When used to describe a person, the term “gadfly” is usually considered an insult, as it refers to a type of fly that can be seen hovering around cattle pens, acting as quite an annoyance to the livestock. A “social gadfly” is even worse, as it is a person who upsets the status quo. Normally, one would not want to be called this, but it is a nickname that White House Press Correspondent and political talk radio show host Les Kinsolving has earned over his many years of service, and one that he relishes, so much so, that his biography is even titled as such, and it was written by his own daughter Kathleen, the subject of this next interview. I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Les last year in regards to his work in the films Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, as he portrayed Confederate General William Barksdale (he is also a distant cousin of his as well), but as I did more research on his background, I realized he built up quite an esteemed career in the White House press room, always asking the tough questions and keeping establishment leaders uneasy. We met briefly at the Extended Director’s Cut World Premiere last July in Manassas, and once again, I was honored. Our political beliefs may be very different—he’s more of a conservative (though not completely, as I was reminded) and I’m a liberal—but as I told Kathleen Kinsolving when we were first in contact, “…I have never listened to his show, but I hear he takes shots at anyone and everyone who he does not approve with, which I think is a very admirable quality”, to which she responded with that little word, “Yes, he’s quite the Gadfly—very fearless and provocative!”
Unlike the other cast members of the films Gods and Generals and Gettysburg that I have been able to track down over the last several months, Les Kinsolving is not noted for his acting. Appearing as Confederate General William Barksdale, the distant cousin of the real general, he is more known for his career in the political spectrum, which includes serving as a White House correspondent (part-time now) and talk-radio host on 680 WCBM, which is run out of Baltimore. Les’ career has spanned several decades and has encompassed so much, including being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
When I was done asking him about his filming experience, I just had to probe him on some of his political views, and what being a reporter in our nation’s capital is like. Les was very kind to me and answered all of my questions, and I did not even know this interview was going to be taking place when I woke up this morning. I had contacted him a few days ago, and he responded this afternoon. Rather than schedule an interview for the future, we thought it best to just get it done today. I asked him about his filming experience, what it is like being related to a Civil War general (and a second one which will knock your socks off!), and much more, in our interview below!
LK: Well, I have a cousin, the one that I played the part of, General William Barksdale, and I had always been interested in the Civil War, and I heard they were going to do a movie on the battle of Gettysburg. So, I talked to the author of The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara, on the phone and I enjoyed speaking to him very much. He was a very stimulating person and he told me about Ron Maxwell who was going to direct it. I phoned up to Maxwell in New York, and we made an appointment. I did not tell him of my relation to Barksdale, and I talked with him and we had a wonderful time and there was a great deal of mutual interest. It was then when I told him of my relationship to General Barksdale of Mississippi, and he asked, “You’re his cousin?” and I responded, “I am.” and he said, “You look like him.” Then he said, “Just a minute”, and he went into this closet and came out after a while with this great big picture of Barksdale. He was the only Confederate general at Gettysburg who did not have a beard or a mustache, and again he told me that I looked like him, and I said, “I’m complimented”. He then asked me if I would like the part! (laughs). It took a long time to be produced but I had the part, and I played it again in Gods and Generals, which followed it.
GC: In both films, your scenes were very short, but how much did you have to prepare for these roles?
LK: I had previously been in a considerable number of plays, both little theater and light opera, but this did not take any time at all—I just had a couple of lines in each. I was still honored to have these lines. When I was first cast in Gettysburg, there were no lines and Maxwell waited until my scene came and put in a line for me. General Lee, played by Martin Sheen, says to me, “General Barksdale, is Mississippi ready?” and I said, “Mississippi is ready!”. (laughs) And that was it! I just had one or two lines in Gods and Generals as well. But in Gettysburg, I also played an extra as a flag bearer in a Virginia regiment during Pickett’s Charge, which took seven days to film.
GC: What was the hardest part of your filming experience?
