series. He also made his directorial debut in the highly acclaimed Sea Marks (1976), made for public television, a haunting film set in Ireland. He was subsequently nominated for an Emmy, presented annually by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for outstanding performances and productions, for his direction of Verna: U.S.O. Girl (1978), also made for public television. Maxwell’s motion picture directorial credits include Little Darlings (1980), The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia (1981), KIDCO (1983), and Parent Trap II (1986).

Why is filming a histori­cal war novel so challenging for a director such as Ronald F. Maxwell? Film directors direct not only the actors, but the camera, the crew, the props, and the scene itself. Off camera, they also orchestrate the often chaotic efforts before, during and following the actual filming. Battle scenes in Gettysburg involved directing hundreds of actors, extras, animals, and props. It entailed synchronizing actors’ movements while under fire, in high heat and humidity, through dense woods and muddy fields, or under threat of unwanted thunderstorms – all subject to the unforgiving eye of the camera, with immense production funds at stake with every take and re-take. Unlike historical novelists, filmmakers are faced with transporting and feeding a cast and crew, second-guessing the weather, shuttling film back and forth to distant processing laboratories, constantly safeguarding against pyrotechnic accidents, wrangling horses, renting historically accurate (yet controllable) locations for filming, arranging for portable rest rooms, guarding “hot” sets to make sure nothing is moved during lunch and rest breaks (thereby “breaking continuity”), and leading a cast and crew of hundreds. There are very real reasons for employing nurses and ambulances, as well as caterers, couriers, and continuity supervisors on motion picture shoots, in addition to a host of characters on both sides of the camera.

In addition to directing Gettysburg, Ronald Maxwell also wrote the motion picture’s screenplay. While facing the first blank page of this screenplay might not have been as daunting as Michael Shaara’s task of writing the novel, or of various Civil War historians’ first documentations of the battle itself, screenwriting demands of its practitioners the ability to speak simultaneously in historical, human, and entertaining terms. Filmmaking goes far beyond a book with its use of sight, sound, and images to tell a story in a limited time frame. Screenwriters must think like directors as they write, which is why some screenwriters, including Maxwell in this case, go on to direct a film.

While Ronald Maxwell’s directing task was made somewhat easier by the participation of hundreds of Civil War re-enac­tors – complete with their own wardrobes and weaponry – from all throughout the United States, he had his hands full with a multitude of other challenges, large and small. Pennsylvania Heritage interviewed Maxwell while he was filming the Little Round Top battle scene in the woods several miles west of the actual battle site in Gettysburg National Historical Park. Maxwell and his crew were limping after having slipped on fallen tree limbs, but they were in high spirits. As they worked hard to beat approaching bad weather, actor Jeff Daniels barked orders as he portrayed Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in command of the Union Army’s far left flank, under heavy attack, out of ammuni­tion, and fixing bayonets in a desperate attempt to repel the Confederate attack….


How is the production of the film going so far?

It’s going very well. It’s everything I hoped it could be. The dailies look good. It’s looking like 1863, like Gettysburg. I don’t know if you’ve been around for awhile today, but the shoot itself is going very smoothly on the morning set. Although we’re working flat out and very hard and everyone is very exhausted, there’s a feeling of accomplishment and a wonderful esprit de corps for the cast and crew.

What is it that first attracted you to the project? When did you get involved, and how long has this film taken to get to the screen?

Well, I read the book in 1978, and it grabbed me immediately. It’s just a great story, and the themes, the characters, the moral universe of these people. I just liked them, I liked being with them, 1 wanted to be with them, I wanted to spend time with them, 1 wanted to get to know them. I wanted to put myself in their shoes, and be in this moral dilemma they were in. But of course I must have had a pre-disposition which was based on influences on me when I was growing up. Certainly I always had an interest in. history and in particular interest in American. history. My father took me, not to Civil War battle sites, but to battle sites [of] the French and Indian War, [and the) American Revolution. I had read a lot of history and had an interest in it. So this is all part of who I was, long before l read the book. When I read the book – it’s a great piece of literature, a great piece of writing, great characters – I thought it would make a hell of a movie!

