WASHINGTON -- You can't spend a half-hour with Ted Turner without realizing how he got where he is. Smart and funny and frank, he turns an interview into a two-way interrogation, punctuating almost every statement with a "right?" or a "wouldn't you agree?" that is anything but rhetorical. He's as hopeful for a lively interchange as any reporter.
His restless personality fills a hotel suite at the Ritz-Carlton with a charged and sometimes antic air. The atmosphere he generates is engaging, not intimidating. During an interview promoting the Ted Turner Pictures production of the Civil War epic Gods and Generals, he declared that "Military men are not that political" because they must serve their country no matter what the stripe of the administration. When I countered with the old maxim, "War is an extension of politics by other means," and suggested that Civil War commanders like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson at least had to be aware of the South's political agenda, he said, "You make a good point. I'm not going to argue with that."
Surely he has the most eclectic resume in American business: transforming an Atlanta cable station into the "Superstation" TBS; buying sports teams like the Atlanta Braves, Hawks and Thrashers; founding CNN, the organization that revolutionized broadcast news.
But after being reduced to a figurehead in the AOL / Time Warner empire (he's still the largest single shareholder) and seeing his stock lose as much as $8 billion in value, Turner last month announced that he would resign his vice-chairmanship, effective in May. He's candid about his embitterment over AOL / Time Warner management of companies he nurtured or inaugurated. Indeed, his recent forays into TV and movies derive from what he sees as the misuse or gutting of Turner Broadcasting.
CNN closed down its documentary unit: "They're making hundreds of millions of dollars," he says, "but it wasn't enough, so they cut their expenses." As a result, Turner decided, under the banner of Ted Turner Documen-taries, to bankroll a long-planned eight-part series on weapons of mass destruction, Avoiding Armageddon, for PBS, now headed by his former documentary chief, Pat Mitchell. Like his establishment of the billion-dollar United Nations Foundation, it reflects Turner's ever-increasing focus on global humanitarian and ecological issues.
"This series was commissioned over a year before 9 / 11, so it was way ahead of its time. I just thought we needed to know what's going on with weapons of mass destruction. Wars take unpredictable turns and grow in unpredictable ways, and with nuclear arsenals you have to be very, very careful about starting a war with anybody. Everybody thought the Civil War was going to be over in six weeks. It was almost a foregone conclusion that the South was going to lose: They just didn't have the resources to conduct a long-term war with the United States."
Financing Gods and Gener-als, a prequel to 1993's Gettys-burg, gave Turner another chance to underline that anti-war point and strike out on his own. "Gods and Generals belonged to TNT as part of Turner Broadcasting, and they had been developing it for quite a while. I was going to green-light it at the $30 million figure, but the new AOL management team decided they were going to cut everything to try to increase the profits. I was angry and I wanted to make a statement: I'll make the damn thing!"
Turner hasn't lost his sense of humor. After discussing Gods and Generals, which he ended up funding to the tune of $60 million ($90 million including prints and advertising), he asked what system The Sun uses to rank movies. I said we rate them on a scale of one to four stars. He narrowed his gaze. "You'll probably give it two stars," he ventured, then went on a jovial riff about how I should thank him for his time by giving it three. "I mean, how many guys like me would sit down with you for a half-hour? Oh, directors and actors, sure. But what other big cheese? Would Rupert Murdoch give you a half-hour?"
Turner sees himself, justifiably, as one of the last king-sized independent impresarios. Gods and Generals, I suggested, was the biggest independent film ever made except for George Lucas' Star Wars films.
"You know, the thought had never occurred to me, but what independent movie could be bigger?" he asked excitedly. "It has 159 speaking parts. I can't think of another movie that has 159 speaking parts, can you? It's one of the biggest casts of all time: there are 7,500 re-enactors that don't say a word. The original budget was $30 million. And it grew to $60 million, five and 10 million at a time."
A single, costly vision
It wasn't the best moment for a runaway production. "My stock in AOL / Time Warner was going like this," Turner said, gesturing to the floor with one arm, "and the budget was going like this," he said, reaching with the other arm toward the ceiling. How does he feel about the finished film? "I'm very happy and proud. I realize that its length [roughly three and a half hours] will be a problem for some people -- but look at all the other epics.
"Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur, Dr. Zhivago were all over three hours. This is a throwback. Nobody says [expletive] in this movie. How many movies do you see without that today? This movie is meant to appeal to adults, primarily. Probably it's going to appeal more to men. If you've served in the armed services of your country, and you're over 35 years old, and you're interested in history, you're probably going to see this movie. We'll see it how it does. ... At least it's something I can be proud of, wouldn't you say that?"