LK: I think the hardest part was when I was playing this Confederate flag bearer and we went over the wall at the charge, and there were three huge Yankees who went after my flag, and I held it and it broke right in two, and I went down and got kicked; I don’t think they did it on purpose, there was just an enormous amount of action. They strapped me up with one of these wrap-around bandages and I was able to go back and do it three or four more times, because we did that scene six times that day.
GC: Did you happen to see the Gettysburg documentary that was on the History Channel last week?
LK: I did not see the whole thing because it came on while I was broadcasting.
GC: Okay, because there was a pretty big section on General Barksdale in it and I was just curious if you had any thoughts on that.
LK: Yes, my son watched it and told me, and I just ran in and took one look and was disgusted because the first thing I saw was that this Barksdale had a beard, and Barksdale did not have a beard at the time of the battle! The picture that I have of him, he does not have one, and I was disgusted at that.
GC: Now, a lot of us Civil War enthusiasts and historians wish we could be related to somebody who fought during the Civil War, so what is it like for you, to not only be related to a soldier, but a prominent general at that?
LK: Well, I am also related to another Confederate soldier named Robert E. Lee, who is a fifth cousin. Robert Duvall, who portrayed Lee in Gods and Generals, was also related to him, and so we found that we were distant cousins.
GC: What it is like being related to one of the greatest generals in military history?
LK: I agree with you, I think he is one of the greatest men in our history, with enormous courage and fundamental decency, and he will always be remembered. Of course, there are those that like to tear him to pieces, but that is expected of those who are still fighting that war.
GC: I would like to move to your other career now, as a White House correspondent. What does that entail?
LK: I am a White House correspondent, but I am not a full-time one anymore because I am a talk radio host and columnist, and I just can’t do it full-time, and with this particular press secretary, as well as the last one, who are two of the three most difficult I have ever dealt with, they hardly ever call on me. This one almost refuses me consistently, so I only go once a week. What I do is, I always have two questions, just two. He allows the people in the front two rows from the networks, to ask eight, ten, and twelve questions, but he will try to bypass me. Sometimes I will call out the networks, and sometimes I don’t. So what I do is, we report for the nine million people who visit World Net Daily, we list all the people at the briefing and the large majority whom he never recognizes or allows to ask questions because he is playing favorites with the front two rows. I think that is abysmal. I made a suggestion once, which was one of the few times I have ever had applause from the back, that he should call on each person in the front row for two questions and work his way right back so he gives everybody a chance, and then go back to the front row and give them two more. That got applause, but not from the front row (laughs).
GC: I have another question for you, and this is just out of curiosity, but what do you think of Sarah Palin?
LK: To look upon her, I think she is a very beautiful lady, and I realize that she had a lot of problems at home, but I think she really damaged herself by leaving the position of Governor of Alaska. I thought she did a good job out there, but she resigned. Now she is going all over the country campaigning, but she hasn’t, to the best of my knowledge, announced her candidacy as yet. I’m generally impressed with a lot of what she stands for, though I do not agree with her on everything…I don’t think there is anybody I agree with on everything.
GC: One more political question for you, who would be your favorite president, whether in your lifetime or in the past?
LK: Let me say that I think the greatest of all presidents, closely followed by Abraham Lincoln, was the father of our country, George Washington. I am a great admirer of his and he was not only a military leader that without him, we would have never won our independence, but he was our first president and guided us through the really tough times in getting us established as a country. There are a number who I admire in the modern era as well. I personally liked Ronald Reagan a great deal and I knew him when he was in California because I was a columnist and reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, and then the Examiner, while he was governor. There were times when I would ask him questions and he was always very astute and very amusing. I thought he was a great president, and there were others of course. The Roosevelt’s were two of the greatest and let me see who else…we have had some bad ones (laughs).
GC: Well, then who would be the worst president of your lifetime?
LK: That would be a tie between Jimmy Carter and the one we’ve got now (laughs).