As you wrote the screenplay did you have a certain type of viewer in mind? What kind of audience do you expect this movie to attract?

Well, I work on things that interest me as a filmmaker, and I don’t give any thought to who the viewer is. I think it’s the only way I know of [to] make an honest film. As soon as you try to cater something to a particular audience, then it moves away from the artist, and therefore moves away from art, and moves towards products, to the extent that you do that. Other people have to market things, package things, sell things, but I’m a believer that [that] should be done after the fact. You should make something, then see where the audience is that you want to target. I have to come from that point of view because I’m the filmmaker. The studio may have a different point of view, and l understand that. But I can only approach what interests me, what motivates me. Otherwise, I don’t know how 1 could have spent fifteen years trying to get this done. Where would I get the passion, the motivation, the stamina to continue on this kind of project? In my case I was prepared to borrow, sell my house, make sacrifices. You can only do that if you deeply care about something. I also believe there’s a correlation between what people as artists deeply care about and what an audience is willing to see. I believe there’s a direct correlation there. Because after all, we’re not from Mars. We the filmmakers come from communities in different parts of the world, and if we deeply care about things, the odds are, other people care about them too. If we don’t care much about them, and we just do them because it’s a job, the odds are no one else is going to deeply care about them either. So to the extent that we are passionate about things, I believe there are more people who share that passion. I think if you stay with things that you are passionate [about] and not worry about the audience, there’s going to be defacto a big audience there, because we all grew up in the same cultural milieu. If I was running Paramount or Disney or whatever, I would pick ten or twenty or thirty filmmakers I respected, and say “Do anything you want.” And do away with all the story departments, all the middle level management­ – just say: “Here’s the budget, come in on time and on budget. Do any story you want, and bring it back to me when it’s done.” And I’ll bet you that those ten or twenty or thirty movies would make more box office than the ten or twenty or thirty that are selected by committees based on where [they] think the audi­ence is, which to me is this kind of silly game of putting the cart before the horse. If you let the filmmakers lead, which hasn’t been done for a long time now, you’re going to get films that are much more related to what people care about. And that’s certainly what’s going on here. I care deeply about this project­ – [as does] everybody that’s been [involved in it] – all the actors and the crew. The studio cares deeply about it, and I believe that when this is released, that there [will be] an enormous audience for this picture. Because I believe that, my feelings about Gettysburg and what happened here are not unique.

You wrote the script and now you’re directing the film. Does the script follow the book closely?

Very closely. I didn’t really count the pages. There are some scenes that are not in the book at all, but it’s mostly the book. I had to add some scenes for [Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott] Hancock to make him more of a presence so you understood what [Brig. Gen. Lewis] Armistead was talking about. So there’s additional material on Hancock, and there’s additional material on Armistead too, to make them more of a subplot. Then things here and there are reworked differently than they are in the book. For example, in the book [Lieut.] Tom Chamberlain refers to the rebel prisoners, talking about their “rats” [or prisoners]. In the script, it’s an actual scene between him and the rebel prisoners, which we also photographed to replicate Winslow Homer’s Rebel Prisoners at the Front in every detail.

You chose to film near Gettysburg, and you shot Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg National Military Park, at its original site. Was that important to you?

Yes, that was very important, because as you know, as anyone who has been here knows, there’s a feeling associated with the ground. Ground is unique, the way people are unique, and when the ground and people mix in an appointed way, it is forever intimately tied together. I can’t imagine – [though] certainly a lot of people could – but I could not imagine a shopping center or a parking lot on the Gettysburg battlefield. It seems so wildly crazy to think of something like that. And yet, things like that happen all the time. I mean, the old Perm Station was torn down in New York City. Think of the history and the memories and the lives that revolved around Penn Station and the magnificent architecture – it’s gone. I think a big part of Manassas Battlefield is gone in a shopping center. I mean land isn’t just land, it has a certain kind of psychic memory when something happens there. Can you think of tearing down Notre Dame Cathedral? It’s unthinkable, and yet it happens. And so, to me, place and time and people – it’s all connected, it’s interconnected – so that making the movie here .. .it’s not just that it looks like the real place, because other places might have looked similar, although even this place .. .the topography is really unique … Devil’s Den, the Round Tops, the farm fields; it’s unique, just the look of it. But also the feel of it is unique, and it imbued the reenactors and the cast with the feeling that they would not have achieved somewhere else.

