Blogging Manassas (Vol. 6): One-on-One with Director Ron Maxwell

Being early usually pays off, and once again, it did on Friday afternoon. I was one of the first members of the press to arrive at the Premiere, and after we checked in, I noticed Ron Maxwell, who had entered the lobby and was standing and talking to someone. After waiting for him to finish, I walked over and introduced myself, and he knew exactly who I was. We chatted briefly before moving to another location to get some pictures together. I asked if it would be possible to ask a few more questions for my blog (we did an email interview a few weeks ago), and he pointed to some chairs and said, “Sure, let’s have a seat.” I made Jeff take some pictures of us so I had proof that I was actually “working” that afternoon.

Our interview is posted below, but it is what Ron told me after I shut the tape recorder off that I will never forget. He thanked me many times for coming and my enthusiasm for the film (just like I thanked him many times for inviting me!) and then he said that I had been on their radar for a while, and that “…the entire cast knows you, Warner Brothers knows you.” This would have made my day entirely, until he told me that he actually read my article on the importance of the John Wilkes Booth character to the director’s cut of Gods and Generals. This blew me away, because I had wanted him to read it, and was going to email it to him, but because I knew he was going to be busy, I never did, but he still found it anyway. He began by saying, “You got what it’s about.” Before adding, “You have a critical eye. It’s so refreshing that you are free of the political correctness of this generation.” He also went on to wish me good luck in the future as a teacher and historian.

GC: You have waited eight years for this to come out, so what is it like now that the day has finally come?

RM: For the longest time, we were not sure that the director’s cut would ever be released. It’s an unusual director’s cut because when people think in terms of these cuts, you think of maybe ten or fifteen minutes of more material, maximum, organized perhaps in a different way, but for a director’s cut to come out with an additional hour of new material, and that hour totally changes the entire film, reintegrating it, that is a rare event. So, we did not necessarily think that it would ever happen, but we kept that cut under wraps and no one had really seen it other than those who worked on the film. I think if it was not for the coincidence of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, there may not have been a trigger to consider releasing this. But that being the case, about a year and a half ago, Ted Turner decided the timing was right and that we should release the full version that we had scripted, filmed, and edited eight years ago. Happily, those of us who worked on the film, now have the film we really intended on making, and those who have been waiting for it, I know from the blogosphere and internet, and reenactors and history buffs, that there has been a lot of people hoping it would be released at one point, and here it is! I’m thinking over the long run, as one can anticipate these kinds of things, that this will be the definitive version of the film, and this will be the film that people will see going into the decades of the future.

GC: Of all the scenes you added, which is your favorite scene, if you had to choose one?