GC: Thanks for being honest! I’m an independent so I don’t care who you don’t like.
LK: It’s not that I don’t like Barack Obama, it’s just that he has these press conferences where there are eighty reporters (I’ve stopped going to his press conferences) and they’re ridiculous. He’ll only call on certain ones. In the last three he called on thirteen, thirteen, and seven. He takes an enormous amount of time in answering questions—he gives these long monologues, and it sounds like he is dodging questions with these long answers, and he does this often. That is one of the reasons why I am not very impressed with him. There are times when I have commended him, and I think his order to go after Bin Laden was wonderful, but I think Bush had the same purpose. If they had just found him earlier under Bush, like the Seals did, I think he would have given the same order. I will try to be fair with the president whenever he says or does something that I believe honestly is good. I feel that it is only fair that you should try to emphasize that, and I do.
GC: One last question for you, and this is going back to the Civil War. If there is one piece of information that you think is being taught the most incorrectly about it, what would that be to you?
LK: I would say the alleged massacre at Fort Pillow, where they try to smear [Confederate General] Nathan Bedford Forrest. I have really studied that issue, and I have concluded and spoken out on this a number of times that it was not true. I think there are a lot of things that are misrepresented, but that is one of the worst. I hope that answers your question.
GC: Yes, it is definitely up there on my list. That, and people who say the war was fought solely because of slavery.
LK: Well, the interesting thing about the slavery issue, which is not often mentioned (laughs), is that among the slaveholders in the United States were Ulysses S. Grant and Mrs. Grant.
GC: And I don’t think Robert E. Lee owned any.
LK: His wife, Mary Custis, had a number of slaves, and he emancipated them. Grant, who was too poor to keep slaves, sold them, but Mrs. Grant continued to own them, and I think it was in 1864, she was almost captured by Confederate cavalry with her slaves! (laughs) I have no indication that the Grant’s ever mistreated their slaves, and I do not believe that the Lee’s did either. I have always been opposed to slavery, even though I am a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and I was one of the 25,000 who walked in the last day of the Selma March to Montgomery, because I believe new occasions teach new duties, and time makes ancient good uncouth.
GC: I want to thank you so much for this interview. It was great getting a chance to speak to you.
LK: It was my pleasure, and I hope that this gave you everything you needed, and I am grateful and honored.
I want to thank Les again for taking the time to conduct this interview. It truly was an enlightening experience! You can visit his official website here. Please check out my other interviews with Gods and Generals and Gettysburg personnel, located in the Civil War section on this site, which include Brian Mallon (General Hancock), Patrick Gorman (General Hood), Bo Brinkman (Major Taylor), and Jeff Shaara (Author of G & G).
While I applaud the filmmakers of Gettysburg for finally giving us an accurate depiction of Civil War violence, with plenty of blood, guts, and limbs flying everywhere, I cannot help but feel that the audience was deprived of highly important information, especially if someone was watching this who did not know much about the most important battle in our nation’s most important struggle. For a documentary that came with so much promise and hype, it ultimately failed to deliver, almost mocking the New York Post’s review from this morning that said this documentary “will change the way TV documentaries are made from now on.” If by change, they meant including all of the facts next time, then by all means they are correct.
Despite my disappointment, this was not the worst documentary the History Channel has ever produced (can anything rival Life After People?). It began at such a high level, in tackling an often shunned portion of the battle, which is the Railroad Cut on the first day of the fighting. The combat scenes were hard-hitting and intense, and as I settled down on the couch, I had a smile on my face that this was finally going to be that one Civil War film that was both fair and accurate, yet grizzly in showing the horrors of war, not the Lost Cause fantasy world that some Southern Apologists feel to this day. This foreshadowing was only partially fulfilled. Bullets tore through bodies, cannon balls severed limbs, and shrapnel knocked down rows of lined soldiers. But at the same time, information crucial to understanding this battle at its full capacity was left out. Whether or not this was intentional is beyond me, but had it been included, I would be singing songs of praise right now.
