ROBERT Duvall sat in a chair on a Western Maryland farm. The day was overcast but warm, the ground on the farm slightly muddy from two days of rain.
Duvall sported a white beard, white hair and the gray uniform of a Confederate general in the War Between the States. If he looked like Robert E. Lee, it's because he should have. Duvall is playing Lee in Ron Maxwell's production of Gods and Generals, a Civil War epic scheduled for release in late 2002.
"I love it," Duvall said of playing Lee. "It's a great privilege. He's a special guy. Playing him has always been in the back of my mind. Not an immediate thing, but something that lingered."
You get the feeling that Duvall admires Lee, and he comes by it honestly. Though Duvall was born in San Diego, according to his filmography, his dad's folks hail from Northern Virginia, where Lee is still revered.
"He's a different guy from a different era," Duvall continued in his praise of Lee. "He was a different type of army guy - not like this guy [Osama] bin Laden character, who attacks women and children."
Duvall's reference to bin Laden and the events of Sept. 11 was, perhaps, inevitable. The specter of what happened lingered over the set. Maxwell, the director and producer of Gods and Generals, had just finished shooting scenes of the battle of Antietam on Sept. 10. Vic Heutschy, publicist for the film, remembers what happened.
"We had quite a moment on Sept. 11," Heutschy recalled. "Everybody did." Filming in the mountains of Western Maryland, Northern Virginia and West Virginia, the cell phones of crew members weren't working.
"We got piecemeal reports," Heutschy said, and remembered what happened when the horror finally became clear and registered with everyone.
"Everything came to a halt," Heutschy said. "We didn't know what to do, what to say. Then we heard Ron was going to say something to us. He said 'Look, these SOBs want us on our knees, but we're going to continue.' He made an offer to those who wanted to leave to do so."
Maxwell directed the TNT miniseries Gettysburg, which is based on the historical novel The Killer Angels by the late Michael Shaara. Gods and Generals is based on the novel of the same name, which was written by Jeff Shaara, Michael Shaara's son. Jeff Shaara's novel is a prequel to his father's work. Maxwell plans to do a film of Jeff Shaara's The Last Full Measure, which covers the Civil War after Gettysburg.
Duvall's zeal for playing Lee is notable, considering his acting track record. The list of his television credits alone boggles the mind. His tube work spans the 1950s and 1960s. They include four appearances on Route 66, four on The Naked City, two on The Defenders, two on The Outer Limits and one each on The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
That was work on some of the best television shows ever aired. Add that to Duvall's film work - which started in 1962 when he played Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird and continues to this day - and you've got quite a resume.
He played Lucky Ned Pepper in True Grit and worked with John Wayne. Duvall won an Oscar for the 1983 film Tender Mercies but is probably best remembered by American audiences as consigliere Tom Hagen in The Godfather and The Godfather II.
Duvall's co-stars in Gods and Generals are also impressive. They include Bruce Boxleitner, the Scarecrow of television's The Scarecrow and Mrs. King, playing Confederate Gen. James Longstreet, who became the scapegoat for the South's loss at Gettysburg. Stephen Lang plays Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.
"Stephen Lang is great to work with," Duvall said. "This is a great showpiece for him."
Fans of the 1980s cop drama Crime Story might remember Lang as lawyer David Abrams, who tried to help Chicago police nail mob bosses. Fans of good acting might remember him as the guy who didn't even get an Academy Award nomination for his superb portrayal of Ike Clanton in the 1993 oater Tombstone.
Lang should have won an Oscar for that performance. His fans can only hope that with Gods and Generals Lang finally gets his due.
If Maxwell does even half as good a job as he did with Gettysburg, actors and director might find themselves reaping rewards come Oscar time in 2003. Sitting in a tent during a break in the shooting, Maxwell gave more details about Gods and Generals while he tried to finish off a plate of prime rib and boiled red potatoes.
"This story takes those Gettysburg characters we came to know and takes them back to 1861," Maxwell said. "It also includes new ones, like Stonewall Jackson."
As any Civil War buff knows, Jackson was dead by the time the Battle of Gettysburg was fought in July 1863.
Gods and Generals also focuses on the wives of Jackson and Union Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a character from Gettysburg. The prequel isn't only about war.
"It's a whole mosaic of American life we're covering," Maxwell emphasized. And it's being shot right near the places it actually happened.