You mentioned that you wanted to get to know the people portrayed in The Killer Angels. Do you feel closer to them by directing Gettysburg?

Oh definitely, because they became physically embodied in the personages of Richard Jordan and Steven Lang and Tom Berenger and Jeff Daniels. So there he was – you can see him – [Col.] Joshua Chamberlain just a few feet away. He’s been reborn.

The book probes the minds of General Longstreet and Robert E. Lee, and seems to be weighted a little more towards the Confederate point of view. Does the movie follow that bent?

Well, I think the book also got very much in the minds of Chamberlain and [Pvt. Buster] Kilrain on the other side and so, like the book, we get into both [sides’] psyches.

What criteria did you use to decide what stays in and what goes out of the film, such as when you expanded General Armistead’s and General Hancock’s roles?

I just did what worked dramatically. It’s … storytelling. To support the storytelling, [I used] characters l wanted to track through the story.

You mention getting into the psyche of characters which the book does heavily. How do you transform that to the screen? Do you use things like an off-camera voice-over for any characters?

I do use voice-over a little bit, but not too much. Only when there was no other way did I use voice-over. Most of the time it’s just dealt with in dialogue. A lot of information is brought out by [the fictional English Colonel] Fremantle. The characters say things to Fremantle – because he’s curious and he doesn’t know – which they would never say to each other because it’s taken for granted that they all know these things. So by having Fremantle as a foil allows us to inform the audience about a lot of things.

Do you have a favorite scene that you enjoyed interpreting the most?

I have about twelve favorite scenes. In most movies you write, you say that you have a favorite scene. There are just so many great moments in it. It’s got some fantastic moments of action and some poignant moments, quiet moments, softer moments. It’s got a lot of different scenes.

The book addressed leadership as an issue, and you have touched on that in several different ways. Do you feel that you’re talking about both the past and the present?

Yes, the past is the past, and the present is the present. Time, like place, is inter-connected, seamless. It’s not something there and something there, it’s alJ kind of a stream of consciousness. Leadership is one of many issues that are discussed – all of it is connected to who we are and what we are today.

When you say we, do you mean as a country?

I mean as a people, and [as] Americans in particular, but also just as human beings on the planet. Underneath the particular issues of the Civil War we have the issues that are going on in Croatia and in what was formerly the Soviet Union. In the eighties it was Nicaragua and [El] Salvador. When a culture collapses in on itself and begins to tear itself apart, it’s one of the great human tragedies. So we look back on these people one hundred and twenty-nine years after the event – it’s only three generations ago, and it’s a strange thing – we feel these people look so bizarre and strange to us in one light, and then in another way we recognize them, we recognize ourselves in these people, bizarre as they are.

How are they bizarre?

Well, it’s bizarre to see people running up into the mouths of cannon, running into canister fire and musketry. How do they do that? On the other hand, we know that somewhere in us are the vestiges of disused, or little-used muscles that say, “Yes, there are things that are bigger than my life. What are those things and where do I risk my life for something? What are those things that are bigger than me?” And so we embrace these people, we’re fond of these people, we admire these people, we’re attracted to these people because they rise above themselves, because of the sacrificial nature of what they are. So although we admire them, and we feel for them, at the same time we recognize the tragedy of it all – that the best and the brightest were caught up in this incredible inferno, where they were just slaughtered, a whole generation was slaughtered. We admire them, our hearts go out to them, and while we want to commemorate what happened here, at the same time, like Lincoln said in the Gettysburg address, we have to understand that for us to think that this was in vain is almost an intolerable thought – it was death on such a large scale – and they were so young and they were so beautiful.

