Last Spring, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture invited 49-year-old screenwriter/director Ronald Maxwell to participate on a panel of filmmakers at Paramount Studios. The subject was Hollywood and historicity in film. The usual pontifications regarding art and entertainment permeated the discussion—"compression," "inescapable subjectivism," "pre-eminent aesthetic considerations"—until it came to Maxwell.
"[People say] it's only a movie, not brain surgery. I disagree. What we do is soul surgery, and it reaches millions. We have important stories to tell—wonderful, mythic, true stories. The first job of the filmmaker making a historical film is to tell the truth. … I must try, as hard as I can, to discover the truth and tell it."
It is this commitment to truth that made Maxwell's 1992 film Gettysburg—with its moral dilemmas, its praying, psalm-quoting soldiers, and four-hour length—so remarkable.
In it we meet the young classics professor-turned-colonel, Joshua L. Chamberlain, as he faced his mutinous Union regiment. They knew he was free to shoot them, but they refused to fight. The rebel army was massed just up the road near Gettysburg, only a few days' march from Washington. History has credited the words Chamberlain found to say to the angry, dispirited men with assisting the progress of freedom in the world. The men were moved to fight. Chamberlain's stand at the Battle of Little Round Top was a pivotal victory at Gettysburg, and Gettysburg was the turning point in the Civil War.
Because of Maxwell's film, millions of moviegoers heard Chamberlain's masterful articulation of America's founding principle. Still, for us to hear those words, Maxwell at one point had to mortgage his ...1