A Conversation with Ron Maxwell: The 30th Anniversary of the Epoch Civil War Movie Gettysburg

By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

Ron Maxwell has produced notable movies on the American Civil War. He was the film director and screenwriter for Gettysburg (1993), Gods and Generals (2003), and Copperhead (2013).

In its article, A Call to Duty, The Best War Films, the Los Angeles Times wrote “Ron Maxwell created the most ambitious Civil War movies ever made.” It is now the 30th Anniversary of the first of these civil war films and it is being celebrated appropriately enough in Gettysburg itself.

The upcoming event is described on the website Destination Gettysburg as follows: Join Director Ron Maxwell and members of the Cast in Gettysburg, PA October 13-15, 2023, for a weekend long festival as the acclaimed film Gettysburg celebrates 30 years!

 In honor of the 30th Anniversary of the release of the film Gettysburg, the Virginia based Journey Through Hallowed Ground has partnered with Main Street Gettysburg, the American Battlefield TrustDestination Gettysburg, the Adams County Historical SocietySeminary Ridge Museum & Education Center, the Gettysburg Foundation, and Gettysburg National Military Park to create a weekend long celebration of the film.

This festival will feature two screenings of the Directors Cut of Gettysburg, a screening of the Directors Cut of Ron Maxwell’s Copperhead, cast and crew panels, signing opportunities, special tours, and lots of opportunities to experience the town and battlefield first hand.

Ed Timperlake, a fellow resident with Ron Maxwell of Rappahannock County, arranged an opportunity to talk with Maxwell about the anniversary and the film. In our discussion with Maxwell, he underscored that he saw his role as a filmmaker of an historical movie to put the audience back into the period portrayed in the movie without the distortions of the present getting in the way of understanding how the people of the day lived, thought and in the case of the Civil War fought.

Filmmakers in doing an historical film can take the Maxwell approach. This has a great advantage of allowing contemporary audiences to comprehend rather than condemn the past. It also forces the audience to think about what they themselves would have done in that historical epoch given the realities of that particular historical epoch.

Maxwell argued that the great films looking at history have this approach. We can look at the last 100 years of film and still relate to films looking at an historical period which are crafted in this manner. As examples he cites the 1957 film Paths of Glory and the 2022 film All Quiet on the Western Front, both set in the First World War.

There are alternative approaches, not practiced by Maxwell, which provide different visions of film making about history. The first is propaganda, where the past is exploited simply from the standpoint of justifying a particular currently held point of view. The second is a hybrid between accuracy and propaganda.

Here the filmmaker uses contemporary values and weaves them into the historical saga so the audience does not have to struggle with the past and can easily relate to a particular historical moment as prologue to their current prejudices or received wisdom. These films rarely stand the test of time, as subsequent generations see through their dated and over-simplified  manipulations.

Looking back, we asked Maxwell the importance of the film in today’s deeply divided America. He argued that it reminds us of what deep divisions can lead to, how intolerance of those who think differently and contrary to your beliefs can lead to dire consequences; in the case of mid 19th century America, a civil war.

He underscored that it was not simply regions that were killing each other in the civil war, but family members doing this.

He cautioned: “Can we learn from the past and pull back from the brink of fratricide?

We were not asking that question when the film first came out thirty years ago: We are now.”

This article was first published by Rappahannock News on September 9, 2023.