This is not a nitpick here, folks. The information left out includes not one single mention of McPherson’s Ridge, Devil’s Den, or Little Round top, and not one utterance of the names John Buford, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (who saved the Union Army’s flank with a daring bayonet charge), John Bell Hood, Lewis Armistead, Richard Garnett, James Kemper, Isaac Trimble, Lafayette McClaws, E. Porter Alexander, J.E.B Stuart, or Winfield Scott Hancock. Other crucial players, such as George Pickett and James Longstreet were mentioned in passing, only once, with them not even being characterized as part of the docudrama aspect of this film. How any motion picture relating to the entire Civil War, let alone this battle, can be made without these men and locations being focused on is incredible.
The one thing I did notice, however, was that the parts of the battle shown in this film (Pickett’s Charge aside) were not depicted at all in Ron Maxwell’s 1993 feature film Gettysburg. While that one drew upon the fighting in the three aforementioned locations, this newer film was about the first day’s fighting in the town, along the Railroad Cut, and Culp’s Hill. At first, I thought that the filmmakers did not want to show anything that was already done, but then I thought that this was a documentary—it is supposed to include everything. Now, for someone who wants to get a perfect picture of what the battle of Gettysburg was really all about, they will have to watch this film along with a nearly five-hour Maxwell version. Spending seven hours viewing films may turn more people off of the Civil War than inspire.
To further reinforce what was left out, there was not even a mention of the fighting at the Peach Orchard and the Wheat field. One could basically argue that this film left out more about the battle than in included, and that is very sad, because it kick’s off the highly anticipated “Civil War Week” on History in a bad way. Tomorrow night’s special is Lee and Grant, and I am almost afraid to watch it.
In getting to the actual information about the parts that were represented, the narrator went out of his way to mention slavery as being the sole cause of the Confederacy’s fighting every chance he could. When profiling William Barksdale, his ownership of 40 slaves was cast into the spotlight, as was a Confederate doctor’s earlier in the program. Another aspect that I would like to critique, regarding a battle scene, was Pickett’s Charge. While ignoring every general present with the exception of Brigadier General Joe Davis, who apparently led the charge all by himself, it showed a group of about ten men marching near the base of a mountain. In reality, the charge comprised of 12,000 men marching on rolling farmland, with no mountain in sight, and no trees except for where the Confederate army deployed from. I understand that they could not use thousands of extras for this small scene, but how about some CGI figures that littered the screen in cheesy overhead shots as troops closed in at the stonewall?
One last item that I question, was the decision the filmmaker’s made to spend a little more than five minutes on the Confederate’s “Rebel Yell”. What was in real life, a shriek to inflict intimidation and fear into the hearts of enemies, was shown in this movie as a bunch of hillbillies with no teeth in their mouth cackling out turkey gobbles. I sat in disbelief that human beings could even make such an atrocious attempt at trying to get it right. While the closeups of rotting teeth and gums were accurate, I felt myself more prepared for Thanksgiving dinner than waiting behind an entrenchment for an enemy to charge and try to kill me. If you DVR’d this special, please hit fast-forward when you get to this part. Die-hard Civil War buffs and historians can just hit delete when you get to the menu.
All was not lost in this film, however. The visual effects and action scenes were top-notch, made even better by a glorious high-definition television. Had everything I mentioned been included, then this would have been a masterpiece. Instead, it slides down the mounting slippery slope of Civil War related movies and television specials that “could have been”. I will give this a rating of 4 out of 10, and make the insignificant suggestion that this should have been at least a two-part series, so that everything could have been covered. There was a lot that was right with this program visually, but even more that was wrong on the fact-side, and I cannot let that slide.
