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Filmmaker, actor share Civil War-era poetry

May 31, 1999

By BRYN MICKLE / Staff Writer, Martinsburg

photo: YVETTE MAY / staff photographer




SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - In an age when images of war are most often conveyed on movie and television screens, it might seem ironic that two men with close ties to Hollywood chose the written word to commemorate Memorial Day.

Filmmaker Ronald F. Maxwell and actor Brian Mallon entertained about 40 people Sunday night inside Shepherd College's Reynolds Hall with "War is Kind," a reading of poems about the Civil War.

"At the time of the Civil War, poetry was the mode for artistic expression. I think that has been an ignored aspect of the war," said Mallon, who portrayed a general in the 1993 film, "Gettysburg."

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Maxwell, who directed the film, said the interest he and Mallon share in Civil War-era poetry deepened during the filming of "Gettysburg."

Cast and crew members would read poetry and sing folk songs between shots, Maxwell said.

"After the picture, we continued," Maxwell said. "Poetry is very much a part of our everyday lives."

Maxwell and Mallon took turns reciting the works of such poets as Walt Whitman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Stephen Vincent Benet.

The title of the presentation, "War is Kind," was taken from the name of a Stephen Crane poem, Maxwell said.

"I think it portrays the irony of some of the poems we've selected," he said. "There is a strong sense of patriotism, but at the same time there is the biting satire of how quickly politicians leap to send the young off to die - which has obvious resonance to the present."

The poems, which mixed 19th and 20th century poets and both Union and Confederate perspectives, touched on a wide range of emotions.

Some offered vivid depictions of battles while others were quieter reflections on death and its relation to war.

"There are different styles, the way different poets handled the war," Mallon said. "The spoken word is a very human, personal form of art - more so, I think, than film."

One of those in the audience said the emotion of the reading took him back to his days of being a Boy Scout and placing flags in the cemetery.

"We all tend to think of Memorial Day as the opening of summer, and I think we forget its origins," Shepherdstown resident Ed Kelly said. "Something like this really goes a long way toward refocusing us on what it really means."

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