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Lang informs and entertains

September 16, 2002|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

They gathered Saturday afternoon under a tent and sat on hard wooden benches or on top of dried cornstalks and cobs.

He stood in the center and delivered an eloquent, often humorous speech.

They - hundreds of them - were his fans, history buffs and re-enactors. He was actor Stephen Lang, who plays Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson in the Civil War film "Gods and Generals," which is to be released nationwide in theaters on Feb. 21, 2003. Much of the film was shot in and around Washington County.

Before Lang's speech, Dennis Frye, a local historian and associate producer of "Gods and Generals," asked who in the audience had seen "Gettysburg," a movie made about a decade ago in which Lang played Confederate Gen. George Pickett. Nearly every hand shot upward.

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Lang then walked to the center of the tent, a big "Gods and Generals" belt buckle on his jeans.

"Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees," Lang began, quoting the words reported as Jackson's last before he died midway through the Civil War.

"The words combine grandeur and simplicity in a most powerful way," Lang said, adding that they reflect "experience and innocence," "authority and submission" and "clarity and ambiguity."

Lang said he hoped to dispel some myths surrounding Jackson. A man deeply devoted to his family and religion, Jackson was not antiquated.

"He was a very, very modern man. If Jackson were alive today, he would buy a lot of those self-improvement tapes," Lang said, noting that Jackson constantly tried to improve himself, believed in holistic medicine and did calisthenics before anyone knew what calisthenics were.

After four months of filming, Lang said the weight of playing Jackson had been lifted from his shoulders.

"What a relief and what an emptiness," he said of his feelings.

He asked if that sounded like a contradiction.

"Contradiction and Jackson go hand-in-hand," he said.

People need to understand who Jackson really was, not clutch misconceptions that Jackson was frigid, a tyrant or a fanatic, a word one U.S. military advisor recently used to describe Jackson, Lang said.

In addition to offering insight into Jackson, Lang gave movie fans an insight into filming.

Robert Duvall, who portrays Gen. Robert E. Lee in "Gods and Generals," is a wonderful actor and a man Lang reveres, he said. Another tidbit offered: On the first day of filming in Kentucky, Lang strolled through morning darkness, exploring the only home Jackson ever owned and Jackson's church.

"This would not have been possible in Romania," Lang said, referring to the nation where principal photography was shot for the upcoming Civil War film "Cold Mountain."

Two weeks after filming began, Lang said he looked forward to his first day off, which he planned to spend watching baseball, reading and writing in his journal.

"Yes, I thought Tuesday, Sept. 11, will be a fine and relaxing day," Lang said as a murmur ran through the audience.

The events of that day "emphasized the importance of the story we were trying to tell," Lang said.

After Lang's 35-minute speech, those in attendance applauded and gave the actor a standing ovation. Lang then fielded questions.

Asked to share Jackson's view on slavery, Lang said Jackson despised the institution but owned six slaves to whom he paid wages. Jackson founded the first Sunday school in which blacks were taught to read, Lang said.

"Gods and Generals" is based on Jeff Shaara's book by the same name. Another of Shaara's books, "The Last Full Measure," which follows the Civil War to its end, will also be turned into a movie, said "Gods and Generals" director Ronald Maxwell.

"I hope to be in it," Lang said after digging his boot into the dirt when someone asked whether he plans to be cast in that film. He cannot reprise his role of Jackson, who dies at the end of "Gods and Generals."

Before leaving, many in the audience formed a tight circle around Lang, seeking an autograph, a photograph or a few more words with the star.

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