To Civil War enthusiasts, director Ron Maxwell is seen as a Godlike figure. First he gave us Gettysburg in 1993, after several failed film projects of his own. The film came out of nowhere and took the movie industry by storm, and today is regarded as one of the last true war epics ever made, because of its grandiose shooting style and use of thousands of extras instead of CGI. Ten years later, he would give us the much awaited prequel to this film, Gods and Generals, based on the novel of the same name written by Jeff Shaara, the son of Michael, who wrote the original book.
For me, Gettysburg was the movie that turned me on to the Civil War, so naturally I could not wait for this film to come out. I still remember going to the theater on its opening day, with my mom, who was also interested in the subject due to my curiosity as a youngster. The movie left a profound impact on me, because it was everything I imagined, including the running time which clocked in at more than three and a half hours due to the intermission. Several times the audience wept, then laughed, then were amazed by this massive piece of storytelling. This film, too, is shot on an epic scale, but unfortunately it is weighed down by religious overtones, which ultimately led to the film’s downfall in this politically correct world, and subsequent termination of a follow up project and sequel to the trilogy, The Last Full Measure.
Gods and Generals was released with such promise—it was to appear in theaters, be released on DVD, shown as a two-night event on TNT, then a year later, a six hours director’s cut was to be released, giving us the full story. But only the first two would be realized, as the film quickly bombed and was yanked out of theaters. The reason for this was politics, and the fact that this movie, although about the Civil War, was extremely religious. Here we see Jackson, Lee, and even Chamberlain constantly bringing God into the equation, and while these men were very religious in a much different world (personally, I did not mind it one bit, although it did get preachy more than once), it truly led to the film’s negative critical reaction. The trailer even stated that, “One side fought for God’s glory, while the other fought for his kingdom on earth.” In reality, even though they were religious, I highly doubt they were fighting for God himself.
Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable film, despite its faults, but unfortunately, it can probably only be enjoyed by Civil War buffs, an amount of people large enough for a small film project or low-budget affair, but not big enough to make or break a $60 million spectacle, all personally financed by Ted Turner, who produced related films Ironclads, Gettysburg, Andersonville, and The Hunley as well.
The story begins with showing Robert E. Lee as a Colonel in the United States Army and the decisions he made that brought him to the Confederacy. We get very interesting back story on all major characters, including Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, played by Stephen Lang who was Pickett in Gettysburg, and of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, played by Jeff Daniels as he reprises his role from the original. The one thing that Gettysburg lacked that this film makes up for is character development—here we see why the soldiers are fighting, instead of seeing a bunch of guys in blue and gray thrust onto a battlefield. The film also does a very good job in showing both sides as being right, while not vilifying either side. To many, this was seen as a fault more than an asset, but I think it helps in understanding the causes of this great war. The audience can then make up their minds as to who was right, and who was wrong.
This film was a very difficult story to tackle, mainly because it had to focus on three years of the Civil War, rather than just three days. The Battle of First Bull Run, while instrumental in showing Jackson’s first taste of combat as well as the first major battle of the war, is almost randomly inserted into the movie and seems out of place. It is also only about ten minutes in length, and features only one part of the battle. This film could have really done without it, and would have been better served with having the characters simply talk about what happened off-screen. The insertion of this also left out any possibility of having Antietam in the film, something that was filmed but left on the cutting room floor (multiple people who worked on the film said that the action scenes for Antietam were the best in the entire film). We will just have to wait and wonder about it until a director’s cut is released.