In order to make sense of it, we must think this cannot happen again, and some good had to come out of it. This is what carries Joshua Chamberlain through this living hell. He says at the end of the road [there] will be a citadel on a hill – [a] place without slavery. And if slavery is abolished the world will be a better place. And the Confederates on the other side [thinking] if we can just get a place where we can be left alone, and don’t have a king or a president telling us what to do, we could be truly independent, our lives would be better. So good films raise questions. The films I really admire raise questions. The second they try to answer them [they] become didactic; it becomes propaganda. That’s where I fall out as an audience [member], and I certainly don’t get myself involved in that as a filmmaker. So by raising these questions it sets a forum for other people to come up with answers and solutions, so that these kind of immense tragedies don’t happen again.

Obviously you’re paying attention to historical accuracy as far as props, sets, and wardrobe. How do you feel about your responsibilities as a screenwriter, and as a director, in terms of historical accuracy?

I believe it’s a serious responsibility, for a number of reasons. Because Gettysburg belongs to everyone, number one. Number two, it’s very well researched and documented and studied, so there’s no excuse to make gratuitous mistakes. Our whole attitude is to try to get it as close as we can to what we know actually happened here. There are certainly gray areas. There are areas that are in historical dispute, but whenever we know something as well as we can know it, then we try to stay with that. I have had historical advisors work in all the scripting­ – since the script was written – because Michael Shaara had some things that were not right. We had to write some scenes which were not in the book just to fully tell the story, although it is told from Michael Shaara’s point of view, of course. So we had historical advisors at all stages of the rewrite, and as you can see there are two historical advisors on the set at all times: a military choreographer, Dale Fetzer [Jr.], and a historian of the battle, Brian Pohanka. They’re here full time on the set. So it’s not just a question of costumes and wardrobe and props, but a question of the right military protocol and how people address each other, how they spoke, as well as what is happening on film.

You seem to use Shaara’s approach in terms of the dialogue by using twentieth century dialogue, instead of nineteenth century dialogue.

Oh no, it’s not that it’s twentieth century or nineteenth century [dialogue]. It’s an attempt to enter into the world – the moral universe – of these characters, which included how they spoke to each other. There’s nothing twentieth century about the way they talk to each other, but at the same time, we have to know what we mean when we say that. When we talk about [a] nineteenth century way of talking, which is different from the way we address each other [now], it doesn’t mean overly formal or stilted or artificial. It has to be real, it has to be heartfelt, it has to be genuine, it has to be believable. You have to enter into another world, the same way [as] if you were making a film in the fifteenth century; you’ve got to enter into another world.

The farther you get away from our own present day the greater you have to invent the world you’re creating, because the less we know about it. There is a marvelous book written by Simon Schama called Dead Certainties … it came out two or three years ago. It’s a novel about the very questions you raise. He takes the death of [Gen. James] Wolfe at the Plains of Abraham. He sees that [event] as recorded at the time by someone in the ranks of the British Army [who] wrote a diary. [It was painted] about ten or fifteen years later by Benjamin West, the great portrait artist, who was nowhere near the event, but was in London. It was [described] one hundred and twenty years later by the famous American biographer who wrote The Oregon Trail, Francis Parkman. His thesis is that we can never know history, that history is always a kind of best guess, because it’s always filtered through somebody’s eyes, somebody’s intellect, somebody’s preoccupation, somebody’s prejudices. So we have ours, certainly. Michael Shaara had his, all historians have theirs. We’re trying to sift through all this material and knowledge. Our attitude is to try to get to the truth of what it was about, by first getting all the facts straight, and getting the look right, and you have to have people talk right. Then you have to get into the deeper thing,which is the truth about what was going on in human terms.

You are a screenwriter. You are also a director. On this project, which challenge have you enjoyed the most?