RM: I don’t know if I have a favorite scene, per se, but what I really appreciate is that, first of all, everything in the film makes more sense now. We’ve restored the historical integrity and continuity of events, number one. Number two, to have the whole Antietam sequence back, which again, the reason it is there and the four battles are there, is that they unify the main characters of Chamberlain, Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson. Antietam was the place where they were all present again. We obviously don’t pretend in this film that it is the battle of Antietam—you could do a whole big movie on just the battle alone, but it is just the grace notes to show where our characters are. Another thing I was gratified to bring back was the whole subplot with John Wilkes Booth, because every time you see him on a stage, that is historically where he was. He was on that stage, in that theater, in that play, playing that role, as he is shown to be. And so we have, in retrospect, and of course, no one knew it at the time, but when we juxtaposed the images of Booth on the stage with the events of the Civil War, you have, in effect, William Shakespeare as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on what is going on in the war, because Booth is playing regicides over and over again. Now, this obviously does not mean that any actor who plays a regicide is going to act it out in real life (laughs), but it is curious that he is given the words of the greatest poet in the English language, and those roles, of Brutus in Julius Caesar, Hamlet in Hamlet, and Macbeth in Macbeth, are the rationale for regicide. They are the most potent rationales for bringing down a tyrant, and he is saying this over and over again, so one must ask the question, did Shakespeare influence him in his ultimate political act? We see him gradually becoming radicalized. The film is over in May of 1863, so that is two years before he assassinates Abraham Lincoln, and he is not yet radicalized to the point, to the act that he ultimately commits, but he is on his way. I think the film accurately portrays him as a totally rational, totally sane, extremely talented, very popular, and very successful matinée idol, who is not just a matinée idol, but also someone who is a highly esteemed Shakespearean classical actor in a long family tradition. His brother Edwin and his father Junius Brutus Booth, were a great tradition of the stage, so he was a kind of like royalty. The equivalent today would be someone like Robert Redford, someone who is a very good actor, and also a matinée idol back in his day, who suddenly becomes an assassin. I think understanding how these things work, which is completely different from justifying political murder, is fascinating, cause obviously the whole exercise in making Gettysburg and Gods and Generals is to go where those people lived, to try to understand what made them tick and what was in their minds, not to bring or hold them up to the judgment of the 21st century, but for us, in this century, to go where they were and to try to illuminate that for ourselves and understand it. So to bring Booth back into it, it really makes the whole film work for me—it kind of locks it in perspective, to have this Greek chorus, the words of Shakespeare, commenting on what is going on in the American Civil War. Finally, we have restored a lot of the tender moments: Jackson and his wife baptizing their baby, Jackson getting his photograph taken, Jackson with his aides-de-camp, and when they are punning and joking around, and when he gets a new uniform; Joshua Chamberlain and his brother, who cannot figure out how to load a musket as quickly as he should, which is a matter of life and death as we later see, when he has to load it quickly when he is on the front lines in the battle of Fredericksburg. All those personal, familial touches, back in the film, humanize the characters and make it work a lot better.

GC: One last question, and it has been beaten to death, I know, so if you don’t want to answer it, that’s okay. The Last Full Measure, any chance at all that it will be made?

RM: This is where I find that I kind of laugh—I laugh at the people who should know better, who say with great authority, “This film will never be made.” Maybe they have a direct line to the Almighty, I don’t (laughs). I know that making Gods and Generals was miraculous, making Gettysburg was miraculous, like any of the films in that genre that we could talk about, whether its Glory, or you name the title, even The Charge of the Light Brigade. These are not films that are talked about. There is nobody at a studio meeting in Hollywood who goes into their weekly meetings and says, “Does anybody have a Civil War project today?” It does not happen that way. So, for people who say that the odds are long, therefore you will never see it, is just silly. People who make that statement are just ignorant. I work on it every day. You know, maybe it won’t get made in my lifetime, maybe it will be made after my lifetime, and maybe it will never be made, we don’t know. What we do know, is that sometimes, these forces line up and these movies get made, but they do not get made with defeatist attitudes. They do not get made when you don’t suit up and go on the battlefield. They get made because you believe it can be made, you believe in the possibility of getting it made, and you will it into existence, by finding the right financing team, the right distributor, and the right actors who agree with you. That is how my two Civil War movies were made, and that is exactly how The Last Full Measure will be made. What I can tell the fans of the film and those who hope the movie will be made, is that there is not a week that passes where I do not work on it, and one of two things will happen: either I will die, or the film will be made. But, until I die, I will never cease my efforts to get the last part of the trilogy made.

Once again, I thank Ron for taking some time to talk to me. His answer regarding The Last Full Measure was very passionate, and is definitely hopeful. When we were all done, he said, “If we decide to make it, you’ll be the first to know!”

9 Comments Add yours

  1. shancock says:

    Just my feelings exactly on “The Last Full Measure.” I have a feeling we might see it made within the next five years. If not, it will at least be within this decade. Of course, if it doesn’t happen before Ron passes, then somebody else will take up the mantle of it. That’s just me, I guess.

  2. Paris Stachtiaris says:

    Superb interview. Probably the best questions anyone can ask Ron Maxwell. I think it is very important that “The Last Full Measure” gets made by Ron. He has a great grasp on the subject matter, is a great storyteller, and most importantly is very respectful to both sides of the Civil War conflict.

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