Closing ranks

Gods and Generals may boast the best-trained extras in Hollywood film history.

On Feb. 21, the Civil War epic — including thousands of faceless actors who bring battle scenes to life — opened nationwide to what has become, today, an unprecedented abundance of history buffs, re-enactors and Southern sympathizers who find validation in Civil War films.

Even in Asheville, one of those Southern cities that bears little resemblance to the Old South, traces of the Confederacy abound. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, the largest Confederate-interest organization, has a plaque in Pack Square, and will hold its annual conference here in late summer. Locals intrigued by Civil War-era history, politics and culture aren’t too hard to find, nor are Confederate flags on vehicles passing through town.

Wayne Erbsen, owner of Native Ground Music (nativeground.com) and a professor of Appalachian music at Warren Wilson College, is among the Asheville area’s Civil War documenters. Erbsen, one of the best-known historians and performers of historical music, has produced five Civil War-related CDs; the most recent, Battlefield Ballads of the Civil War, was released last spring.

Erbsen, whose music also appears in the digital encyclopedia Microsoft Encarta, was asked to appear in Gods and Generals. David Franco, the film’s music supervisor, called Erbsen in the winter of 2001 for permission to use his version of the song “Southern Soldier Boy” from the CD of the same name. Following negotiations, Erbsen and Asheville musician Larry Brown, along with two musician friends from Virginia, went to Gaithersburg, Md., on Sept. 27, 2001, to appear in the film.

“It was a real rural area,” Erbsen recalls. “We were supposed to dress up as Civil War soldiers, so the wardrobe guys gave us our outfits. Before we left the motel we had all taken showers, washed our hair and were spic-and-span.”

In the name of historical accuracy, however, they weren’t clean for long.

“They got out bags of dirt and ashes and started hitting our Confederate uniforms until we were just filthy,” he remembers. “They had us go over the makeup and took this can that looked like it was axle grease and rubbed it into our hair so it looked like it had never been washed.”

In addition to period-correct costumes and filth, Erbsen says his band members were required to be thin to be accurate.

“When I picked my musicians for the part, they couldn’t be big old fat guys,” he explains. “Civil War soldiers were lean, especially the Southern ones.”

Erbsen says that at one point “Southern Soldier Boy” was considered for use in the closing credits for Gods and Generals, but the producer opted instead to use Bob Dylan’s “Cross the Green Mountain,” written specifically for the film.

Fighting for perspective

Directed by Ron Maxwell (Gettysburg, plus a few laughably bad ’80s movies), Gods and Generals is based on the Jeff Shaara book of the same title. Shaara’s work lays out the background of the Civil War and events leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg. (Shaara’s father, Michael, wrote The Killer Angels, the basis for the movie Gettysburg.)

With its $51 million budget (more than twice that of Gettysburg), Gods and Generals was produced by embattled media iconoclast Ted Turner, who has made promoting the South — through restoring and producing films, bringing baseball’s Braves to the national spotlight and basing his former media empire in Atlanta — a career hobby.

Gods and Generals stars Robert Duvall as Robert E. Lee, Jeff Daniels as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and Stephen Lang as Stonewall Jackson. While the film opened nationally just last weekend, it’s already been through a number of preview screenings for cast members and Civil War buffs.

Ron Holland, an Asheville-based financial consultant and editor of the online Dixie Daily News at southerncaucus.org, saw the film at a Charlotte screening sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. (Holland says southerncaucus.org is the largest Southern-heritage-and-news Web site.)

“It’s the best historical film I’ve ever seen,” he declares. “It sets out why the South seceded, the reason for the war, and puts it into a historical perspective.”

Holland says he’s surprised the film even exists.

“It’s a movie I never thought would be made in the United States in the 21st century. Everything nowadays is anti-South, but [Gods and Generals] showed them as they were — Christian people who believe in limited government fighting what they called the Second War of Independence against what they saw as government tyranny.”

So far, the film has received little negative press. And while Gods and Generals was clearly made for a mass audience, it’s been enthusiastically supported by those active in what Holland calls the “Confederate movement.”

The four-and-a-half hour Gettysburg made just $10 million in theaters; Gods and Generals was cut to a slightly tidier three hours and 36 minutes in hopes of greater box-office success. A five-hour-plus version of the film, which will almost certainly include Erbsen’s performance, will be released on DVD later this year.

Maxwell’s film is the first of three major Civil War-related movies to be released this year; the others are Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and The Last Samurai, the story of a Civil War veteran who goes to Japan in the 1870s to train the emperor’s troops. All have big budgets and star casts, and all seem likely to be top grossers.

These three Civil War-based films herald a revival of a genre unequaled since at least the 1930s, if not the 1910s, when D.W. Griffith’s blatantly racist Birth of a Nation ignited the film industry.

Aside from Maxwell’s two movies, some of the better-known Civil War-related media projects from the past dozen years include Ken Burns’ Civil War TV series, Edward Zwick’s Glory (Zwick will also helm The Last Samurai) and Ang Lee’s Ride With the Devil.

While many modern debates about the Civil War have turned ugly — in particular, the free-speech arguments surrounding flying the Confederate flag — films on the subject have largely been treated with respect due to their typical commitment to accuracy.

Championing the past

Theories abound as to why fascination with Confederate history has grown in the last decade. New York Times correspondent Peter Applebome, whose 1996 book Dixie Rising gives an easy-reading sweep of the cultural milieu of the South in the late 20th century, attributes the upswing in interest to Roots. The popular 1977 miniseries, he attests, inspired Americans both black and white to dig into their heritage. Applebome also cites the growth of the Internet, which has allowed people with minority viewpoints to easily connect with other like-minded individuals.

Holland maintains that the NAACP’s focus on the imagery of the Confederate South — most prominently the beleaguered “Stars and Bars” — allowed Confederacy-inspired organizations to raise their “Heritage Not Hate” banners and gain members in the process.

Other people have been won over by Civil War films alone.

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