Well, I’ve enjoyed the whole thing and I’ve also been chas­tened by the whole thing, and humbled by the whole thing, and challenged by the whole thing. I like it all. You’re trying to make a film so writing a script is just a step on the way, it’s just a blueprint to make a film. It’s not an end in and of itself, but the writing and the casting and the shooting of it, it’s all getting there, getting to where you want to get to. And now, in another ten days we’ll be in post-production phase. We’ll be in the editing room trying to put all these hours and hours [of film footage] together and make some sense of all of it. It’s all very demanding and very challenging and hard work for me.

There have been a number of other projects related to the Civil War, and you yourself have done other films. Is this like any other project that you’ve done, or is it like any other Civil War film or television series?

I think it stands on its own as far as other Civil War movies go. I’m talking about the good ones, The Red Badge of Courage and Glory, the ones that are worthy of respect. This is different because The Red Badge of Courage was really about courage, it almost could have been any war, any time. It was set in the Civil War, but it’s about an individual man facing up to his responsi­bilities with courage. Glory is about this kind of hitherto little-known subject: the role of blacks in the war. This [film] is really about the central issues of the Civil War, as embodied in the characters of the Confederate leadership and [Joshua Lawrence] Chamberlain and the men of the Twentieth Maine. They articulate the central issues of the Civil War. This has never been done in a dramatic film to my knowledge.

The other things that are not even worth mentioning I’ll mention anyway – the soap operas – The Blue and the Gray, North and South. I mean they were just silly soap operas, of the most pandering sort, that just threw in everything but the kitchen sink, but they weren’t about anything really, other than the most superficial issues. So T think [the film] stands on its own in that way. It stands on its own in my body of work because I’ve never done anything as big as this. But thematically, it’s not far away from some things I’ve done before – it’s very dose to things I’ve done before. I did a documentary on the civil war in Nicaragua, which is also about fratri­cide. Looking back on the films I’ve done I can see things that are similar, even though they may look and seem on the surface to be totally different explora­tions.

Is this a historical recre­ation, or what you might call a docu-drama? To what genre of film does this belong?

It’s a war epic.

What do you mean by “epic”? The story itself certainly strikes me as being epic in proportion, as a film. Are you using a lot of extras, wide shots, those sorts of cinematic techniques?

I think it’s epic in its size, in that we have the largest numbers of people in a costume drama in a film filmed in the western hemisphere since the thirties, according to our executive pro­ducer, Bob Rehme, who’s the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It’s also epic in its scope because we have given it a very big look. Our sets are hundreds of square acres – and it’s vast, the look of this. There’s the cast list – over a hundred speaking parts. It’s also epic in its themes, its concerns, its preoccupations. There are universal themes: fratricide, brother against brother. Universal themes of what is worth fighting for, what is worth giving your life up for. And themes that maybe concern us as Americans, particularly because it involves the sundering [of] our family, our national family a hundred and twenty nine years ago. It has to do with our feelings about racial issues. It has to do with our feelings about being a nation. In every sense of the word, this is an epic film.


For Further Reading

Catton, Bruce. Gettysburg: The Final Fury. New York: Berkeley Books, 1974.

Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. New York: Scribner’s, 1968.

Frassanito, William A. Gettysburg: A Journey in Time. New York: Scribner, 1975.

Luvaas, Jay, and Nelson, Harold W. The U.S. Army War College Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg. Carlisle: South Mountain Press, 1986.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Pullen, John J. The Twentieth Maine. Dayton: Morningside Bookshop, 1957.

Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels. New York: McKay, 1974.

Ward, Geoffrey C., with Ric Burns and Ken Burns. The Civil War: An Illustrated History. New York: Knopf, 1990.


Bruce Henrickson is director of programming and public affairs for the Pennsylvania Cable Network, a statewide non-profit distance learning and public affairs television network. He received his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Colorado. A native of Oregon, he “came East” to Pennsylvania from Colorado in 1990. He has commer­cial and cable television producing and directing credits in addition to his magazine and television writing credits. While growing up in the American West, places such as Gettysburg, Valley Forge, and Washington, D. C., were “only pages in a history book” to him, distant and unreachable. He now brings those pages of history into his own life; in fact, he once dictated a marketing plan to himself while overlooking the site of Pickett’s Charge, drawing inspiration from it.