Well, I answered, at least it was shaped according to one vision: It didn't look as though a lot of committees had tinkered with it. "Ron Maxwell, the director, and I shared that vision," he agreed. "We did Gettysburg together -- and another reason I felt like it would be hard to miss with it is because so many people have seen and loved Gettysburg."
For the most part, Gods and Generals takes a Southern perspective on the beginnings of the Civil War. This does not faze Turner, who was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and considers himself "a citizen of both parts of the United States." As far as he's concerned, "The movie is plenty even-handed and truthful. In a lot of wars, the eventual losers start winning at the onset, right? I mean, the Germans were winning at halftime during World War II! So I think that's why this movie presents the Southerners' point of view a little bit more. In the Northern Virginia campaign, Lee and Jackson were just running circles around Meade and Burnside. That's the truth! And I tell you what's really hard to take is to watch the Union forces retreating across the field with the American flag at Fredericks-burg."
But Turner, like most of the film's advocates, was talking militarily. What bothers many critics of Gods and Generals is the way it accepts the Southern justification for secession -- the sanctity of states' rights -- without acknowledging how often that umbrella has been used to justify racism.
"I think that the belief in states' rights was true for Lee and Jackson and, probably, for most of the people on both sides," Turner insists. "Whether states could secede hadn't been tested. I don't think they thought about it a lot when they put the Union together. It's like how easy it is to get married -- it's much more difficult to get divorced, and usually a pretty unpleasant experience. It's the same way with the Union and secession.
"Now, people have talked about the movie not dealing adequately with slavery. But it deals very poignantly with that when Jeff Daniels [as Union officer Joshua Chamberlain] makes that speech to his brother before Chancellorsville: 'There is the Confederate Army. They say they're fighting for their freedom, for their independence. But they lack credibility because they're denying freedom to a whole race of men.' "
Civil war most painful
Turner also defends the movie's "Onward Christian Soldiers" religiosity, especially as embodied in Stonewall Jack-son's character. Isn't this, I asked, an odd slant for a film produced by a man who once said (albeit to his regret) that "Christianity is for losers"? And doesn't the movie make it seem that the South was more God-fearing than the North?
"It's not just Jackson or Lee in this film -- there's Jeff Daniels saying 'God's will be done' to his brother. I think in wartime, there's a lot more religion anyway. If you're faced with death, whether you're religious or not, you might as well say a prayer, it can't hurt you.
" 'Same God, different dreams' -- that was on the poster for Gettysburg. When you generally think of wars, you think of them being fought between Muslims and Christians, Muslims and Jews, people of different religions. But I think it makes it even harder when they're members of the same religion. If your enemy speaks a different language and is a member of a different religion, it's much easier to demonize him and kill him."
Civil wars, Turner continued, "are the most painful, because brothers end up fighting against brothers, fathers against sons. A civil war is the ultimate tragedy. When the breakup of the Soviet Union was occurring, I got both Gettysburg and Gone With the Wind and had them given to the Russian film companies and television to show what a horror civil war is. They averted civil war over there. But imagine if all the republics in the former Soviet Union had gotten into a big civil war. ... It would have been an absolute catastrophe."
Turner has become a leading force for internationalism -- and not just because dueling governments use CNN as both a news source and communication vehicle. Turner engaged in spectacular philanthropy when he pledged $1 billion to the United Nations and created the United Nations Foundation for that purpose. Yet in Gods and Generals, he's made a movie that pays respect to people who make war to defend a rigid concept of home turf.
"You learn from that!" says Turner. "Now when you go back to World War II and watch The Sands of Iwo Jima with John Wayne vs. 'the Japs,' you see how they glamorize war. The Americans are taking those flame-throwers and sticking them down the holes in Iwo Jima and setting these little 18-year-olds on fire and they're coming out all burning up -- and they're cheering, 'Yay!' -- I mean, geez Louise, it's horrible, it could have been your brother-in-law!
"Gods and Generals is sad; this is a great tragedy. It would have been wonderful if the Civil War could have been averted or brought to a conclusion as quickly as possible, which we'll do in The Last Full Measure [the final film in the trilogy], if we get a chance to make it. And there the emphasis will be on Grant and Chamberlain and the North."
Serious stuff. But my last vision of Turner is of him striding to a van in the hotel driveway -- then turning back, waving and laughing, and calling out, "Three and a half stars!"