They loved Robert Duvall as Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now when he confessed his affection for the smell of napalm in the morning and declared, "Charlie don't surf." So, many of the troops leaving Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday for their assignments in Operation Enduring Freedom were particularly excited to meet Duvall, who plays Gen. Robert E. Lee in Gods and Generals, which opens in theaters nationwide this month.
Army Lt. Rick Murphy, a 34-year-old military police officer from Tampa, Fla., even asked Duvall to autograph a photo from his role in the Vietnam War classic. "I just had to get him to sign this," Murphy said. "This is going on my wall. It's funny because when I yell, 'Platoon, Attention,' they respond by yelling back, 'Charlie don't surf!'"
Murphy also received a copy of Jeff Shaara's best-selling novel, Gods and Generals, which was adapted into the film that also stars Jeff Daniels and Stephen Lang.
With orders that could keep them overseas for a year, most of the soldiers who watched a 30-minute preview of Gods and Generals in the USO lounge won't get to see the movie in a theater. "By the time we get back, it will be on video," said Clint Foster, a 28-year-old Air National Guard member who was in his senior year at the University of Idaho, where he is majoring in forestry, when his unit was activated last month.
In addition to shaking hands with Duvall, the soldiers got to ask questions of writer-director Ron Maxwell and Stephen Spacek, the nephew of Sissy Spacek. Stephen Spacek plays Capt. James Power Smith in the film.
The meeting between Hollywood's soldiers and the real soldiers was sponsored by the USO and Warner Brothers Pictures and was meant to be a boost for the troops as they left.
"This is our way of saying, 'Thank you for your service to your country,'" said Elaine Rogers, president of the Metropolitan Washington USO, who helped distribute the autographed books and bags containing toiletries and other items to the several hundred troops passing through the terminal yesterday afternoon.
Talking with the soldiers in military fatigues as the nation prepares for a possible war with Iraq was also meaningful for the stars of the Civil War epic. "It was an honor to meet these guys," Spacek said. "They're the backbone of this country."
"When you shake hands with them, if you take the time to really think about what they're preparing to do, it can be a really moving thing," Duvall said.
Murphy said one of the things he liked about Duvall was his Army service during the Korean War. "Living in the mud is something we all have in common," said the Army lieutenant. "It ties us all together, no matter which branch of the military you serve in."
Yesterday's sampling of Gods and Generals at BWI was the first effort in what will be an intensive marketing campaign to build interest in the region where much of the film was shot.
Tomorrow, at Washington's National Theatre, a gala invitation-only premiere set for 6 p.m. will feature appearances by Duvall, Lang and Maxwell. Tuesday at 8 p.m., there is an advance screening set for Hagerstown's ornate Maryland Theater ($65 a ticket, followed by a $130-a-person reception). And the Baltimore premiere is set for 7 p.m. Feb. 20 at the Senator.
Spacek said he was impressed by the 7,500 battlefield re-enactors - many of them from Maryland and Virginia - who worked as extras in the film. "They were amazing. Without them, there is no movie."
Spacek, a native of Texas, said he also liked what he saw of Maryland. "I loved the crab cakes, the people, the scenery and especially the seasons. We were here filming in the fall."
Duvall said he relied on the memory of his father, who was from Northern Virginia, to get his Southern accent just right. He also lived in Annapolis for about eight years as a child. He said he most recently stopped in Maryland's capital about a year ago on a return trip from St. Michaels.
As he talked about how much he admired today's soldiers, Duvall said he hopes there are not many similarities between the battles portrayed on screen and what the American troops will face.
"The Civil War was the most bloody war in American history," he said. "I really hope what we're dealing with right now isn't nearly that bad."
Sun staff writer Chris Kaltenbach contributed to this article.