The best part of Gods and Generals is by far and away the Fredericksburg scenes. Here we finally get an in-depth look at the tactics and troop movements behind one of the most famous and costly battles of the war. General Burnside is shown perfectly as being incompetent, while the generals around him, namely Winfield Scott Hancock, played by the severely underrated Brian Mallon, disagree with his plans to attack General Lee’s entrenchments at Marye’s Heights head-on. The battle is shown to be brutal, and combined with the terrific score of Randy Edelman and John Frizzell, make the Fredericksburg sequence a form of art. It is hard not to tear up during this battle, because as wave after wave of Union troops are cut down by the Confederates, we see the Irish brigade of the Union make their charge against the stonewall. Unbeknownst to them, the Irish brigade of the Confederacy, led by Colonel Thomas Cobb, awaits them. One of their commanders actually breaks down and cries at the thought of shooting his own countrymen, as bullets strike the wall he is leaning on. The music, once again, is spectacular, with a very sad sounding bag-pipe tune. We also get to see Chamberlain’s first action as a Union colonel, with his brother Tom and old Sergeant follow by his side. Those two actors are the same from the original, with C. Thomas Howell and Kevin Conway coming through with superb performances.
Gods and Generals then takes a jump to 1863, following the aftermath of Fredericksburg, and takes us to Chancellorsville, which was Jackson and Lee’s daring surprise attack of the Union left flank under Oliver Howard, with Joseph Hooker now the commander-in-chief. The music played over this scene is very slow, and increases in pace as Jackson’s men jump out of the trees and begin their assault. We then see the very sad and unfortunate wounding of Jackson by his own men, and his death about twenty minutes later in the film. It was during these final scenes where people began to weep, as I did the first time I saw it, and still get choked up to this day.
The scene with Jackson dying is very emotional, because you can see the Confederacy dying right along with him. Robert E. Lee, played by Robert Duvall, is asked if he will see Jackson on his deathbed, but says no, not allowing himself to accept that fact that his right-hand man is dying. The movie closes with Jackson’s funeral, as a riderless horse and carriage passes by and heads toward Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson was a professor.
Even with all its faults, and it heavy dialogue (mostly consisting of too much preaching), Gods and Generals is still a superb piece of film making. People also criticize the casting of Duvall as Lee, stating that he was too old for the part. Duvall, a descendant of Lee, was older than the General, but when you look at pictures of the real Lee, he looked older than his age. There are just certain shots in this movie where he bears striking resemblance to him, and I personally like his casting over that of Martin Sheen, who actually wanted the part again but could not accept it due to scheduling conflicts. The film is also great because it is a reunion, of sorts, of the Gettysburg cast that we all know and love. Besides Daniels, Lang, Mallon, Howell, and Conway, Royce Appelgate and Charles Lester Kinsolving return briefly as Generals Kemper and Barksdale, respectively, Joseph Fuqua as J.E.B Stuart, Patrick Gorman as John Bell Hood, Ted Turner himself as Waller T. Patton, David Carpenter who switches from Colonel Devin to Reverend Tucker Lacy, and Buck Taylor, who switches from Colonel Gamble to General Maxcy Gregg. (There are others, too many to name.)
We also see some new faces as Bruce Boxleitner takes over for Tom Berenger as Longstreet, and veteran character actor William Sanderson plays A.P Hill. Mira Sorvino also makes a brief, and exquisite cameo appearance as the wife of Colonel Chamberlain (they too had additional scenes that were lifted).
It truly is a shame that a film with such potential, and such work recieved such low acclaim from critics, and I cannot even imagine how great the director’s cut of this film is. It was only screened once, several years ago, and was met with a standing ovation. It includes a subplot of Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth, the entire battle of Antietam, and a friendship between Booth and Henry Harrison, played by Cooper Huckabee as in the original. Andrew Prine also reprised his role as General Garnett, but he too was edited out.
My final rating of this film will be a 9 out of 10, because of its accuracy and epic scale. This is one of those rare films that can be shown in a history classroom without much explaining, because with the exception of the insertion of Jane Corbin and her relationship with Jackson, everything depicted is, for the most part, exactly what happened. I recommend it to all that have an interest in the war that cost America more than 600,000 deaths in just five years. I also hope that one day we will see the director’s cut of this film, because knowing Maxwell, it is sure to change our view of the Civil War and enlighten us even further—and with the 150th anniversary of the war happening in the next five years, it is either now or never.
Check out my review of Gettysburg here.