The VIP audience for last night's screening of "Gods and Generals" included no generals but did have politicians, actors and Ted Turner. In short, gods . . . or those with an eye toward immortality.
The occasion was the world premiere of the Civil War epic, a prequel to Turner's "Gettysburg" and catnip for thousands of history buffs in the nation's capital. The preview at the National Theatre also provided another opportunity for the outspoken media mogul to share his public opposition to a war with Iraq.
" 'War is the sum of all evil' -- it's one of the lines in the movie," said Turner. "I don't like war. It's much more dangerous today than during the Civil War because there were no weapons of mass destruction."
Turner was the star of the night, deftly juggling politics and theatrics on the red carpet of the theater. There were real thespians -- Robert Duvall, Jeff Daniels, Stephen Lang, Mira Sorvino -- and a few politicos who had cameo roles in the film: Sen. Robert Byrd, former senator Phil Gramm, and Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and Ed Markey.
"Don't blink," said Markey with a laugh.
"I was going to be a private in Hood's Brigade and die a glorious death," said Gramm. A scheduling conflict required a change of role: "When I could go, I was cast as a politician," he said in mock horror.
The theater was filled with a thousand guests, including AOL's Steve Case and Jim Kimsey, Army Secretary Thomas White, actress Sissy Spacek (her nephew has a part in the film), HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, and dozens of senators and congressmen.
This is the second installment of Turner's three-part Civil War trilogy. In 1993, he released "Gettysburg" -- a four-hour movie (and miniseries) based on the novel "The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara. The movie, which faithfully depicted the historic three-day battle in 1863, was written and directed by Ronald Maxwell and starred Martin Sheen as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Maxwell is also the driving force behind "Gods and Generals." This film (from the novel by Jeff Shaara, Michael's son) examines the first two years of the Civil War, including the battles of First Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. It was filmed in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia at locations including Virginia Military Institute and Harpers Ferry and used thousands of Civil War reenactors.
"I'm really happy with it," said reenactor Jack Hefestay, dressed as a Confederate soldier. "It's better than 'Gettysburg' as far as authenticity. And I'm really impressed they're bringing in more of the human element -- the women, the children."
Many of the actors in "Gettysburg" returned for this film, including Daniels, again as Col. Joshua Chamberlain, and Lang, who stars as Gen. Stonewall Jackson. (He played George Pickett in the first film.) Maxwell got Duvall -- his original choice to play Lee -- and Bob Dylan wrote a ballad for the soundtrack.
"Since all the reruns and DVD [of 'Gettysburg'], more and more people tell me how much Chamberlain meant to them," said Daniels. "When I got the chance to come back, it meant a lot to me personally."
Turner has a cameo as Confederate Col. Waller Tazewell Patton, this time watching a camp show with Lee and his troops. Turner received union scale for his part: $636. The former AOL billionaire -- limping along on his last few hundred million -- bankrolled the $90 million project and said he'll proceed with the third and final film if "Gods" is financially successful.
Last night's preview (the movie opens nationwide Feb. 21) began with the presentation of colors by cadets from VMI and remarks by Maxwell and Turner.
"We're going to turn the clock back 140 years and go back to one of the most important times in our history," Turner told the audience. Then everyone settled in for a long night. "Is it really 3 1/2 hours?" asked Abe Pollin. "Well, it must be a great movie."
It is, like all honest war movies, brutal and heartbreaking. Greatness is up to the critics. They were mixed about "Gettysburg" -- but the very partisan reviewers last night were all two thumbs up.
"Great," said Case.
"Powerful," said former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore.
"I think it's magnificent," said Lang. "It gives so much credit to the intelligence of the audience."
And this one, being an intelligent Washington audience, left the theater with somber faces. Turner didn't set out to make an antiwar movie -- but history is funny that way.